buzzee weekend

Lovely weather for once this weekend, so we ended up getting quite a lot done. This post is really just a video and photo update.

I took the opportunity to check the nearby field to see what queens were out and about (if any) and see if i could find any wild nests. I didn't find any nests, but I saw plenty of queens and shot some great video of a vestal cuckoo (bombus vestalis) searching for nests to invade. (see later). 

First up though, quick survey of queens seen in a 1 hour traverse along my favourite transect:

  • Redtail Queens - 8 - mainly resting
  • Bufftail Queens 2 - resting
  • Vestal Cuckoo - 4 - nest searching
  • Carder - 2
  • Various others (half a dozen) in flight - unidentified

nearly all these were resting, a few flying past, and only the Cuckoos nest searching, looking for an unsuspecting established nest to take over:

One of the bufftails was more restless than most and she had no pollen - this would typically mean she hadn't set up nest (once she has, she will collect pollen to feed herself and her brood, and then ultimately not leave the nest at all). I decided to capture her and introduce her to our garden and pilkington box. Since we would not trap her in for more than a few minutes, it wouldn't matter if she had her own nest to go back to; and it could mean she would choose our box to nest in. As it happened, she took a while to enter the box and left not long later. Which is cool - if she liked the location she'll be back and if not, she's only 200 yards from where she was found and can easily get back. 

All Black

We also checked out the gardens in town and saw a few bumblebees there - another vestal cuckoo was foraging. But most interesting was spotting 3 seperate all black bumblebees forgaing and collecing pollen. I've not got a proper ID on these yet, but there are forms of all black Garden bumblebees, especially in the south/east of England (where we are). Here's a video:

New outlook

Since getting the beepol colony I've been wanting to get a camera set up in front of the lodge again. It hadn't happened yet because the camera I used last year was wall-mounted, but we've moved the lodge and now it needs to be sited in the garden on the grass. I built a stand using rolling pin and an old speaker-stand base. I used my standard maplin CCTV mini-camera mounted on top of this, and then to waterproof it, built a camera hood made from sugru
new CCTV camera looking at front of lodge..

Sugru is my new magic ingredient which can be moulded and stuck to almost anything and solidifies over the course of 24hrs into tough, waterproof silcone. So, here's hoping it does the job. 
And just for fun, a few other pictures:

rushing to get home... And a new box layout for our indoor bumblebees:
new box layout (with an attempt at some containment) for our indoor bees(We made some fake "wax" pots for our bumbles, to see what they do with them).

The World's 1st Bumblebee Tweet?

For the first time, our bumblebees generated their own tweet this morning as a result of increased activity following the prolonged cold and rainy spells.

Our bumblebees' first ever tweet

To my knowledge, this is the first tweet ever generated by bumblebees themselves. Sadly they are not equipped with a bee-size keyboard, so instead the tweet comes courtesy of an activity monitor via the entrance flap to their nest. The flap itself is there for protection against invasion by Wax Moth and the bumblebees have learnt to operate it in order to leave the nest to forage. 

The Bumblbees are busy and have started tweeting

While the tweeting is fun, there is a serious point to having an "internet enabled" bumblebee nest, as we are collecting data about the environment/micro-climate and the bumblebee activity "outside of the laboratory". Though bumblebees have been studied for well over 100 years, some of this research takes place in the lab; a criticism that is often levelled, for example, on studies of the effect of pesticides on pollinators.

Our project, therefore, is demonstrating a proof of concept for the type of technology that can be used to study bumblebee behaviour in wild environments. We hope to build on the data we collected in 2011 which was able to determine the factors that trigger bumblebees to start and stop working at the beginning and end of the day.

[For more details: technology blog entries and technology setup]

screenshot of live data monitoring from our bumblebee nest


Nest Sensor Setup (part 2)

I finally got out in the garden again to day to complete part 2 of my bumblebee sensor project.

The system has been up and running for a week, measuring temperature and light levels, but I needed to tackle two things:


  1. The outdoor temperature sensor was too exposed and over-reading in direct sunlight; and was too close to the garage wall, so also picking up heat from the wall
  2. I still had to finish constructing and fit a flap sensor to monitor activity in and out of the nest


For the thermometer, I hacked a small bottle apart and fixed it up with my new favourite "stuff for making things with": Sugru. Here is is below with the iobridge board in the background. 


a bottle to hold the outdoor thermometerNext I just spray painted it with some plastic paint - so it would blend in a bit and be protected from sunlight. Only a rough job - good enough!

bottle spray painted & fixed together with SugruThe thermometer (white wire) runs up a small tube in the neck of the bottle where it is shieled from the elements. Then it is simply mounted on a cane round about nest height, and away from the garage wall.  

thermometer on a stick!In comparison with our wireless weather system, my DIY thermometer was only reading 0.2C difference, which I am very happy with. 

Flap Counter

Next up was the flap sensor. Getting a good flap sensor running has been critical for me this year, because I want to use it to closely correlate activity data with enivronment data. I was only able to do this last year in a minimal way because it's so labour intensive (to do from CCTV).

While this initial system will not give me the reliability required to accurately count bees in and out (it's not directional anyway) what it should do is give me activity levels throughout the day (e.g. first, last, flights during bad weather etc.) which will definitely be a step forward. 

The system is comprised, essentially, of an alumiumium foil strip attached to the side of the flap that acts as a make/break switch on the ioBridge digital input. When the flap is closed, the circuit is made, and the digital input is held low. Once a bee pushes through the flap, the circuit is broken, which generates a digital pulse that the ioBridge board can count. 

flap sensorIt's taken quite a bit of experimenation to get the inputs working in a way that is meaningful. Opening and closing the flap doesn't just generate a single pulse but can generate many (the bumblebees themselves very rarely just open it cleanly - but push against, causing it to open and close); so I can't rely on this basic circuit to count single open/close of the flap. 

But it doesn't really matter as the system will count the total number of activations and report this every 10 minutes. These 10 minutes slices will give an indication of the overall activity level, and in particular detect things like 1st & last exits, which I'm particularly interested in. 

This is only a phase 1 system - to get me started and get some data collected; I have ideas/plans for two further developments of this system - one using a light beam sensor (this would solve the problem of the flap being so busy that it actually gets held open and only counts a single pulse for many bees) and also a non-contact displacement sensor which will measure the exact angle of opening. Ideally a combination of these two would be good - but I don't have enough inputs at the moment. 

So, I have to wait for a few days now to collect some data and see how the system performs. 


Two much excitement for one day

Turned into an interesting day today with two bits of news.

Getting Sensitive

First of all I was contacted back by Zettlex - a small company in Cambridge who make "non contact" distance sensors. Their systems are very small and light, based on magnetic resonance, and can very accurately measure the distance between the sensor and an 'antenna' device attached to a moving object.

Now, before you go thinking I'm sticking sensors to bumblebees, I'm not! (That's next year's idea!) ☺ 

The plan, actually is to mount a sensor on the wax moth trap door, so that when it is in use (see below), the movement can be detected. 

bumblebee using the wax moth flapI wasn't sure if Zettlex would have been able to supply such a small, single unit, but they have very kindly offered to help me out - so the least I can do is sing their praises! 

Of course, there will be a lot of work still to get the sensor working, hopefully integrated with the iobridge platform so I can get realtime data and alerts out to the internet and beyond. I'm actually really excited about the possibilities, because over and above tracking simple activity data, such as start and end times of the day, I may be able to get data about how the flap is actually used: for example, how long it takes a bumblebee to master its usage. 

Hitting the screen

Even more exciting news came this afternoon with confirmation that some of our footage has made it into the final "Britain in a Day" film. I'm mentioning it here, because although we submitted several hours worth of material we know that the piece that has been selected concerns our bumblebees. It's actually a lovely segment, filled with emotion and despite its short length, a strong storyline and message; which is probably why it succeeded in being picked.

I don't want to give away too much, so that's all I say; but if you are in the UK, the film should be showing on BBC2 on June 2nd 2012. 

Here's some information about the whole "Britain in a day" project:


Britain In A Day is a major new project designed to capture a unique snapshot of Britain on one day, and people from all corners of the United Kingdom are invited to take part.
On Saturday November 12th we asked people in Britain to film something that captures the intimacy and singularity of their life and to upload it to a dedicated channel on YouTube. With the support of executive producers Ridley Scott and Academy Award winning Kevin Macdonald, director Morgan Matthews will use the rich trove of material submitted to craft a feature-length documentary film that captures the variety and vibrancy of life in Britain today. 
The result will be broadcast on BBC2 next year in the run up to the Olympics.
The idea is based on Life In A Day, the global, user-generated feature film produced by Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free London and directed by Kevin Macdonald. 80,000 videos were submitted to YouTube by people all over the world, wherever they were and whatever they were doing. The result was a powerful and inspiring portrait of the world on a single day. 

We feel privileged to have been selected and are really looking forward to seeing the whole film. If it turns out anything like "Life in a Day" (the original global version) it will be brilliant!



Nest-sensor setup (part 1)

I made some further progress today in getting our beepol lodge "internet enabled" - to get temperature, light and activity data automatically logged and available online. 

More details are on the technology page, but I'm using an ioBridge board to capture the data and push it to their web platform, whenceforth all manner of wonderful things can be done with it. 

I've been setting it up over the last week - getting to grips with the way the sensors would and the way data is recorded. I've pretty much got to grips with the basics, as well as some of the features that are possible such as twitter notifications.

The rain and wind and low temperatures continue to make getting in the garden to do jobs a very cold and messy (muddy) affair - notwithstanding, I did some of the setup in the garage, which included drilling through the wall for the wires and getting the network up and running.

getting the iobridge powered up and running in the garage - sensors routed through the wallI mounted a weatherproof box on the outside of the garage. This will contain an ambient light sensor, and some status LEDs (for example, a sunset/sunrise indicator) and a warning buzzer (e.g. for nest "over temperature")

outdoor iobridge sensorsThe white cables are the two temperature sensors - one for inside the nest, the other for the ambient temperature. 

This is the kind of output we're getting at the moment. Once it's been running a few days, I'll set up some rules (such as triggers on temperatures).

iobridge dashboard of bumblebee sensorsYou can see I've set up a "flap input". This is not installed yet, but the plan is to put a small switch on the wax-moth flap (made from aluminium foil) and count the amount of "flap" activity, which will give an indication of how many bumblebees are coming and going into the nest. Just need a dry, warmer day to get that done.