What's up with the Queens?

Finally back from holiday and catching  up on updates. I've been a bit "light" on updates recently anyway as the first part of May was almost as miserable as April, and there's been such little activity in our colony we've just been leaving them to get on with it. (Partly I have been sidetracked by the technical elements of the project too ☺).

Anyway, finally this weekend I at least got chance to do a quick traverse along my favourite transect and see what bumbling was happening out there in the wild. 

Not much - is the answer - but not nothing either. I've been a little baffled that there are so few bumblebees about in general; really not seeing much of any shape and size, though the flowers have been late coming, many only starting to bloom now (our lavender and "love in the mist" finally broke out this week). 

I did see, however, quite a few queens; mainly redtails (4 or 5) but also 2 bufftails. One was cruising along the ditch at a height of about 1.5 metres just minding her own business. Another was burrowing into moss (see video). She wasn't the only one showing nest-searching behaviour - most of the redtails were too seemingly "nest searching too". Here's a video of the "moss-burrowing" - I welcome explanations, since there is no obvious nest hole they are clearing out!

This all seems a bit odd - by the start of May last year pretty much all the Queens were safely alreadu building their nests - but of course the weather has been atrocious and it seems this may have delayed the successful search and establishment of nests. The other compounding factor is what may have happened with "early queens". Our own colony produced about 20 new queens in April - which have all left the nest - so what are they up to now? Perhaps they are just biding their time outdoors, waiting to mate when males appear.  (I still need to review the CCTV and figure out when they actually started leaving the nest permanently). 

I also saw an unusual bumblebee - black with whitish stripes - almost getting into a fight with some other identified buzzing animal. I think it may have been a cuckoo bee of some sort (e.g. Barbut's). I'll post the video later. 


Weekend Catchup (1st Beepol Weekend)


I made some minor infrastructure modifications this weekend. We noticed that the smaller, new bumblebees didn't seem to find the new wax moth flap system on the lodge as easy as we had hoped, despite it being slightly wedged open with blutac. It was easy for them to leave, but on return we noticed that they showed more interest in trying to get into the nest at the lodge lid join (smell?) rather than via the open flap. I have to say, this is slightly baffling when the entrance hole is easily accessible. 

In order to aid memorisation and detection of the entrance, I added some bright yellow tape and blue marking on the entrance flap, in case its transparency was causing an issue:

modifications to lodge entranceWe'll remove the blutac when there is a sufficient in-flow/out-flow of bees that they can learn from and assist each other working the flap. This way we'll slowly train the.

We also noticed that memorisation procedure was also taking in more of our other features in the garden, particularly the nestboxes and associated features. This stands to reason, since we have created that environment to be highly visible and attractive to queens. I wanted to make sure that we didn't inadvertently confuse our new bumbles; for example, into trying to return to one of the other nest boxes. To that end I painted a clear white line upto our lodge. Last year we painted a runway for fun - but since bumeblebees use linear features and markings for navigation, this clearly has a useful function for them. This should ensure that the bumbles are able to return to the lodge reliably, even if they are a little confused by the flap when they get there!

linear navigation feature for beepol lodge

Queen Catching

The weather has been all over the place this weekend - despite being sunny at times it never got above 11C on saturday and about 7C on Sunday. Nonetheless I went out queen hunting, if only to survey activity. 


  • Saturday: captured 1 redtail very quickly 15:45 - and placed in pilkington box. She stayed in the capture tube, so much so I put the whole tube in there! Eventually left the box sunday. (QB2012-12)
  • Saturday:  captured a second redtail at 16:30 - she was very placid, probably happy to bed down; went in box 1 very quickly and stayed there still all night, eventually leaving 11am Sunday. She did no memorisation so she won't be back. (QB2012-13)
  • Sunday: I went out about 13:30. It had been sunny but, of course, as I left started to drizzle, eventually hail! Didn't think I'd find much but caught (and lost) a redtail, saw another redtail and bufftail and then eventually caught a bufftail. She also went into box 1, but I didn't observe her leaving. (QB2012-14)


QB2012-13 Redtail resting overnightOn saturday I noticed a few bumblebees out resting and also looking for places to rest, rather than nest. The one in this photo took quite a while exploring this piece of ground. I couldn't understand why as it is not good nest-location ground, but in the end she settled down just to rest. I was intrigued to see how she aligned herself with the features on the ground, as if to achieve better camouflage. (stripe lined up with the white/brown twig; thorax in the shadow). Coincidence or camouflage? It's an intriguing question, but I have a strong feeling that bumbles can use their markings as camouflage and I'm trying to collect as much evidence of this as possible. 

resting queen - coincidence or camouflage?

Nest Activity

For the first few days of the hive, activity levels inside seemed high but we had very few bees showing any interest in the outside world. I think some of those that did may have been lost, as we've not seen many return - although to be fair at this stage I'm not fully tracking all exits & return trips. 

There's quite a range of sizes in the nest - small workers at under 10mm ranging up to some that appear to be twice the size. We have seen one or two seemingly enormous bees on the internal camera, which I am still trying to get a good picture of, to establish if we might have seen the queen.

Finally today (Sunday 15th April) we've seen much more interest in the outside world, although they have picked a lousy day for it! (about 6C - 7C, rain and hail showers, and very windy) Nontheless, some of the tiny bumbles have been bringing pollen back, the first time we've seen that.  There still appears to be some confusion about finding the entrance hole, even with the flap wedged up, so we'll just have to keep an eye on that and ensure none get "stranded" outside the nest. 

Here's a wee one performing memorisation on her first flight.

performing memorisation during first flight from beepol lodge

Audio Frequencies

This year I've started sampling audio frequencies under certain situations to see if there is any pattern - it's purely exploratory at the moment. We've found a queen buzzing at almost a perfect middle C3 (130Hz). 

We noticed during the night the colony, while still busy is a lot quietier and when accompanied by crackling sounds (hatching) there is a single sustained note (often 30 seconds or more in length, repeatedly), so far measured at 180Hz.

During the hail storm today, the bumblees went crazy! A high pitched synchronised sustained buzz, almost like a scream, at between 400Hz and 500Hz. We'll do our best to capture more data to determine any patterns. 

Removing Beepol Lid - part 2


My first attempt to remove the beepol hive plastic lid had been unsuccessful and the lid was left in the nest (loose and unglued), so my immediate concern was to go back in late and night and remove it before it started getting incorporated into the nest structure! (I.e. before the bees started to build wax structures around and on it). 

The plan was simple: under cover of night and red light again, I would open the lodge very quickly, grab the lid and close before the bees really had chance to even come to the front of the lodge. There was going to be no pause to analyse or consider any bumbles on the lid - instead, we would place the lid immediately in a large plastic tub so that we had them contained, and then help get them back into the nest through the entrance.

The operation went very smoothly (as planned this time!) and was done without any harm to the residents. Two actually came out with the lid, trapped in the "one way entrance" chamber. (I'm not a fan of this chamber, we had bees die in here last year also). One of those bumbles turned out to be dead already, the other we coaxed out and onto the ledge. She stood guard for about 10 minutes, probably wondering how she had been miraculously transported from inside the nest to outside, but then found the entrance and went back inside without fuss.

view inside beepol - CH3 improved with lid removedThe view inside the beepol nest (CH2 & CH3) is now vastly improved, just as we had intended. We can clearly and easily see wax pots and lots of busy bees looking after them. 

Magical Memorisation Moments

Sadly the was no time on Saturday to go bumblebee catching, as we had a guest arriving, but it was another beautiful day. Likewise Sunday and this time I found time to go out and do a bit of queen hunting. It was about 14 degrees but there was a chilly wind and I regretted only wearing a t-shirt!

I saw a small buff tail nest searching up at the far end of the nearby ditch, but not much other activity there. This location seems to be favoured later in the day when it has had a little more sun and warmed up.

Further along, at the field corner, was a redtail (QB2012-10) searching in amongst the crop stalks, which are now about 15cm - 20cm high. She was about 5 or 6 metres in, scanning the dried ground amongst the stalks. I thought she'd never land, but eventually she did, and without ado I caught her in our tube. She was naturally a little agitated at first, but within 30 seconds was calm.

I took her back to the Pilkington box and without any fuss she crawled into the box and started exploring. Our strategy now is to give them about 30 minutes for this process and then unblock the entrance so they can leave freely. This we did, but she didn't seem so keen on leaving! We waited and waited and kept removing loose moss from the entrance to allow more light into the box, but still we waited. It seemed a bit unusual.

By now it was 3.30 and I wanted to head out and find another queen before they began resting and settling down for the afternoon, so although I wanted to stay and video her exit, in the end I decided to head back out to the field.

I saw a couple of buff tails scouring the ditch amongst the large stones (like bricks) by a drainage tunnel. I thought I could catch one by having her walk out straight into my tube: but she was having none of it. Finally I found a third in the same area and I had to pounce quickly when she finally landed. (QB2012-11)

I was nearing then garden when BCW called me and said our redtail had left; but there was much excitement - she had done the most amazing orientation / 'memorisation' flight. The best she had seen, even comparable or better than our new born babies last year! I couldn't believe it and I was absolutely kicking myself I had not stayed to video it.

She'd crawled out of the box and stumbled/slipped a little off our funnel entrance onto the gravel. She preened a little then took off. BCW fully expected her to shoot off, but she turned and did several small arcs close to the nest entrance, memorising its pattern. Her arc and height increased as she continued to do this, and again, eventually resulting in circles over the garden at a great height. Even when she appeared to fly off over next door's garden, she conducted a big high level swoop, coming back over ours and taking it all in, before finally shooting off like a 'flying saucer' into the distance.

Let me tell you, this is a magical thing to see - for a brief moment, there is a connection with the queen; the sure knowledge that she has found something she wants to remember. It is a unique moment, because, as with the babies, it only happens once (usually) so it is a privilege to experience. I was kicking myself again and again at having missed her!

I duly brought the new buff tail to the box, but she took a full 20 minutes to enter. Perhaps the recent scent of another bumble was off putting. We were concerned our redtail might return while the operation was in progress, and we'd be blocking her entrance to the nest. Indeed, we were hunched over the box when a redtail buzzed back into the garden nearby. Had we ruined her chances?

Our buff tail was slow to leave as well - the entrance was full open for a good 10 - 15 minutes before she crawled out. Her exit was not as impressive and although she circled a little, did not look like full memorisation and certainly not like the redtail. This is partly why I call these flights 'memorisation' and not 'orientation', because in general the bumbles always seem to do some form of 'orientation', if only to get their immediate bearings: you have to remember they've been transported half a kilometre from where they last remember being.

I videoed her exit: 

Soon after there was buzzing again in garden - we turned and there was a redtail nest searching. Was she our recent captive? She was searching along the gravel edge and nearly went into my 'plant pot' entrance. She also checked out my newly created moss area and flew over to our open grass cuttings bag which was open on the patio. She went inside the bag and checked it out, but finally emerged and left the garden. It was fascinating to watch and the most intensive searching action we've seen in the garden so far - so we were thrilled.

So, we are definitely now on lookout for our redtail returning!

Queen Nesting updates

It's been a hectic week, so this is a short consolidated queen update. It's been record-breakingly hot for March (in scotland, at least) this week, so we took timeo out to try and catch some queens and introduce them to our nest box. (The Pilkington is the default). 

Here's a rundown:


  • Sunday, 13:45 QB2012-07 - I caught a redtail. We placed the capture tube up to the box and left it. However, we loosened the moss at the end, compared to the previous day, since the previous queen had not managed to escape herself. However, this queen never went into the box and just broke her way through the moss and escaped! We are not bothered: we would far rather they are not kept under duress. 
  • Sunday 16:45 QB2012-08 - I caught a bufftail towards the end of the afternoon. She was much happier about going in the box and seemed to explore it quite thoroughly. Although none of the queens had really made use of the long thin tube as an exit route, we left that attached to continue trying with it. Nearly 2 hours went by as we watched and we needed to "get on with things" and we figured she was probably there for the night, so we let her be. 
    I watched the CCTV intently from about 6.20am the next morning and saw nothing of her. By Midday BCW intervened and checked the box and she was gone. My guess is she actually left not long after we stopped watching the night before, since (with the clock change) sunset was now 7.30pm, she would have had a decent amount of time to leave.  
  • Wednesday 14:45 QB2012-09 - I caught a redtail searching along the (side at first, and) base of the ditch in the field. She was fairly placid in the tube (unusual for a redtail!) and went into the box quickly. Again, I switched the tubes for the long thin one, but she never used it to exit. I think it is too long and dark to be an obvious exit. After about an hour I swapped it for our short funnel, stuff with grass. She quickly spotted this from inside the box and worked her way out. She was actually quite placid about leaving - and in fact did the nearest we have seen to "memorising" on her way out, though I don't think it was. More like orienting herself I think. Anyway, I videoed it, so see what you think. ☺


(sorry for the quality in the latter half - once the bumbles are more than a few feet away they are almost impossible to track and see!)

Other Queen updates

I also saw our first Vestal Cuckoo bumblebee today - sadly couldn't get a decent enough picture. 

While I was working in the garden on the laptop, I also saw a redtail queen come to our baby cherry tree, about 4 times. I managed to get some pics of her flying around it, just for fun. Her tail is super-red!

redtail queen on cherry

redtail queen on cherry

redtail queen on cherry