We want unkempt grass!

It turned out to be an interesting day, busier than expected as far as the bumblebees were concerned. Aside from a small update in pictures (below) we also met the head of Parks and Open spaces from our local council, and I also had contact from another leading bumbler (actually a co-founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust) with exciting nest box information. So let me deal with them in turn:

Parks and Open Spaces

Thanks are due to BCW for setting up a meeting with the head of Parks and Open Spaces for East Cambridgeshire Council, who came to visit us today. We discussed ideas and possibities for changing the way (and frequency) that grass is cut in our neighbourhood and the planting of wild meadow flowers in some locations. It was a good meeting and he was very friendly and ameniable, though with any such ideas one has to be cogniscent of the objections from other residents (such as "I pay my council tax to have the grass cut every two weeks in a perfect shape", or "I don't want wild flowers outside my house because I don't want them spreading to my garden".) Sadly it is very hard to please everyone. 

However, there are definitely things that can be done. One simple idea is to leave uncut rings around the base of trees to encourage plants to regrow (and actually protect the trees from lawnmower/strimmer damage). These rings can be extended over time in a sort of "stealth" fashion to reduce objections. It seems where a small amount of natural wilderness has been allowed to regrow in other areas it has eventually been well received by residents, who eventually get to see the benefit. 

The Queen bees were on great form - showing up just where we needed them to as we explained where all their favourite hangouts are. ☺

A new nestbox on the market

I was thrilled to be contacted by George Pilkington of Nurturing Nature with details of a new nestbox he has designed and launched. Turns out George is a conservation consultant and founder member of the BBCT and has been interested in our blog. He told me he was really wanting to tell us about his new nestbox, but couldn't until the design was protected - but one of its key features is the ability to protect from wax moth, which is a massive step forward. I wasted no time in asking George to send us one to add to our collection and try out alongside the other simpler designs. 

He has also shared some of his ideas about how to encourage queens to choose a manmade nestbox to set up colony - some ideas we had already come to know of or devised independently, others are definitely improvements on our setup. I have made some immediate entrance tube modifications based on his suggestions (see later). Most intriguingly I am looking forward to advice on capturing queens without causing them stress, which inevitably puts them off using the box regardless. 

Updates on our Cloche captives

Out two queens under our cloche have still not ventured into the nestbox so we are considering next steps (e.g. releasing them) as we do not want them to be unduly stressed or become frail. They do have adequate food supply, but we're not convinced they're using it. They may be getting too cold overnight by not using the box. We did see them both mooching about today though and we put some springs of heather on the ground (since they weren't flying up to the tall pots) and the Early Bee immediately tucked in. 

Temperature wise the cloche is doing a great job - while it was 12 degrees in the garden is was 21C under the cloche, so this  must be working in their favour. But after their initial introduction and buzzing we haven't seen any flying activity and that bothers me. To us humans it looks like a "mood change" and we saw the same thing with our "indoor" bees (disabled) last year. And of course, we know that recent research suggests that bees can potentially experience "depression" (a change in propensity to be active, really). We will monitor this carefully. 

Our first 2 captive queensOur bufftail is beautiful though and she loves sitting on the ribbon in the corner for some reason. 

garden setup changes 


fake "flowers" to attract attentionWe've read numerous times that bumbles can be attracted to bright yellow and that it can be helpful if nest entrances are marked out like this. This is something we'd already done with our nests, but we got some of our own evidence of bees' interest in it when we saw yellow tape on our CCTV cables. I've now added tape to some canes to create a splash of colour as they fly past the garden - hopefully a little extra to tempt them in for a closer look. Never thought my high-visibility tape would be used for this. ☺

Based on George's pictures and suggestions we have also extended the entrance tubing on our nestbox, so that it is now disguised on the lawn (see the tiny yellow fleck in the picture below). We saw a very large queen nest searching over our lawn today and in fact after a few minutes caught her and introduced her to the box (without sealing it). Of course, she left fairly quickly, but it was interesting to see where in the garden she was and wasn't looking; which backs up for extending the entrance tube. 

nestbox entrance extended with a tube across to the lawn

And finally

Our pussy willow tree is starting to blossom! It's a little behind some of those on the edge of the field - but not by much. I took a close up picture of one of the catkins - you can see why the bees are going nuts for them - look at all the access to pollen!

pollen-rich catkins (pussy willow)

We're hoping that over the next few days we'll have a lot of queens showing an interest in it!

All Change - and the early morning detection theory

It's about 2 weeks since the last update, at which time we had two "visiting" Queens in our nest, one of them busy collecting pollen and seemingly brooding.

A third queen had turned up and spent the a night in the nest along with them. She made a maiden flight the next day, then stayed in the nest. Over the next few days it was hard to tell which Queens were active as the first two in particular were very similar in appearance. However, within a few days, Queen "3" had certainly emerged and started making trips out from the nest. They were fairly sporadic, about 4 or 5 a day of about an hour's duration.

Intriguingly, the day she started doing this turned out to be the last day the previous Queen was active. She had made 12 trips, and the next day made none. We've seen no more of her. We've no idea if she died in the nest or changed behaviour (such as began permanently sitting on her brood) but I'm fairly certain she never left the nest again.

The day after this, Queen "3" swung into action and has been doing so ever since. She's been making 4 or 5 trips a day, every day, regardless of the temperature or weather, spending as much as 7 hours away from the nest. It's really tough finding pollen and it's been really hard to tell if she has been bringing any back. One some occasions I do think she's been bringing some dark grey/green pollen back. 

We have no idea how long this is going to go on for - collecting pollen would usually be to store food for a newly emerging brood, who would then take over the role; and this has gone on longer than we have seen before. It begs the question whether she has laid anything yet. All things being equal, I suspect she may (ought to) have done, but her eggs have not survived/developed due to the low temperatures in the nest; meanwhile Queen knows no better than to keep bringing pollen back. 

Which leads to another observation about this Queen: over the last 5 days she has been getting up earlier and ealier in the morning to start exploring the nest entrance and even coming right out onto the lodge in the pitch black. This has been as early as almost 3 in the morning, despite not having sufficient light to leave and fly till 7.30 (sunrise). [These times are GMT, after the clocks went back from BST].  

When I do my final write up, I'll be plotting all this hourly activity, as I've been tracking it in detail - with the hope of trying to draw some behavioural insight.

One theory is that she's trying to cram as many hours forgaging as possible into shorter and shorter days (sunset is now about 4.30pm), so would naturally start as early as possible. It may be that the infrared cameras around the nest are confusing her about the temperature outside - it will seem warmer than it ought to for the light levels; she keeps checking on reality; in some cases having to get right out of the lodge to calibrate the outdoor temperature with the light levels. 

All just a theory at this stage, hopefully more will become clear.. 




Last week I wrote two installments about the Queens that had started visiting our nest and this in an update about them. 

To recap, last week we spotted a boy exploring around the lodge; and the next day a 'foreign' Queen (i.e. not from our nest) started visiting our nest. Shortly after another queen arrived too. We didn't know if they were looking to mate or hibernate; we didn't know where they had come from or where they were going. But it was fascinating to watch. 

Well, another week on and there is more to report. 

The first excitement came five days later when both Queens stayed overnight in the nest. This was a mystery - that they had both abandoned their usual nightspot and, indeed, that they were prepared to cohabit. Perhaps they were orginally queens from our nest back in August? Maybe that makes a difference?

Over the next few nights one or other or both stayed in the nest overnight - it seemed like one of them at least had adopted it as a new home. I was still trying to get my head round this and understand what was going, not knowing that another shock was in store.

That shock was to discover that one of the Queens was starting to bring pollen back to the nest.

 3rd generation queen collecting pollen

How could that even be possible? For the queen to be collecting pollen would imply she is brooding and collecting the first pollen needed for her pupae. Could that really be true? If it is, it would mean that a third successive colony is developing in our nest in the same year, which seems quite remarkable to me. Sadly, of course, there is no real time left for this colony to succeed before the winter and indeed, there is very little pollen available. And the bumbles are having to work hard to find it. 

We have to bear in mind that we are now half-way through October. The bumblebees' normal active lifecycle is quoted as being March to September. Of course, one might expect some seasonal and local variation, with activity extending perhaps before and after those date; but that would be the ongoing/existing activity, not a whole new lifecycle beginning. 

Perhaps that's not what's happening; maybe something else is going on. Possible theories: 


  • It's not a queen, just a large worker and for some reason she's adopted our nest
  • She is a queen, but isn't brooding, but as above, for some reason has reverted to basic pollen collecting behaviour, adopting the existing nest
  • She's not a queen from another nest, but one of our 5 or 6 that was born in August, returned for some reason


 I just don't know and it's something I need to investigate more to find out if this type of behaviour has been observed before, or whether this is something unique we are seeing. 

Either way, I was starting to doubt myself and doubt the fact this was a queen. I was confident that the two large "visitor" bees that turned up 10 days ago were queens - they were both sufficiently larger than our remaining brood and had all the right features and proportions. I thought maybe somewhere along the way I'd lost track, maybe a larger bee had joined the colony, or even hatched from within ours, and maybe that was what I was now calling our "pollen collecting queen". 

So, today, I did a sanity check - comparing an image of the original Queen with the current pollen-collecting Queen:

 comparison of original visiting queen and current pollen collectorIt's clear from this image that I'm looking at the same bumblebee, or at the very least, the same size bee. I'm therefore happier with my assertion that she is a Queen.

It turns out she is not the only Queen in the vicinity. Indeed, there is the second bufftail queen that is co-habiting with her in the nest.  

Furthermore, the lavender at the front of our house, which is having a second wave at the moment, was busy with honey bees today, as well as 3 Common Carders (at least two of them were boys) and a Queen Redtail (see video). I also saw a Bufftail Queen checking it out too. I guess they were all making the most of the sunshine. 

As I write, both queens have stayed in the nest again overnight. At this stage we dare not look inside to see what's happening a) because it's so much cooler now, the nest would lose valuable temperature and b) we really don't want to do anything to disrupt their behaviour, it being so unusual. 

updated activity chart for October

So, we wait for the next thrilling installment. 

Stuck in an ice-cream tub

So, a little update on "Micro Bee", whom we rescued last weekend. Well, she is now known as "Beatrice" or "Bea" and was named by my niece Chloe, who also named Holly (our disabled bee) and Fifi (our original Koppert Queen). 

So, a quick recap: we brought Bea indoors after watching her leave the nest and walk across the lawn (only a few feet) but not succeed in flying. She is absolutely tiny - about the size of a small fly - but perfectly formed, at least visually (i.e not missing limbs, all the right colours etc.). However, her wings are slightly bent and we think this is the reason she doesn't seem to fly. 

I honestly can't describe how small she is - here is a picture of her in her tub to give you an idea:

little Bea - trying to get her to fly

So, we've followed the same routine we did with Holly and BLB  - both of whom were disabled and couldn't fly - and kept her indoors in a small ice cream tub, with some materials to explore and a supply of known/safe honey water. 

We tend to her regularly but try to allow her to experience natural daylight hours. Every day we take her out (as above) and give her the opportunity to try and fly, but has not tried to do so. There's no real excuse for her not doing so at the moment, given the unnaturally warm temperatures we are experiencing (about 29 degrees C), so she could easily get up to temperature. 

It's not ideal keeping her indoors and we are debating whether to try and return her to the nest. The problem is, if she wanders out again without our supervision, she could easily get lost on the lawn and run out of energy and/or quickly become prey. Quite simply, she is just not equipped for life outside the nest. 

I have the following concerns keeping her indoors:


  • could it be affecting her 'mood' - there is evidence from honey bees that their disposition can be affected by negative events, to the extent that they show signs of "depression" (altered behaviour states and less persistence, i.e. giving up more quickly). I would hate it if this was happening.
  • Bumblebees are basically social creatures; their behaviour a jigsaw piece in the bigger colony system. So, by being away from the colony, both the isolated bee and the colony could be affected. Quite simply, Bea cannot fulfil her role or instincts if separated from her siblings. 
  • Does it change her behaviour patterns?


Actually, we have pretty strong evidence that behaviour patterns are changed, not just from Bea but from holly  et al. we kept indoors before her. The first 24 hours is spent in a very active and exploratory phase, as you would expect. when given the chance to explore (e.g. taking the lid off outside) they try to escape (or at least explore beyond the boundaries of their confines).

Then next few days this really calms down, essentially coming to a halt and there appears to be a sense of resigned stillness. There is little activity, often they hide under the moss and seem to spend a lot of time "sleeping". This is very much like a "low mood" creeping in, having learnt their surroudings and discovered they are alone and trapped. 

Over the next few days they then appear to become "masters" (or mistresses I suppose!) of their environment. A strong sense of territory and defence appears to develop. At this stage, opening the tub is greeted with warning signs, such as raised leg. As the days go by this becomes even stronger with different levels of warning - the final stage being lying on the back with sting pointed at you. What's more, the response at this stage is instantaneous; without a moment's delay the bee throws itself onto its back and warns with its sting. It becomes very protective of its food supply, which leads to more warnings as this is topped up with a syringe.  When taken outside and given the opportunity to explore/fly, there is no apparent interest in doing so. Indeed, the behaviour at this stage is now attending to and defending the nest/environment with no requirement for exploration beyond those boundaries. 

This is the stage that Bea is at, so trying to get her to fly now seems completely fruitless and adds to the dilemma of whether she is now so conditioned to her tub environment that trying to return her to the nest is counter-productive.

We've only had a Bea for a week so that's as far as her behaviour has developed; but, of course, we had Holly for much longer and saw these patterns develop further, such that warning signs subsided and indeed there was a complete acceptance of intervention with the food supply.

Indeed, eventually Holly learnt that the syringe meant new food and would come to get it even before we had chance to administer it. She was also completely happy drinking while we were topping up. Quite remarkable really. She also went into a much more intense "nest fixing" mode, constantly working at the nest. Rarely she would come out of the nest to check the immediate surroundings then return. Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly) she was stimulated by other bees and was far more active when they were in her environment. 

Anyway, that's a summary of some of the behaviour - I intend to produce a more detailed write up in due course. 

Back to the nest?

If we do add Bea back to the nest, there are two key risks. The first is she simply just starts to explore again to discover her new environment and ends up tired and lost outside of the nest. The second is that she tries to perform like her tiny siblings, one at least of which has been collecting pollen. And befalls the same fate. So either way the outcome is the same. 

tiny bee working to collect pollenPurely for interest, above is a picture of one of her equally tiny colleagues on the way out to collect pollen. This wonderful miniature bundle of bumbleness has been busy foraging and managing to find a source of lovely bright orangey pollen - possibly late flowerign lavender (of which we have some). She comes back with her legs buckling under the 'vast' quanity she has collected. 

She's actually one of the most active bees in the nest and she (or an identical looking sister) has the role of some patrolling and nest checking, especially at night. When we opened the nest for a quick look last night, there she was scooting round the perimeter of the plastic box ensuring everything was safe; with a little warning fizz on occasions just to keep us in check. 

She may be small, but she's taken on a big role. 




Interfering with Nature

Yet another day of intrigue in our beepol hive.

Late the night before we had a quick check inside the nest, our first look in about 3 weeks. 

quick snapshot inside the beepol nest

There wasn't a single murmur from the nest as we quickly opened it to provide some honey water and take a photo. Everything was intact, if anything the bedding was a little more fluffy and 'aerated'. All the bees were obviously tucked well down and bedded in at the bottom of the nest: there was no sound or movement from them. 

The biggest sense of relief was that there was no evidence of intrusion, such as wax moth. I did see a small moth in the box the other evening, but I don't think it was a wax moth (too small). 

The day began with a slow start - even our "stop out" bee that has been coming in a 6.30am (sunrise) didn't show up till 8.50am, the latest we've seen. Down here in the south east we are experiencing an obnormally warm end to September which I think is really confusing the colony - the light levels and daylight hours do not match the temperature. 


Once again, by late morning we saw Big Mamma making an appearance. She is slow and lethargic and bus-like! We can't figure out if she's old and tired or has put on too much weight for a winter hibernation; but she struggles to move around. We inserted a small piece of cardboard through the lid/base gap in the lodge to act as a shelf for her to stand on to reach the entrance. 

The bees quickly learned to navigate the new shelf and although Big Mamma can drag herself up onto it, she has still not made it to the entrance; and indeed, has not really tried, which seems a bit surprising. What she does seem to do is go for the crack of light where the lid meets the base. It's very optimistic if she thinks she can fit through there!

We are at a loss how to deal with this - it's agonising to see her struggling to leave, but where do you draw the line at interfering with nature? There are several issues:


  • We don't really know what she's trying to do, it could be to go and die, it could be to go and hibernate - so we don't know the best way to help her
  • If she does exit the nest, she might not be able to fly, which could leave her in trouble - helping her out might be a bad thing
  • Even if she does want to hibernate and we put her in our hibernation box, there's no guarantee it's anything like what she wants/needs - in which case she might be be unable to go and find a suitable site for herself. 
  • The pure practicalities of getting her (and only her) safely out of the nest without damage to her or any of the rest of the colony (and of course not getting stung!)


So, for now, we are sitting back with great interest, a certain amount of trepidation and watching events unfold. 

For those wondering why we would want to even intervene, here is the logic:

The whole reason for getting and protecting the colony is to conserve the bumbles and give a small extra boost to their population. Because they are essentially annual, it's the queen who carries the "Olympic baton" in terms of surviving the winter (having mated) and emerging in spring to lay her new offspring. All the current workers and drones die. So, continuation of the life cycle is about the Queen being able to hibernate and survive the winter. It would be such a tragedy if, after all this work (on the queen's part) she was unable to fulfil that role, for something as simple as, say, not being able to get out of her nest. By not being able to do so, she would have "broken the chain" and denied the future another colony and new queens to carry the baton next year.

The whole situation is compounded by not knowing which queen she is - i.e. is she the colony's original queen, born summer 2010, hibernated and set up this colony spring 2011. If that's true, then actually she's destined to die soon (and that could be why she wants to leave). She's done her work and created new queens to carry that baton. They've gone and are probably now beginning their hibernation phase.

OR: is she the product of that original queen - a new queen born August 2011, destined to hibernate this winter and begin her brooding cycle in spring 2012. This is what we actually think, for two key reasons:


  1. We saw an old queen leave and die back in August when we installed the nest - she was the only one there for a short while, before we then saw about 5 new ones. 
  2. This queen has been brooding a new colony: the new hatchlings we've seen emerging almost every day for the last week.  She's not really meant to have been doing that, but it is a phenomena known to happen with Bombus Terrestris. With the extended warm weather, instead of going straight off to hibernate and lay next spring, she started laying now. The original mother queen, tired and old, would not do that


 So, this is the source of the uncertainty and our desire, if possible, to help her see it through the winter. 

Still Growing

The colony is still growing - the crackling and squeaking sounds we've been hearing we're starting to attribute to new birth; there is a distincy correlation. We'd been hearing that in short bursts each of the last few days. Usually the day after it's heard there's evidence of a new addition to the nest. Their behaviour pattern is quite noticeable - they crawl round the nest following a "search" pattern. I.e. they do not directly head from A to B, but explore: twisting and turning and feeling their way. Usually they head towards the exit several times, drawn by the light, but they do not leave. They turn round, come back inside and repeat. 

Eventually they pluck up the courage to properly explore the exit - where we have set up a "porch" and trapdoor system. They can explore round this in safety and this time they are but millimetres from the wide open world. They will do this about once or twice before building the confidence to exit. Standing on the ledge, they turn to face the nest and launch, arcing left and right, up and down to commit the view of the nest to memory. It's wonderful to watch and is the sure marker of a bumblebee making its first outdoor flight.

Sometimes they come back in after a few seconds - satisfied their wings work and that the weather is not really enticing enough. The rest of the time, they fly up and over the wall - their maiden voyage., brimming with apparent confidence and certainty.

Once such baby bee did so today. My hunch from the day said I thought she existed and sure enough, here she was. She's the same size as the baby bee (1) that's already working like crazy. (Note: the moniker baby refers to their size, not maturity; they will both always be referred to as baby). She took off at 12:35 and returned three minutes later - a nice short flight to get her wings. 

But that was it! Now she was a fully fledged member of the team - and she spent the rest of the day, along with original baby bee, bringing back basket-loads of bright orangey pollen. For this reason counting became a little tricky, as two two babies are very hard to distinguish on the CCTV.

Both babies were out of the nest in the late afternoon when I saw yet another similar sized one inside - it seems like there has been yet more hatching. I wait with interest to see when she emerges. 

More confusion

We continue to see new behaviour patterns that we can't explain. One of these has been the bee that stays out every night, doesn't seem to bring pollen back to the nest, but comes back for honey water from the entrance and every so often goes right into the nest and spends a few minutes in there. We don't know if this is boy behaviour or, perhaps, a worker who is not very effective (e.g. malformed pollen baskets). If we could tell she was collecting pollen then we'd assume she's just not very good at it and is using more energy than most for very little return; but it's proved extraordinarily hard to tell if she is carrying any (which suggests she isn't).

The other mad theory that occured to us: is she feeding another nest?

Further confusion arose when saw (what we think was) this same bee actually turn up with full pollen baskets, spend five minutes in the nest, then leave again with full pollen!

coming in with pollenGoing back out again with the pollen

But, if we though this has been a crazy day, it was nothing of what was about to come..