On the edge

After all the intriguing activity from our new queen a few days ago, I thought "that was that". I spent the evening collecting all the numerical data from her honey-water collection trips (she made 75!) and assumed she had now filled all her stores in the nest and would probably get on with the next phase of brooding.

Unforunately, though, the supplies on the nest ledge had attracted a persistent male and when they ran out, he also figured out how to get into the nest. Over the course of the next few days, despite me setting up numerous decoy supplies (which of course attracted even more bumblebees!), he continued to raid the nest over and over, and I suspect has emptied it completely of all the supplies the queen set up.

This was heartbreaking to watch especially since my intervention was not working - and I became really concerned that it would all go wrong for our queen: either she would not realise there were no supplies, and too focussed on brooding might not collect any more (not to mention the fact the weather has been unsuitable anyway. Or, she would simply run out of food for herself due to the inclement weather.

The good news is, I have seen her, so she is not simply "locked down" and ignoring what is happening in her nest. However, the bad news is, when I saw her today near the entrance she was incredible weak - barely moving. It brought back all the horrible memories from last year seeing some of our queens unable to survive. Although previously she would come to the ledge to check for honey water (that I had been removed), she wasn't doing this - she was simply too weak to come out of the nest.

It seemed to me this was a critical moment - I had to intervene to save her. Rather than go into the nest to intervene, I simply squirted some honey water into the entrance where she was resting (be careful to avoid her). It clearly worked as she spent a minute or so drinking and then moved back into the nest at about 5x the speed she had come to the entrance.

As I write I haven't seen her come for more - which seems a little odd - so I wait with baited breath to see how it unfolds. Notwithstanding, I have put supplies right at the nest entrance so that she cannot leave without discovering them.

Furthermore I have deal with the theiving male with a different strategy - I have finally captured him and intend to relocate him too far away for him to get back here. This would not be something you could do with a girl, as they are servicing their own nest. But the boys just feed, rest and mate and do not service a nest - so as I long as I take him somewhere safe, he can survive ok. My brother suggested experimenting with different distances to see how far he can/will fly. Perhaps if I had more time and less concern for our queen I would do so, but I think in this instance I'm just going to go about 10 miles in the expectation that's too far for him to navigate back from. I will report back!

Going Potty?

I haven't been doing many updates on our colony because of its decline and essentially I have been waiting to see whether all the remaining bumblebees (2 or 3) would perish - in which case we'd probably order another colony; or whether a second colony might develop as did last year. 

So, for the last few weeks I've been keeping an occasional eye on what's been going on  - with the possibility that the largest bumblebee in the colony was actually a queen. That was my hunch, and finally some measurements from some of the CCTV stills confirmed that to be correct.

A Queen in the beepol colony - measuring about 23 - 25mm

So, having confirmed a Queen - what was she up to? Was she the "mother queen" of the colony, probably destined to die soon. Or was she a daughter or foreign visitor, possibly looking to set up her own colony. Certainly she'd been to and fro from the nest, but it was not obvious what she was up to. We'd expect a new queen to start off by collecting pollen, to make pollen bread, to sustain herself and her young as she stays in the nest to lay and rear them.

But we discovered today she was doing something else important which also pointed to the fact she may well be gearing up for her own colony.

Queen had come out onto the ledge and I went outside to try and get my first "real life" visual of her, mainly to confirm her size. Although she has been happily flying to and from the nest for some reason this morning she seemed to be in less good form and flew down into the grass. And she was then struggling to climb the grass stalks (not sure whether she was trying to fly or rest and warm up).

Anyway, eventually I rescued her and placed her back on the lodge shelf - and she went straight back into the nest. Slightly puzzled with her behaviour, I thought I would offer some honey water on the ledge so that if she came back out she could at least "recharge her batteries". Before long she was indeed back out and very grateful. 

Queen drinking honey waterShe spent a few minutes drinking, then returned to the nest. All seemed good. Next thing I know she's back out again drinking more. Then back in the nest. Then back out again drinking. Back in. Back out - and so on, until within about 20 minutes she'd drunk the whole tray dry!

I refilled it - and the whole scenario was repeated again! In fact, over the course of the day she drank 7 trays full (somewhere in the region of 15mls) - this is a huge amount, given that in the past we have seen 1 or 2 mls last easily for a day or two. 

So, what's going on? 

The most likely explanation is that she is brooding and that she is swallowing the honey water and regurgitating it in the nest to help make "pollen bread" (this is how bumblebees store their pollen supplies) and possibly also filling some honey pots also as storage. There's no question that the quantity of honey water she took into the nest is well beyond the realms of being anything she could possibly consume.

This would seem to underline her status as a queen building a new nest - so I now wait with anticpation to see if she also begins collecting pollen.

She's not the only one

This obsession with the honey water is not confined to this Queen only - in fact we've noticed over the last to weeks that Nedine, one of our small indoor bees, has been obsessed with the pollen supply in their box and seems to be fussing over it 24x7 and (it looks like) mixing it with honey water too. It's not entirely obvious if that's the full extent of her activity, or if she's fashioning "wax pots", but it seems like the former. It's odd that this has started in just the last two weeks - and has now become her full time role. 

Sisters can't do it for themselves

Our nest continues to grow and with it the activty, interest and intrigue. At the time of writing I've only managed to count in detail 2 days' worth of CCTV footage, but it's one heck of a two days!

Over the course of the two days - half of which was rainy/windy we saw:

  • 304 foraging trips
  • 136 memorisation procedures (equates to first flight of new bees - indicative on the minimum number of workers in the nest)
  • Orangey/red and pale yellow pollen being collected
  • Queen bees performing memorisation (i.e. 5 new queens)
  • Queens bringing back pollen (normally a sign of colony building - another colony already developing?)

Here's a recap of today's additional activity.

First of all, Queens. When there's unusal activity going on in the nest, it's easy to start doubting what you are seeing. What seems to happen is I start off with an instinct that something is happening because of a short observation. Then I spend a day or two thinking I'm going mad. Then, I typically see really good evidence that shows it was happening. The I start to think I am still seeing things!

It's like that with the queens. I thought I saw one, but I assumed she was the colony "mother". Then of course I saw two so knew something else was going on. And finally at the latest count, five. 

I can count them, by the way, by combining a number of techniques. First is sequential exits/entrances. If 3 leave without returning, then I know there are at least 3. Likewise, sometimes I will have counted some that have left, and then see more in the nest at the same time, so this also gives a number. Finally, I can count the memorisations - which is done once (usually) for each new bumblebee that goes on a flight. Using all this data serves to give a guaranteed minimum number with a high degree of confidence. 

Anyway, some pics of the queens. Compare the sizes with the regular workers.

 queen returning to nest (CH1)Queen returning with yellow pollen (CH1)Queen with pollen coming into land (CH1)And then the queen goes into the nest - and you can clearly see all her pollen (shows up white under the infra red)

Queen with pollen (CH2)Another queen emerged, but had imperfect wings and was struggling to make her first flight. It took her about 20 minutes of trying to lift off, but she could not sustain flight very well. unfortunately I lost track of her.. 

Queen - foreground - with imperfect wings is pacing the ledge trying to flySince I've been doing some audio recording of the nest this year I also took the chance to measure the audio frequency of these Queens' buzz. The result was 135Hz +/5Hz.  This ties in perfectly with the samples I took from captured queens. It stands to reason that frequency and size are related (in general at least), as is true for the human throat/chest and any musical instrument. It certainly would be nice to have a clear frequency range for queens that guarantee you know what you are dealing with. (I'm not finding a lot of research on bumblebee frequencies).


I caught one busy bee "fanning" today. This is the process of beating the wings to draw cooler air into the nest when it is too hot. To be honest, the temperature wasn't that hot. Outdoors it was 16C, and ambient in the nest was 23C (it's been hotter - thought bear in mind this is not the core). Perhaps this particular bee has a low threshold for fanning.

Actually, this was a theory I postulated last year - that different bumblebees have different trigger thresholds. Firstly, from a natural variation point of view it almost stands to reason. But secondly, in terms of a distributed "control system" for the nest that ensures fanning is not "all or nothing" but happens in a controlled way in response to increasing temperature, it makes sense that some bees are more sensitive and start fanning at a lower temperature. As the nest temperature climbs, more bees will be triggered to join the throng. Providing the fanning process itself doesn't generate undue heat, then such a system would basically be wonderfully self regulating (without the need for central command and control), because as more bumblebees start fanning, not only will the effect be greater, but fewer will be working in the nest and generating core heat. 

 bumblebee fanning near nest entranceshe's moved position - still fanning, wings clearly visible in motionThe she moves right to the entrance and continues. She was here for a good few hours (seemingly unnecessarily). 

Still fanning in the entranceI couldn't capture the sound of her fanning, but at peak temperature it sounded as though others in the nest were also doing so, so I recorded some of that and measured the frequency also. Because the sound is coming from the wings more than the thorax, it is not the usual buzz but the whisper of the wings through the air at a slower speed than normal flight (like a room fan). It's hard to determine if there is a fundamental frequency, but for what it's worth, my meter showed 135Hz sustained for extended periods of time. Interesting in that it is the same fundamental as the queens' buzz, but it is not a buzz and does not have the same characteristics. 


It was pretty much certain we'd get some less well bumbles to care for indoors again this year - there are always imperfections in nature. I'd hoped it wouldn't be too soon, but it was today. Actually, this box has gone longer than last years before discovering some under-formed bees. 

I actually found two - and they insisted on coming out of the nest and trying to fly but were unable to. The first one is worst off, with only 1 wing and 5 legs and I found her about 6 feet from the nest. Lucky for her really, as if I hadn't spotted her then I might never have done and she could be starved or bird-food by now. The second one has both wings, but they are crooked, one is too small, and she can't fly. (I made sure for 30 mins in the open that they couldn't, but it's obvious anyway). 

They are both similar size, and very small, under 1cm. I've not managed an accurate measurement yet, but around 8mm I reckon. Possibly smaller than Holly. I'm actually pleased to have found two as they can offer each other company and interact with each other. Last year one of the most painful things was to see Holly behaving as if she was depressed when she was alone (she had company from other bees some of the time, but she outlived them all). You think I'm kidding?  

Here are our two little darlings, just resting nest to each other. Maybe they are bonding ☺ They are certainly getting on fine:

Our two new under-formed bumbles indoors - as yet unnamedAlthough it is not recommended to revive bumblebees by feeding on honey water, we have no option. Sugar water does not provide mineral content, it is just empty energy and not nutrition, so we have to provide honey, even though there is a risk of bacteria. Last year Holly actually survived 70 days in our care, which is as astonishing life span for a worker bee (typically 15 - 20 days). 

a sense of scale

Tonight they have drunk really well and been mooching around with plenty energy, don't seem to be stressed and are co-operating just fine. They won't grow any bigger - their exo-skeleton has developed to this size and that's how it will stay, so they are amongst the smallest in the colony. Perhaps they hatched too soon, or just didn't get the temperature needed for development (which is critical). At least they are mobile. 

I hope these two have a decent lifespan, but whatever the case, we will give them a good quality of life however long it is - free from predators and starvation. 





Crack open the shandy?

Our bumblebees provide an endless source of fascinating entertainment - any organised/social animal colonies are intriguing to see in action in their own right, but the chaotic, bumbly nature of bumblebees adds a Chaplinesque sprinkling of fun to the whole occasion.

We've learnt so much with such observations, but some things still remain a little of a mystery. Here are some of the current ones:

1) We don't know if we have a Queen in our nest or not. We found a dead bumble outside the box when we got back from Holiday, with some pollen on her legs. Could have been a/the remaining queen. But strangely two remaining (and easily identifiable) bees in the nest are still collecting pollen and nectar. This usually suggests a developing brood, though it's hard to see how.

2) Our "nest fixer" bee only occasionally goes out to collect pollen; perhaps once a day, although she does go out more regularly, perhaps to drink. But, we've put a local supply of honey water in the nest for her and she loves it, visiting frequently (e.g. every 2 minutes) until it's run dry. Where is it all going? She can't be drinking it all? We can only conclude she is filling every available honey pot with honey taken from this supply. So, regardless of what mya be brooding, she seems driven to save for a rainy day.

3) Our "pollen collector" bee spends all day going out and collecting pollen. Trips from 15 minutes to 90 minutes are usual. Who is she collecting it for? Is she a queen? We can't quite tell from her size on the CCTV.  But, last night she went out at 4.30 and didn't come back. My heart sank: made a break for it? Killed in action? I hate these moments. 

Then, at 9am this morning she returned - only to the ledge of the nest though - and didn't go in! And off she went again! I'm at a loss to explain this behaviour at the moment, and so once again, my heart sankk. Thankfully, at midday she returned! So, a total of almost 18 hours away from the nest. Why? Where?

4) While she was gone I saw activity from what seemed to be 2 bees - both thin and stripy like our "nest fixer". The uncertainty arises because of the possibility of a technical malfunction on the CCTV which misses something like a bee coming back into the nest. That could trick you into thinking it was still out and thus miscounting another one that's inside. But these events were just a few minutes apart and I think the CCTV can actually be relied upon. So, perhaps we do indeed have a new hatchling that has joined us. That would be amazing.

The proof in the pudding will be finding when she leaves the nest and whether she performs some navigation circling (memorisation) of location.

If that happens, I'll definitely crack open a shandy.

Down but not out...

It's been a busy few days with more bees coming into care. There on the grass was a stranded bumble - still - silent. 

It looked liked it was a bufftail or vestal cuckoo and on closer inspection it had both wings - but the right one was damaged - sort of "folded". 

found on the lawn - damaged wing.Of course, it couldn't fly. Actually, I say of course, but this is not necessarily a given. There are reports that bumbles can fly with as much as 50% of the wings missing. But that's "edge damage" as opposed to "structural damage" which what we have here. Little bee can't, for example, join the front and rear wings together with her special "hooks", owing the bend. And that's another thing, we're not 100% sure she's a girl or a boy.

The ice cream tub was summoned and duly mossed and honey-watered. And for a while it was looking good, even though when she tried to take off she managed only a slightly sustained hop. Not being entirely sure of her constitution and origin we decided on an overnight quaratine before contemplating addition to the main indoor nest, occupied by Holly. 

We were glad about this decision. The next day came and little bee was less well. Slow, lethargic and by mid morning unmoving, keeled over, with all the memories of the untimely death of BLB. We took her indoors to wait the long 24 hours that we felt we needed to be sure. 

Thank goodness we did - the next day some signs of life. A little twitching; antennae probing; sufficient energy to drag herself away from the heat of the laptop, though not to consume any drink. In the end BCW accidentally spilled some honey water on the kitchen towel and finally little bee quenched her thirst. With new energy, she heaved herself onto the moss and bedded down for the night, while we moved the tub over Holly's infrared lamp. This maintained a temperature somewhere safe around 24 degrees. 

After another night, she still had life signs, though barely impercetible. Perhaps if she was humanoid she'd be four score and twenty; creaking at the joints; wheezing and failing. Still, she dragged herself around the tub a little. She's a brave fighter. And we, the helpless spectators. 

The morning was further punctuated by the finding of another invalid by BCW. Racing across the grass, with only one wing to show for it. BCW came to the rescue and before you could buzz, this biggerLittleBumble was in a care ward of its own too. Same protocol: isolation and quarantine to begin with, for the safey of all concerned. Now, biggerLittleBumble is more energetic, but again is doomed never to fly. All that energy has to be worked off somehow - racing round the box is one way; perhaps he's a boy. Boys do that kind of thing. Well, BLB did for sure, and he was a boy.

So, in total we have taken 4 bees into care. BLB passed away soon after and it seems that littleBee might do so soon. But we still have Holly (who is doing amazingly well, almost miraculously so) and biggerLittleBumble. The big question is, can they live together harmoniously?