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!

Another bite at the cherry

The decline of our colony continues with all but a handful of bees active over the last few days. This is despite an increase in activity in general, most notably on our lavender, which has an increasing number of bumblebees with each day: bufftails, redtails, early bumblebees, and common carders to name but a few.

At the latter part of the week and weekend I saw a number of bumblebees around the entrance to our lodge - though wasn't clear if they were coming in or leaving. But they seemed to have difficulty flying and had disappeared from view. (One I specifically saw fall off the ledge).

Naturally I went out to rescue them, but it had been an hour at least since once had disappeared and she was nowhere to be found. I looked hard then and the next day too, but found nothing. I never gave up hope. 

On Saturday I was able to rescue one which had a damaged wing. We quarantined her and eventually added her to our indoor box of invalids. Sadly she actually broke her right wing completely by her burrowing antics, so she definitely couldn't fly. She could certainly climb though! She's the first bumble we've had that been able to climb the plastic box and escape! Till now we thought we were safe! 

rescued with a damaged wing - taking a big drink after being fed with a syringe

It's not lasted long though, sadly today she died. We actually think she might be a boy from "her" antics and they have such terribly short lifespans: 7 - 14 days, so it's not surprising, especially when they've already aged and had difficulties when  they were in the wild.

It was bad news too on the bumblebee I saw go missing but couldn't find - on Sunday I did find her, essentially "drowned" on the gravel outside the lodge. She must have returned there from somewhere else, because I'd thoroughly searched the area previously. We never gave up hope and warmed her up indoors and quarantined her too - but she never revived.

It's not all sad news though. I found the third missing bumblebee close to death on Sunday entangled in the nearby grass (thankfully I hadn't cut the lawn). Although we didn't know at the time, he was a boy, and was soaked through and almost unable to move. His bands were almost pure white. We brought him indoors too, warmed him and fed him directly with a syringe and he gradually revived. At the time we thought he couldn't fly so we just cared for him, provided bedding and kept him warm (but separate from the others). He drank a lot of honey water - a typical sign of a boy.

Amazingly his bands recovered colour (though hard to see from the picture) and today was back to being a vibrant golden colour. Quite remarkable. As he was getting stronger and stronger and the weather was so lovely, we tried to fly him. We'd seen him attempting to fly but not making much of it - I thought his wings were too bent.

"before" and "after" of our rescued boy

But of course, as is the golden rule now, we never gave up. Late this afternoon he was buzzing in the box, flying up to the lid. So, we took him outdoors and within about 30 seconds he was off! He circled up beautifully, getting his bearings then flew off towards the sun.

It's a wonderful moment to know you have probably saved a life like that. Thankfully, as a boy he doesn't need to get to his nest - he will just spend his time outdoors foraging and looking for a queen to mate with (he may already even done so). At least now he has another bite at the cherry, so to speak.


The Mysterious Queen

It's been another few weeks since the last update, for a couple of reasons. Apart from anything else we've been away for a while, but more significantly, there has been very little activty in the colony. We haven't looked in at night yet - we will soon - but I'm convinced that we're actually down to under a dozen bumblebees alive in the nest. Even on the warmest of days, activity is confined to a few trips per hour, rather than a few per minute. 

It's a bit unusual, but the weather has been so atrocious that the early peak of our nest (20 queens produced in April) has been totally out of sync with the food supply. Lots of rain and wind and unusually cold temperatures for May/June have kept the bumblebees trapped in the nest for extended periods of time and ultimately it seems they have perished. 

However, we have not written everything off yet - we have learnt that bumbleworld is full of surprises and Friday (June 8) was no different. For a few days I'd seen what I thought is a bufftail male scouting the nest, looking for a mate. The behaviour is distinctive - flying around the outside of the nest and especially checking all the edges where he can smell the nest. Then he tries to get into the nest, but he has more trouble with the wax-moth flap than the nest inhabitants; although he does eventually manage it. 

But that's not the most intriguing thing, because it actually seems that on Friday there was also a queen in our nest. You can see from the picture she is at least 2 "squares" in length (nearer 2.3) which would make her 20 - 23 mm in size - definitely queen size and definitely the largest bee we've seen in a while. 

A lone queen appears in the nestIt's not clear if she has come from the nest or come from outside, although most likely she has come from the nest. Nor is it clear whether she is the "mother" queen of the nest, or a later "daughter" queen that has just been born.

All things being equal, the latter would be the norm, as we would expect queens to be hatching now to synchronise with the arrival of the males. However, things have not been normal! We don't know if the early brood of queens from the nest was all our "mother" queen would have laid, or whether she would go on to lay another brood, of which this would be one. 

Or indeed, could this be our "Mother" queen, leaving the nest, perhaps to die? We saw that happen last year too, with two queens. What I can say is she did leave the nest, and I've not yet seen her come back or back inside the nest. That still doesn't narrow things down, so we have to watch and wait and see whether she may have mated, whether she comes back, or indeed whether she has any sisters yet to be born. 


Man hunt

So, where were we?

Oh, yes; earlier this week we noticed an unknown boy turn up to the nest. How did we figure that?

Well, for starters, I'm counting and tracking every single bee in and out of the nest at the moment, so I recognise any that are "foreign" and also any that do not have a corresponding initial trip out of our nest. Ultimately, all the bees from our nest must have been born inside it and so must have been through a "first flight" memorisation procedure on the first time they leave. So, that leaves me with a pretty good idea of which bees are ours.

Then, out of the blue, this different looking bee turns up, not having come from inside our nest. Something was going on. Also, he was larger than any of ours and had a distintive white fluffy tail (less pointed than a girl's). Finally, behaviour gave it away. He was clearly a visitor, flying round and checking the outside of our lodge rather than going straight in. He then also spent a lot of time working along the edge of the lid/base, getting a scent and - I suspect - leaving one. None of our girls have ever shown this behaviour. 

[video to come]

We were surprised to see a boy; given their lifespan, he must have been under 2 weeks old, which puts him having been born mid-September at the earliest. For a "first colony" nest (i.e. from a queen born last year), that would probably be quite late. So, perhaps we were seeing a boy from a "second colony" such as ours (but, as far as we can tell, not from ours). 

However, that would also be a bit puzzling, because it would imply the colony had laid workers, boys (and presumably queens) in fairly rapid succession. As it happens, we're trying to piece together the behaviour of "second colonies" to figure our how their lifecycle (which starts sometime around August) compares with their host colony (which starts around April). In particular, does a "second colony" queen go on to hibernate and start another new colony next year, or does she die after laying? (As ours has done; although she seemed to be fattening up to hibernate). Also, if the queen lays workers (females) during this season, is she still able to lay fertilised eggs next year, or is she left only able to lay unfertilised eggs? These turn into boys, who do not work for the colony, and so the colony would not survive. 

So, the existence of this boy adds another piece to the jigsaw. If he's come from a second colony, then it implies that both girls and boys are laid. It also adds credibilty to the suspicion we had that some boys were being laid in our second colony, because at want point we were seeing quite a large attrition rate from the nest: bees leaving and not coming back.

This in itself adds an intriguing twist to the story of "second colonies". Take ours, for example; it started to emerge towards the end of August after the original colony collapsed (partly due to heat damage in the nest). This means its lifespan is compressed into a time period of 5 weeks or so, very much shorter than the 10 - 12 weeks or longer of the original colony. So, we're intrigued to understand how well such a colony can perform and whether the Queen specifically compresses its lifespan into this time period by laying girls and boys in quick succession (and even Queens?) The evidence we're seeing is that she does lay both boys and girls - so the question is, what triggers the laying of the boys?: it would seem more likely that it must be due to seasonal/environmental conditions rather than how long she has been laying for. 

Lady Luck Turns

Our boy came and went and while we were intrigued, we thought no more of it, other than to keep an eye on him over the coming days.  

As is becoming the norm, the next day our collective jaws dropped when a massive bumble turned up at the nest entrance: lo and behold, it was very clearly a queen. She must surely have only been here for one thing - boys! 

Visiting Queen trying to figure out a way into the nest entrance

It's possible, of course, she was looking for a hibernation spot, so we had to reserve judgement. But not only had she turned up just a day after the boy, but there she was, exploring the outside of the lodge in all the same places he had, picking up his scent. It was all a bit uncanny.  Also, she'd shown no interest in the hibernation spots we've specially set up. These are much more disguised than the lodge as much more natural surroundings and also facing the preferred direction (North). 

She visited again later that day and again showed interest in where the boy had been and tried to get into the lodge - but was thwarted by the plastic flap at the entrance. There was no real excuse for that to be so - all the other queens we had in the nest previously managed to navigate it very well. But they had the benefit of starting on the inside and being able to push their way out and thus confirm for themselves how the flap worked and that it indeed is the entrance. 

It's a little different starting on the outside, as the flap has to be lifted, not pushed, so it's not necessarily immediately obvious it is the way into the test. And, to be honest, this is part of its design, because it's intended to keep foreign interest away from the inside of the nest. 

Boy & Queen meet at the nest together - but she still can't figure out how to get in

We had no idea whether this was a "one-off" visit, though she turned up twice during the day (and the boy turned up 5 times!). We presumed that if she was looking for a hibernation spot, having been thwarted by the entrance flap, she wouldn't turn up again. However, on the offchance we wedged the flap open a bit. This would allow her access to the entrance, and even if she didn't want to go right into he nest, she'd be able to drink some honey water that we provide just inside.

She turned up again the next day, in fact made twice as many visits, and did indeed explore inside the nest. Our boy, who we think stayed inside the nest overnight never quite co-incided with her, but we couldn't help but get the feeling that the two were trying to track each other down.

Over the course of the week our Queen and Boy have kept coming back to the nest (stats below). They've both been inside and he has stayed in there overnight a few times (from what we can tell). On the whole they have kept missing each other, though there have been a few occasions where they were in the nest together; but not for long and not such that we saw them actually hook up. 

Here's a graph of the activity over the last few weeks:

Grey: Return Nest Trips | Green: Newborn "memorisation" flights | Blue: Boy visits | Pink: Queen visits

We can see that there was a huge surge in Queen visits on 7th October. We were slightly baffled by this until we realised that there were TWO  queens now visiting the nest (and two boys as it happens). At one point we caught them both in shot together - it was all quite amazing.

TWO queens arrive at the nest

We continue to allow them to go into the nest and benefit from the honey water and they seem quite happy to spend stretches of about 20 minutes at a time in there. The Queens never stay overnight in the nest though, they always leave (often close to sundown) off to where they came from. (Would love to know where that is). 

This repeated visiting to the nest does not seem to make sense as hibernation activity - one or two checks on the location would confirm whether it is satisfactory or not, so we conclude that this is indeed mating behaviour. Unfortunately neither of the Queens or boys really seem to have managed to co-incide with each other yet, but we remain hopeful.  

My big worry is that they leave it a bit too late to go and hibernate, as the weather has suddenly returned to its more usual seasonal level - but we have to trust in their own body clocks to do the right thing. I also hope they don't end up trying to use our nestbox to hibernate, as it will not really be suitable. The old nest in there will not be hygenic for them; but from what we can tell, it wouldn't be normal for them to choose a nest site for hibernation, nor indeed for next year's nest. 

I do also have to wonder when these Queens were born, given they are now looking for males. The first "batch" of males was around August time, so we are two months down the line. That suggests they are also from a "second colony"- but certainly not ours. Our first colony produced half-a-dozen queens; there's part of me wonders if they are from that brood. There's no real way to find out, but it does seem surprising that they wouldn't have found a mate already over the last 8 weeks, so the behaviour remains a bit of mystery; or perhaps just a quirk of timing due to the abnormally warm weather conditions. 

Either way, it's a privilege to have them visiting and yet another source of fascination.

[Video to follow]




All Change

So, the weekend that marked the beginning of October passed and along with it the uncannily warm weather (still reaching 25 degrees and more) subsided too. I think for our bees this has finally marked the proper transition to Autumn and, if anything, come as a bit of a shock. Temperatures today were down to the 12 / 13 degrees mark - half of what they were a few days ago.

So, it goes without saying, that seeing activity levels drop is to have been expected. To put this into context, here is the data for recent trip activity:

  • 28 Sep - 23 
  • 29 Sep - 17
  • 30 Sep - 12 
  • 1 Oct - 13 
  • 2 Oct - 28 (-2)
  • 3 Oct - 22 (-2)
  • 4 Oct - 12 
  • 5 Oct - 8 (-1)
  • 6 Oct - 1 

In fact some of these are not "round trips" - i.e. these are exits from the nest that have not necessarily been matched by an entrance (the numbers shown in brackets). This highlights another noticeable fact: we've been losing bees at a fairly sizeable rate. Some of our busiest and most effective bees have left the nest and not returned. Sometimes they do leave near to sunset, timing it just a bit too late to get back to the nest in time, and end up having to stay out overnight. But then you see them come back in first thing in the morning. In fact, for a few weeks we had one bee that did this by choice! It always slept away from the nest. 

But my heart always sinks when I count the bees in and out of the nest during the day and as dusk falls there are 2, 3 or 4 unaccounted for. This is always a bad sign. At most usually only 1 or 2 come back the next day. 

We lost our biggest bee this week. She was near identical twin to the one that drowned and had been quite a hard worker, making long trips often up to several hours (one we timed at about 5 hours). Maybe these long trips themselves were symptomatic of something - such as old age. 

We also lost two new-born bees as well. They were very tiny, like beatrice (who is indoors), so not fully developed. One could definitely not fly, so she crawled over the nest entrance, then fell to the floor. It was only later that we saw this had happened and despite a full search of the garden, by then we couldn't find her. It's such a shame, because it would have been wonderful for beatrice to have a companion. A similar thing happened two days later with another tiny new bee. It's such a joy to see them emerge, and this one was capable of some flight and began her "memorisation" procedure. But she too dropped to the ground, rose again, but then disappeared from the CCTV. We never saw her make the nest again. 

So, as of today, we only saw one of our small, regular bees making any trips, down from at least four - and only just one trip at that. No sign of the others at all. It's possible they were bedding down as it has been exceptionally windy, but we've not even seen them inside the nest. 

Outside Interest

It's not been all "doom and gloom" this week though. For starters, we saw another instance of some kind of larvae/debris being removed from the nest (and later saw some kind of moth inside the nest).

It started with interest from a larger bee (not one of ours) circling around the outside of the lodge, examining the joins and cracks, then finally finding the entrance and creeping into the nest. What's going on here then? Twenty minutes inside the nest before leaving and circling. That confirmed this was not a "native" to the nest and he or she was memorising the location with a view to coming back!

Later in the day he returned, as we expected and went back into the nest, staying for about half an hour. I was convinced he was a boy - was he looking for a Queen? Sadly he was out of luck - our Queen had already been laying and now sadly expired inside the nest.

Out of Luck? How wrong we were.

[To Be Continued...]