Another Myster-3

Temperatures took a real dip today and yesterday - for the first time we put the heating on in the house and ambient temperature this morning was about 7 degrees at 9am. This signals the start of tough times ahead for our bumblebee colony and is close to a minimum operating temperature for them, although of course they can generate their own internal heat to keep going: but could take a lot of energy.

So, I wasn't expecting much activity today, but we still saw 21 trips to-and-from the nest, which represents a reasonable number compared to recent days. Four of these were contributed by the Queen that has become resident. In fact, to my knowledge, 2 Queens are resident, but I'm not seeing much of one of them. 

The active Queen hasn't brought pollen back for the last two days either, even though workers have. I don't have a great explanation for this. If she's ready to keep her brood warm, we would expect to see her staying the nest full time. Maybe she is doing that now and maybe it's the second queen we are seeing on her trips from the nest - perhaps mating behaviour, or hibernation-spot searching. We just can't be sure. 

What I can be sure, is that for the last few days two queens have been in the box overnight - they must have been, because I've double checked the CCTV going back about 5 days and can match all the exit trips with entrance trips. So, if the trips cancel out, then by definition there must be the same number of Queens in the nest at the end of the day as at the start. And I can work that logic (and CCTV footage) back until the point where they were both confirmed in there together.

That makes today's discovery even more suprising - another Queen showed up. I have no footage for when she might have first left the nest, so it means one of two things: she is a third queen that has arrived from somewhere, or there has been a tech malfunction. 

To be honest, I find both hard to believe, but the tech malfunction moreso (I know, imagine that!) BUt there are three cameras with motion detect all running on the area where any bumblebee would have to leave the nest. The sensitivity and settings have all been fine tuned and working beautifully for months. There are no errors reported on the DVR and no breaks in footage and no video-loss alarms. All seems well in CCTV land. 

So, that leaves the explanation that she is a third queen. I'll admit it seems odd, she seemed able to make her way straight into the box as if she knew it. Later a Queen left and returned - I can't be sure if it was her, but that Queen did not need to do any memorisation - so if it was her, then it means she has been here before. 

In which case, maybe it's one of or August queens returned to shelter?

7 hours to make a bed: inspiring

The dynamic in our nest is definitely changing. 

With each passing day there seem to be fewer queens. We can be certain this is one still in there; and she is collecting pollen. They may be another, I'm not totally sure. They seem to have a habit of coming and going all day long and then mysteriously not returning without me being able to pinpoint exactly when. (This is really down to the limited time I have to be able to scour the CCTV).

Also, we definitely have more smaller bees, that weren't there at all about a week ago. Two emerged and sadly died within about 12 hours, they weren't properly formed: one was completely missing wings. But that gave us a hunch that new births were occuring, and also that they were not being very successful. 

I put this down to temperature so I resolved to help get the nest up to the requisite 30 degrees. 

Over the last few days we have seen an increasing ratio of smaller bees - perhaps one or two in place of one or two queens that no longer seem to be around. But the difference in relative activity and size is noticeable.

So, this adds yet more weight to the idea that new bees are being hatched. 

We can't fully tell whether these new bumbles are workers or males. What we can tell is we definitely have a worker or two: there's definitely some "partrolling" going on around the nest (frequent tours of the perimeter), occasional checking of the entrance and then there's what happened with the bedding...

Homemaking instinct

So, the bedding...

I was concerned based on general properties of the lodge, its location (shady), state of the nest (damaged internally) that there was no way a queen could be getting her brood up to 30 degrees. The two sick bees that emerged and died shortly after were not well formed - a classic sign of too-cold-a nest.  So I took a two-pronged attack to helping get the warmth of the nest up. 

The first of these was to install some infra-red lighting directly underneath the lodge. Ideally I would have liked to have it inside the nest, but logistically this was too much of a challenge due to space, wiring and control/monitoring - there would a risk of making things too hot and I would need to be able to monitor that and respond accordingly. This also means being able to do so remotely while away from home and I've not yet had time to devise a system for doing so (though it would be possible, as I now have remote power control over IP and remote telephone control to reboot the broadband router). So, outside installation was the realistic option. 

Since the IR is outside the wooden lodge I can safely leave it on permanently as it will not be making huge impact 

The second prong of the strategy was to add some bedding material to the nest. This is what we did for queens back in March when we were trying to encourage them to choose our site for nesting and we had loads of hamster bedding left over.  We know it's not their first choice compared to moss from our own observations, but we also know they are safe working with it and don't get tangled up. 

So, last night we put two bundles of it in the nest, in the corners (not over the centre where the actual activity was taking, as we didn't want to cause excessive stress or get any honey from honey pots soaked up). You can see in the picture below how we just tucked it into the corners to minimise stress to the bees and make sure we didn't get it any of their honey etc. We know that they can organise the bedding as they see fit. What we didn't was quite what they were going to do!


the bedding we added, just tucked into the corners initially

So, before I go into what was done, have a look at the final effect. We've taken this picture almost exactly 24 hours later. 

how the bedding was re-arranged by one bee over the course of 7 hours

What an amazing change! The bedding has been drawn into a dome over the centre of the nest; drawn away from the corners and tidied into a single mass. 

All this work has been done by a single bumblebee worker, working tirelessly through the night

You have to bear in mind that throughout the the night the nest is pitch black for the bee; it is mainly working by feel. It doesn't have any tools, it weighs less than a gram, but by cleverly weaving a repetitive path through the bedding. And this was done by one worker bee taking on what I call the "Nest fixing" role. Over the course of about 7 hours it put in about 4 hours solid work, stopping occasionally for a drink, and weaved its way through the bedding, tugging and pushing to create this new structure. Frankly, I find it totally astonishing.

I took a video of its activity at 32x speed to show what it did through the night to create this masterpiece:

 You can see she works tirelessly all through the night, alone, to re-arrange the bedding. During the day there is little activity like this and it starts again at night time - my theory is that as the day cools the bees are triggered to make sure the nest is providing warmth and insulation. 

What I also find remarkable is how the bees take on a role when the need arises. We hadn't seen much of this individual until we added the bedding; but then she sprung into action, took on this role to assemble the nest structure, and worked tirelessly through the night to do so. I find it all rather inspiring. 



Powers of Invisibility

LBB (LittleBigBee) has been motionless for well over 24 hours now. We will give him a good send off and return him to mother nature later - after I've taken some macro photos to confirm he is a boy. (The easy way to tell is count the segments on the antennae; though photographing them in sufficient detail is quite a challenge). We had him only for 8 days, though of course he may have been older as his wing-loss looked more like damage rather than deformity. Still, it's such a short life, which seems to make it all the more saddening.

Yesterday my neice, who gave Holly her name, decided that Lucy would a nice name for TLB (TinyLittleBee) - we wholeheartedly agreed, although we have also yet to confirm her gender. And, to be honest, her pattern of behaviour is more male-like.

Something didn't seem right yesterday evening though. It's always been easy to find Lucy in the tub because most of her time is spent exploring the "outdoors" and she goes back into the nest box to rest for a while and then repeats the whole pattern. Always on the move.

But last night we couldn't find her.

This happened before with BLB (BigLittleBee) - he developed a routine of resting under one of the pine cones in the tub. He could get under there so tightly that he was impossible to see no matter how hard you looked. And his buff banding provided wonderful camouflage.

I was certainly convinced there was no way Lucy could be under there. I must have scoured those pines cones with a torch for 15 minutes. In the end, we carefully removed them to check. Lo and Behold! Lucy was indeed tucked right in under there, completely invisible to the outside world. It was great to find her safe and seemingly well, although, in a sense, odd that her behaviour had changed. Although we saw BLB do this and are also convinced that some of our outdoor bees spend the night away from the nest on occasions (either by being caught out by the weather, or some mad last-minute dash to get pollen in the fading dusk), it is highly unlikely that Lucy could be "caught out" in this environment and run out of energy. So why the change in behaviour?

She roused, drank from a daisy-honey-water-combo we placed in front of her, then toddled back to the nest box straight away. In a sense that was a relief, but on the other hand I felt something ominous.

This morning she is not in the nest box; for some reason during the night she has come out again and, I suspect, hidden under the pine cones, summoning all her invisibility powers in the process. We've chosen not to disturb her yet, if she's there, but something is not right. I just sense that something is off-kilter today with Lucy. I can't help but think she is actually a boy and thus destined as BLB and LBB before her.

All honeymoons have to end

BB33 had stayed for a second night in our nestbox, much to our excitement, so we came down at 10am to see whether she was there or not. 

Once again, I had expected her to have left the box, so was amazed to see her still in the box in the far corner - near where the empty honey-water holder was. Outside the box, both the honey-water and pollen holders (plastic bottle tops) had toppled over and were more or less empty.

We have no way of knowing whether this was some creature in the night that caused that, or whether BB33 had been out to collect from them and had caused them to empty and lose balance. If BB33 had already been outside the box and then returned inside, that would have been significant, as we have never had a bee leave the box and return to (inside) it. 

I quickly re-sited and replenished the pots, not knowing whether BB33 could emerge at any moment and expect some breakfast on hand.

The timing was all rather serendipitous, as within 10 minutes she was buzzing and on the move, and emerged from the nestbox. She crawled over the moss at the entrance and completely ignored the honey-water pot right in her path. She made straight for the pollen pot at the bottom of the moss (which may add weight to the idea she had already been out and knew where it was) and then took flight to the flowers nearby (only about 30cm away). She probed these intensely looking for nectar, but it seemed as though we was struggling to find it. Then after about 45 seconds, she took off, circled twice and left. 

I took this opportunity to very quickly fill the internal container with honey-water, with about 1.5mls of honey-water (on a 30:70 mix). I estimate during the time we saw her drinking from this (90 mins) she consumed 0.75 - 1ml of the liquid (which is my estimate of how much was actually left in the container). We don't know how much this replenishes her as we've been unable to find any data on this yet on the internet and whether this would be enough for whole day. (Well, it must have been on the first day as she never went anywhere!)

We were ever-so-hopeful she would return today but she hasn't. We can't know whether the issue with the honey-water being upturned (and the lack of supply inside the box) is the cause, or whether she would have gone anyway. But I can't help feel a little bit frustrated, if not annoyed, that those issues occured. But there was simply nothing we can do about it, until we develop some kind of live feeding system inside the box.

We have to console ourselves with the fact that she chose to stay two whole nights in our box in beautiful weather, so some of the parameters must be acceptable to her. 




Don't know about Wills and Kate but...

..Queen BB33 stayed here overnight.

I got the surprise of my life this morning when i wandered into the dining room and turned on the nestbox monitor, only to discover that our overnight guest (BB33) was still there! 

BB33 - clinging to the pot of honey waterThe latest we'd had a bee stay in the box overnight was until 10.15 so we were amazed to see her there an hour later; especially on such a beautiful warm day (20 degrees C, clear blue sky). We'd fully expected her to have already left. Over the next 90 minutes she drank regularly from the honey water. I was quite amazed by this as not only has the honey-water been there unattended for quite some time now, but when I last looked it was down to half-level due to evaporation. So, I was surprised she could get anything from it. (We are quite keen to understand how much a bumblebee can drink in one sitting, and we haven't been able to find out yet).

In fact, she seemed to be rather enjoying it, so we started to wonder whether it had fermented a bit and turned to mead! We might have a tipsy bee on our hands! 

Here's a video of her sticking her head right into the pen-lid in order to get some drink (which I think must be empty by now!)

We also took temperature measurements regularly from inside the box, now that we have a remote temperature sensor - wondering whether something would trigger her to come outside. To cut a long story short, she didn't come out all day, although she did retreat to her secret place off-camera for the duration, so we had to check on the audio every so often that we could hear activity.

I was convinced she must have drunk the entire supply of honey water so felt that the next time she wants to drink she will have to leave the box. So, we placed a small quantity of it right by the entrance of the nestbox as we can't get inside while she is in there. (This is something I want to consider for an improved box design - a way to supply fresh beverage to our guest without opening up the box; I have some ideas.) We also spread some pollen around the entrance to the box and on the lid. This will mean she can get supplies easily without going far, hopefully encouraging her to stay near/at the box. 

We have since learned that there is some research that show bumbles are smart enough to go for nectar that is warmer, as this means there is less energy expended by them in heating up - so this is something we can consider in our drink-supplying strategy. It might also explain why she was very happy to take the honey-water from inside the box, which was at about 22 - 23 degrees C - i.e. warmer than outside.  

We last heard a small buzz from her at 17:30 inside the box although have not seen her on the camera and to our knowledge have not seen her exit; so for the timebeing we assume she is still in the box and staying for a second night. This is a first for us!