Bumble infrastructure & Beepol modifications

A busy day today. Busier than the bees, as it was cool and windy, so I only saw one Bufftailed queen foraging on our heather. Meanwhile I was completing off all our "infrastructure" preparations - namely the nestboxes and CCTV. 

I've created a "photo diary" of what I did, which included some desired modifications to our beepol lodge - I hope fellow bumblers will find them useful. 

beepol lodgeAbove is the beepol lodge with last year's modifications - namely the extension to hold the external entrance camera. You can also see the new wax-moth entrance flap, which screws on as an attachment. This is new for the 2012 season. Everything else about the lodge is standard. 

bumblebee nest boxesAbove our our other two nestboxes. These have had various modifications from 2011 and one of them we can now add sugar/honey-water to from outside. I prepped them internally last week, but needed to check/reset the cameras and install thermometers. 

On the right is my fake "hill" - it covers the next box and can be placed up against a wall to disguise it. The idea is to make the bumblebees think the box is underground. We put lots of plants and grasses round it to add to the effect. 

fitting & testing the internal entrance cameraThis year we are putting two cameras in the lodge rather than one and thus placing them slightly differentlt. This camera above is trained directly at the entrance hole, and indeed can see right out through it - so I think we'll get some cool shots as bees come into land and come through the entrance. But also, the other reason for placing it this way is so that we can use the movement detection on the DVR to more reliably count bumbles in and out of the nest. 

2 cameras installedAbove 2 cameras are now installed - one will point down more into the nest so we can see activity below. They are quite fiddly to place and also to decide the best view when there is no nest in the box - but I have to assume that two cameras will be better than one! The other wire dangling down is the thermometer: more on that later. 

embedded thermometer on bumblebee lodgeThe next job I undertook was to embed a thermometer in the extended entrance porch. This was no easy job - it took the best part of 90 minutes to disassemble and drill/file out a hole and get it all back together again without breaking it - it's quite soft wood. But I'm really pleased with the result. The thermometer wire runs through a hole in the back and into the second lodge entrance which would otherwise be blocked, and is attached inside to measure the ambient temperature inside the nest. It's going to be a pain if the thermometer dies or needs its batteries changing, but so be it! I tried many variations of attaching the thermometer to the inside and outside of the lodge, but this is the neatest and also the thermo is visible to the external camera, which is a big help when reviewing footage. [That's a top tip from last year: it's very useful to have the temperature visible on camera].

view from external entrance cameracable tidy at rear of lodge

The next job (above) was to start tidying up the cabling at the back of the lodge from all the cameras. Some tacked-in cable clips do the job and makes the whole process of moving the lodge a bit easier and safer. 

sealing the edges against wax moth Next I attached some velcro along the edges of the box base. This is only the "loops" part (softer) and not the "hooks" part: we don't want the box to stick together, we just want all the imperfections and very slight gaps in the wood sealed over - the sticky-backed fabric is perfect for this. 

creating a bumblebee sizing chartAnother feature we wanted to add after last year's experiences was some kind of "sizing" chart inside the box, so that when bees move across the field of view we can get some indication of their size. This is useful for understanding whether they are queen, boy or girl, or under-formed etc. And also for indentifying the bee when there are only a few in the box. I discovered the graph paper didn't show up well on the camera, so i first marked all the corners in black pen. But that didn't show up on the infrared, so I had the brainwave of poking a hole at each corner and mounting the graph paper on some diamond grade high-visibility - the result is excellent under infra-red. 

view of size guide in daylightglowing "dots" on the size chart under infraredHowveer, when the lodge is closed and the camera switches to infra-red, the high visibility backing creates a series of glowing "dots" at 1cm spacing. This will be perfect for assessing the bee sizes as they enter and leave. 

base for the beepol lodge and shelterFor the base of the lodge this year we are using an old plastic board, with some extra high vis tape for grip. Also, the bees will be able to use this bright colour to memorise the nest location very easily, so if we needed to move it around the garden a bit, they should find their way back in ok! We are using this base instead of putting the lodge directly on the stones, just to help a bit in situations where bumbles fall from the nest, so that they don't get lost or buried in the stones directly underneath.

a nestbox in situ - with its "disguise"Above is one of the completed nest boxes on its site. It is partially buried and disguised by the expanding foam shelter. More grasses and heathers to come. We wil not interfere with this box and just hope that some nest searching queens explore it and choose to use it. You can see it also has an embedded temperature guage. 

The beepol lodge in situ, showing thermometer workingAbove is the beepol lodge in its intended location. The thermometer is working a treat! The shelter is not strictly necessary but we are just shading the box a little and also protecting it from rain. The bricks are greased round the side and help to keep ants from getting into the nest. 

both east-facing nest sites: beepol lodge and disguised nest box

internal layout of 2nd nest boxAbove is the internal layout of the 2nd nest box. This box has two cameras for greater coverage and i've created a tube at the back to supply food. This could allow us to keep a queen captive if we wish to try and oblige her to brood. The food would go down the tube into the pen lid attached to the side of the box. This box will be sited south facing at the rear of the garden and will be less disguised. This is the one we'll use to try and brood any queens we capture that are nest searching.

I still have to repatch all the video on the DVR in my studio to get all the right cameras coming up on the right channels with the right names, but apart from that we now just need to wait for the queens to start nest searching in earnest! 









2 Bee or not 2 Bee?

Well, we're back from a 12-day holiday in Scotland, during which time we had to leave our Beepol bees to fend for themselves. 

For a strong colony, of course, this is no issue. However, those of you following the blog will know this was not the case with our nest. Indeed, when we left the colony seemed to be down to about 4 bumblebees, of which one (at least) seemed to be a Queen collecting pollen. So, in fact, we had a "dual colony" situation, where a new queen appeared to have started a new colony in her birth-nest, before going off to hibernate. 

It was hard to tell which bees were in the nest; some were distinctive, so we could uniquely identify them. And we guaged the number by the level of activity we saw at the entrance and the various roles adopted inside the nest. (For example, one bee took entire responsiblity for arranging the bedding we added).

As a set of precautions to help the bees through any tricky weather while we were away and to encourage successful brooding (if indeed that's what was going on), we took the following steps:


  • Adding extra nest-material bedding to the hive. This had proved incredibly successful a few days before, with a small worker bee taking immediate advantage and entirely covering the core of the nest with the bedding we provided. So, we topped this up. Not surprisingly, this small be again spent many hours re-arranging it just how it wanted. 
  • Adding infra-red lighting below the bee lodge. The idea here was to create some extra heat below the nest area to help with keeping the temperature up to 30 degrees. We'd seen two sick/poorly formed bees emerge earlier and I was concerned about the required temperature for development. 
  • Adding some pollen and honey water. This was just to give the bees a little more by way of supplies in case (quite literally) of rainy days. Of course, they drink the honey water immediately, rather than save it. But judging by the CCTV it lasted 3 days for them; every little bit helps. 
  • Installing remote-reboot capability to all our CCTV monitoring. My BT hub is pretty lousy in terms of long term stability and often needs rebooting. Since it is required for remote access to the CCTV, I needed to have a system for being able to reboot the hub if it lost its internet connection. The solution was a "Phone controlled" power switch, that allowed me to dial in over the ordinary phone and turn the hub power on and off. It turned out we needed to use this during the first week. I also added an IP power switch to the CCTV system itself. Using a similar principle, I can control the power to (up to) 4 devices by logging in over the internet and flipping the power. As long as the hub is working, then I can log in and power cycle the CCTV. (Though I didn't have to do this while away). 
  • Sheltering the lodge with our original hive shelter. We used the shelter from our original Koppert installation to shelter the Beepol lodge. This protected it from wind and rain and improved thermal stability. The bees seemed to cope with the change in surroundings without any problems. 
  • Adding a dozen wasp traps to the garden. Although our plastic trap door seemed to have helped prevent wasps raiding honey from the bee nest, I didn't want to take any chances, as the trap was not 100% secure. I tried several designs of wasp trap around the garden, ranging from homemade coke bottle systems to fake wasp nests. Judging by the incredible number of wasps trapped on our return I would say that the Waspinator fake wasp nest is a waste of time and money

We didn't get a lot of time to check on the bees remotely while away, though we did see them from time to time. Mainly I looked at the event logs on the CCTV to check that there was some motion being detected (which there was) so I knew that something was happening. We didn't even really get chance to go over the recorded footage while we were away.

When we got back everything seemed to be intact, although one sad discovery was one of the bees dead outside the box, floating in some water. It's not clear if it drowned, but this seems unlikely. More that it died outside the nest and subsequent rain fell. Unfortuntely, its bedraggled state has made it impossible to tell whether it was a large worker or a queen that we suspected was in the nest. It certainly it fairly large and there is evidence of pollen on its legs so it was collecting.

It will be a great sadness if this turns out to be the queen that we thought was brooding inside the nest: while her young are still waiting to hatch, she goes out to collect pollen and supplies both for herself and for them. 

Meanwhile, the CCTV shows that there are two known bees left in the nest. They are both quite distinctive with markings and shape. One of them is busy going out every day to collect pollen, which is mainly bright orange or yellow at the moment. I have no idea where she is finding it, but she is. She is quite fluffy and large, but I don't think she is a queen. 

bedding in the nest after we returned from holiday

The second bee is a little smaller - more narrow and long in shape and much less fluffy. So much so, the abdomen shows up as distinct stripes on camera. She is extremely busy having taken responsibility for organising the bedding as well as maintaining the security of the nest. She regularly patrols inside the nest and comes out to the entrance, sometimes as frequently as every 5 minutes. This involves coming into the entrance vestibule and either coming out onto the ledge or occasionally sticking her bottom out of the trap door! 

Obviously with the bedding as it is shown above it is impossible for us to now see what is going on underneath. Our hope is that a queen is under there brooding and keeping her wax pots warm, but at the moment we have no real idea. That's why I hope it's not a queen we discovered dead. 

What we can say with certainty, however, is that our two little workers are in there and very active, making the most of their time - and while pollen is being collected we still cling onto the hope that it's for the purposes of a brood that may be about to emerge. 



Flying for the thrill of it

It's a cloudy and overcast day, about 19 degrees, with windspeeds up to 7.5 mph (not counting gusts).

Common wisdom says bumblebees don't fly in the wind, though of course you'd expect them to have some provision to do so, at least to overcome the challenge of being caught out in a breeze.

Of course, above a certain speed, like a canoeist paddling upstream, they wouldn't be able to make progress against the wind.

Unlike an aeroplane, however, Bumblebees do not rely on air-speed over their wings in order to generate lift (which is what gave rise to the popular myth "scientists say bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly; a comparison with the physics of fixed wing flight doesn't work for bumblebees).

It seems our bufftails are a hardy bunch - whilst activity is much reduced today, it hasn't stopped a few hardy ones venturing out to collect pollen and/or find a mate; time is, after all, of the essence as far as both are concerned. The one I've just seen has been out for about 30 minutes and come back with a decent stash of pollen.

And one final nail in the coffin for the concept of "dull days" - cloudy and overcast it may be, but the light inside our nest box has increased to a level where the infra-red camera is occasionally switching to full colour daylight mode. All that white cloud and reflected light is making it bright.

Maybe the brightness of the day is tempting the bees to venture out. Or maybe they just enjoy the thrill of a windy flight.

Hibernation Station

Today's plan was to create some hibernation habitat for ours (or indeed) any other bumble queens. I certainly succeeded but before I go on to explain what i did, a few words about Bumble bee hiberation are in order. 

About Bumblebee Hibernation

The survival of bumblebees depends on hibernation. A bold claim, perhaps, but since colonies are annual and do not survive from year to year, the future "survival" (i.e. development) of a new colony is solely in the hands of the new-born queen and her ability to find a good place to hiberate and survive the winter. The future existence of several hundred bumblebees depends on her success. 

I've found very few scientific papers on Bumblebee hibernation (see Bumblebee Links) - one of the foremost appears to be from 1969 with a more recent study analysing that paper and some its weaknesses as well as providing some new data. 

Of course, this stands to reason: it is difficult to track bumblebees in the wild and given that both the process of entering a hibernation spot and emerging from it in the Spring are but momentary occasions, it's more or less down to chance to be in the right place at the right time to observe it. Of course, knowing a little about preferences and habitat could lead one to have a better clue of where to look and perhaps to be able to find bees during hiberation, but such a practice is not desirable. 

Therefore, we have gleaned what we can to come up with a strategy for possible hibernation in our garden. 

What we've learnt so far is that Bumbles prefer a north-facing location (which helps keep the nest coolness required to prevent them emerging too early in spring) and often hibernate in embankments, under tree stumps or roots and sometimes in/under walls. I've not seen an in-depth analysis of the preferences of each species, this may well be an unresearched area. What we do know is that the Queens will tend to burrow down in loose substrate in order to get deep enough not to get frozen during the winter. This is typically 6 - 8 inches, at least for a usual winter.

At first when I discovered this I nearly abandoned my plan altogether - it seemed to me, without getting the bees well underground, I couldn't guarantee their safety in an above-ground nest box, no matter how well insulated. It looked like I could be tricking them into an environment that would prove to be unsuitable for them.

Then, of course, I had my epiphany. Our boxes are equipped with infra-red cameras; basically very small heaters (as we know from how our "indoor" bumbles loved to gather under them) - so we can actually keep the boxes warm. By controlling the on/off times of the cameras we would in fact be able to keep the boxes at pretty much any temperature that is appropriate. I might even be able to automate the process. So, providing I avoid the risk of making Spring seem to come too early, we should be able to keep the bees very safe from a harsh winter - perhaps more so than out in the "wild".

I fully recognise that the chances of getting a queen to choose one of our artifical locations for hibernation is extremely slim, but we have the nestboxes, so there is no harm in trying to put them to good use.  

Box 1

We had two nestboxes to equip for hibernation so I thought I would try two different designs - each may encourage different types of bees or one may provide a better habitat than the other; either way, we will probably learn more by trying two designs rather than one. 

For the first box I placed a layer of very small decorative stones about 2 inches thick at one end of the box. Although the bees are reported to burrow 6 to 8 inches down, obviously this design is not going to allow them to do that. However, I thought it was sensible to give them the potential to burrow at least some distance, especially as the route down into the box is a good 8 inches in its own right. I filled with extra moss then used all of the "nesting material" that the boxes were actually supplied with. This is to fill the available space and provide insulation, bearing in mind that the bees usually burrow down below the surface of the ground so would not expect a "big" open space (unlike the spaces they would choose for a nest). 


There is tubing to take the bee into the depth of the box and, although not visible in the above picture, it is also equipped with an infra-red camera and a temperature sensor. 

I also thought it made sense to try and re-use the "hummock" I had made in Spring as a disguise for the nest box when queens were nest-searching. Not only would this provide extra insulation but would also help with the subterfuge in trying to create a north-facing "embankment". I had the brainwave to actually turn the shelter round so that it was open at the back and could go flush against the wall. I'm not quite sure why I didn't use it like this in the spring; it seems a far more obvious way to improve the disguise of the box. 

All that was required was to drill a hole to take the tube to the nestbox entrance and I decided to embed the thermometer neatly in the surface; here's the finished article. 

Box 1 under its shelter

I'm actually rather pleased with it!

Box 2 

Box 2 is our original "master" nestbox, which we brought indoors to care for the disabled bees. Consequently it is actually equipped with two cameras, but we are only connecting up one. 

I decided for this box I would try and create something for a bee to really burrow down into if it wanted. So I took the top off an old olive oil bottle, cut it to shape and filled it with more of the small decorative stones. This would lie on its side at and angle, with the stones loose enough for burrowing (well, that's the plan). There's about 3 inches of "burrow length" in this little chamber.

"tunnel chamber"

 The plan, therefore, was to install this chamber inside the box then pack it tight all round with insulating material. BCW kindly went out and gathered some more moss and I also used a bit of our old hamster bedding to create a nice cosy chamber. The only open space is immediately in front of the lower camera, just to give is something to look at. Again, a tube extends from the entrance towards the back wall of the box. I also placed some aluminium foil down one wall to help with insulation. 


box 2 layouti

This box is going to be less protected from the elements than box 1 because it is going under our hive "shelter" which is not a tight fit - thus the wooden box will be exposed directly to the elements. Insulation is therefore paramount and so another layer of webbing goes across the top and then I topped this off with some more aluminium foil (not shown). 

insulating roof layer

Again, it is equipped with a thermometer in the central chamber. I really don't think a Queen could ask for a better winter residence! 

The completed set up

Here's a picture of the completed setup. Both boxes have been mounted in a North facing position, they are very sheltered and shady. So, from an environmental point of view, the main threat is cold/frost as they are not below ground. (Although, that threat still exists for a bee below ground to a degree.) 

our "hibernation station" alongside the beepol lodge

Over the course of the next few days we will monitor the temperatures in the box and check for thermal stability - i.e. demonstration that they are insulated from conditions outside and maintain a more consistent temperature. We will also check the effect of having the internal cameras (i.e. infra-red) on and off. 

If I'm honest, I'm not really expecting anything to use them, but I'd like to think that a bufftail (which loves to go underground) might at least give the fully-covered box a nosey. I'm really pleased with it - ok so the colours are a bit garish - but I think it has the makings of something that could just about convince a bumble to investigate. 

We don't quite know when our (or any) Queens will start looking to hibernate - it may be a month or more yet - it may be sooner. But at least we now have something to offer them if they are curious.




Settling In, looking in

A busy day of "project work" today, helping the new beepol hive to settle in. 

One of the main jobs was for me to finally complete the CCTV setup. I've used essentially the same configuration as previously:

video tech: click the image for a fullsize version

The CCTV system is more than mild form of passing entertainment - it has actually become the mainstay of our hive setup, providing the means to monitor the safety/progress of the bees and also provide research data about their behaviour. The main job today was to  fit the "entrance camera" which monitors the entrance and exit holes and is able to trigger motion/detection and recording. The mini camera is also infrared equipped so it can detect any activity at night (e.g. wax moth lurking). I mounted it on a small wooden beam "no more nails-ed" to the side of the bee lodge:

IR entrance cameraIt gives a great view of the entrance holes and in particular, during these early days, will allow us to check whether he bees are able to navigate the "anti-wax-moth" brush system. 

The full lodge setup now looks like this:

beepol lodge technology and camera setupThere are two external cameras (as seen above) plus one inside. A spray painted takeway box glued to the wall provides a convenient junction box, a-la "chocbox" - and protects the CCTV connections. The thermometer has yet to be mounted in the box, but that's something we have to do when we next open the lodge (which will be planned to encompass several jobs, including improving the seal between the base and the lid).

I am still contemplating putting a second camera inside the lodge to get better coverage of activity but for the timebeing we're at the limit of our CCTV system. However, I have also ordered a CCTV switcher from eBay to try. This will enable one of the camera feeds to actually support for cameras on a sequence, effectively extending our system to support 7 cameras. I've gone for the cheapest (simple) switcher for now (<£20) however I did contemplate a full 16 channel processor which would allow all manner of camera splits, picture in picture and motion detect. However since that would then provide for up to 19 cameras into one 4 channel DVR I felt I would soon quickly become frustrated by the mismatch in the system and the inability to record exactly the way I wanted to. So, my decision for now is to see how it goes with the cheap switcher and consider a 16 channel DVR as an upgrade for next year. 

I also tidied up the cabling (currently 5 cameras/cables being run round the garden) and routed some of it through some cheap "pipe foam" (for insulating pipes). This is cheap and easy to work with - though in full course I will install proper trunking. There is not much point switching to wireless cameras because the cameras still need power routed round the garden!

Wax Moth & Infrared

The additional external camera on the lodge further raises the spectre of whether the infrared has the potential to attract wax moth. I've done a little more research on this but there doesn't seem to be readily available conclusive information. The main text discussing how moths are atttracted to light and infrared is a book from 1972! It must be out of print because secondhand copies of it are about £70! Moths are attracted to flames and one theory is males are attracted because the infrared emissions from the flame are like the pheremones from the female. (Can't quite compute how 'light' is equivalent to 'smell', but there you go). 

It doesn't really matter if we attract males, because obviously these will not lay eggs in the bee nest. In general, however, evidence and experience seems to suggest that it's the ultraviolet end of the spectrum that tends to attract the moths (in common with most insects).

However, we don't want to leave anything to chance; so I decided to rig up the extra infrared light I was using indoors (to heat and light Holly's nest) on the garage wall to see whether anything is attracted to it. I also made another two wax moth traps (coke bottle with a hole in it, filled with vinegar, sugar, water and banana peel) to place near the light. Over the coming evenings we'll whether we catch anything.

Entrance Brushes

We are following the beepol advice to add brushes (made from paintbrushes) to the lodge entrance/exit holes. However, we are introducing them slowly by not fully sealing the entrance for the timebeing. The idea is to train the bees to use the entrance holes and get used to the look of the brushes and pushing their way past them whilst slightly ajar, before having to actually push right through them. From what we've seen on the CCTV they are not too keen at pushing through the brush when fully 'closed' (unless we have it too stiff) although we have seen one or two attempt and achieve it. So this is something we will monitor carefully over the coming days. 

We tried to follow the Beepol instructions for making the brushes but found it all a bit messy and that with one piece of tape holding the whole thing together, the bristles would just fall out and it was impossible to get it to a thickness that seemed strong enough to prevent a moth edging its way in. So we came up with a system of multiple layers each taped together. This worked well - possibly too well if we find the bees can't get through it! We'll report back on the final working design.

initial "brush design" for wax moth protection