The gift of security & dignity

It's just over a week since my last update and - as has become the stock phrase of our encounter with bumblebees - it's been another week of surprises.

In the last installment our Queen (the 4th one to brood in succession) had been rescued and brought indoors, though was in a very weak and poor state of health, precariously perched on the lip of the nest.

rescuing our last queen - motionless for hours on the nest lipI was rushing off on business and sadly while I was away she died.

The last of our queens - wonderfully brightly coloured

At the time we were still "leaving room for surprises" and we were wise to do so. When I got home I scanned the CCTV as usual and discovered that the day after a small new bumblebee was crawling about inside the nest - a brand new hatchling, the remaining legacy of our queen.

That was the thursday and she was visible for just a few minutes. On the friday she was visible again, this time on the outside ledge of the nest. From the CCTV it was impossible to see how she'd got there and indeed how she suddenly disappeared. My heart sank at the thought she might have fallen from the ledge, and we know only too well that if this happens we inevitably lose the bee. (They typically crawl off into the lawn, never to be found - or to be found by the birds). She was in a very sorry, bedraggled state, so sadly we had to accept that without knowing where she was, there was no prospect of finding and saving her. 

On Saturday we then went out to bury the Queen and as a matter of routine I checked around the nest. To my astonishment I saw little new bee flailing deep in the grass (badly needing cutting too!) She and the grass were soaking wet and she looked in terrible condition. We quickly rescued her and brought her inside to warm up. We offered both sugar water and honey water to see which she chose. She totally ignored the sugar water and gorged herself on the honey water - presumably she had been out on the lawn for 2 whole days, freezing cold, without sustenance. We were so glad to have rescued her. 

She really perked up and we could see she would unable to fly due to her imperfectly formed wings (slightly bent). We added bedding and after going through the usual stages of exploring her tub, then claiming ownership of it, she took great delight in "nest fixing" - i.e. weaving the hamster bedding into wonderful circular swirls. It is amazing to see, both in action and as an end result. (here's an earlier example). 

On Wednesday we woke to find her quite lethargic and uninterested in her food - never a good sign. I took her into my office to keep warm - but as you can see she was not looking healthy, but crumpled and untidy. 

"baby bumble" in a sorry stateLater that evening she died

You'd think that was the end of the story - I certainly did. But what I discovered going over the latest CCTV footage from the previous two days (I was away from home) was that yet another baby bumble had emerged inside the nest. I feared greatly for her survivial, because on camera she was shaky, fell over on her back and was clearly not in good condition. Not surprising with no food to be had. BCW had a look in the nest to try and find her, we even tried to heat it up with the halogen garden heater to encourage her to get on the move - but nothing. Again we resigned ourself to the fact she was probably buried deep in the nest, destined never to see the light of day.

The today BCW popped her head into the CCTV room and exclaimed - is that a bee??!! It was.  She was on her back, miraculously balanced on a plastic rim inside the box. We already thought she was probably dead. Without hestiation BCW went out to scoop her from the nest and bring her indoors. She too was in a very sorry state and we both thought there was no chance for her. 

Our bumeblebees are amazing fighters - every one of them has been - several of them have shown Lazarus-like recoveries. This latest addition was no different - within an hour she was scooting round her tub and bedding as if it was silverstone, a remarkable turnaround from what seemed like moments from death.  

She is quiet and fairly still again tonight as I write, snuggled up against the warm wheat bag we have placed against the outside of the tub. She's alive, she's had some nutrition, but we don't know if she'll be here in the morning. But at least we know she is safe and warm and not going to freeze to death.

Our last surviving bumble?

She will never meet her mum, she will never fulfil her destiny, she will never know the thrill of fresh air rushing over her wings, she will have a short life.

But we will give her security and dignity. It's the least, and sadly the most, we can do.






After the return of our prodigal queen, I think we were still in shock for a few days. She stayed out again the first night, perhaps in an act of defiant rebellion. But that actually allowed us the chance to look in the nest at midnight on Saturday and see what was going on in there.

There are a lot of dead bees but thankfully no apparent infestation of anything. And the height of the bedding and new wax pots is remarkable. Remember, this is all part of a second / third colony that has developed in the earlier nest due to the 'favourable' weather/climate conditions, something that 'shouldn't really be there'.

We filmed our exploration of the nest for the 'Britain in a day' film project. Be great if it makes it to the final film!

The following day queen returned and after that remained in the nest at night.

During that time we also got two glimpses of yet another new (i.e. previously unaccounted for) bumble mooching about in the nest. Astonishing that half way through November there is still the miracle of birth.

Sadly, though, she has no prospects. There is no food for her to find any more and chances are she can't fly anyway, and is likely to be under developed. Indeed, although she hasn't left the nest, we've seen no more of her.

It certainly lifted our spirits for a while until the next bizarre instalment on Monday. Our queen came out onto the nest ledge at 7 in the morning and just stayed there for hours. Eventually mid-morning BCW went out to offer some honey and sugar water, and queen lapped it up. After this she was slightly more energetic and crept info the entrance tube (but not back into the nest). Something was not right.

She spent the best part of the next 24 hours in this 'nest limbo' and we wondered if she had perished in there. The question was answered by discovering her this afternoon hanging onto the ledge again, at one point by just one leg.

Frustratingly I was heading off on business to Dublin and couldn't intervene, but BCW took excellent command of the situation.

Queenie was clearly in a bad way: terribly weak and lethargic, suddenly looking like 120 years old. We were not hopeful. Although she was seemingly trying to get back to the nest, she didn't have the energy to do so. She fell. Thankfully into a tub that BCW had in waiting.

We took her inside to get warm and fed and despite initial signs of improvement has deteriorated further and quite significantly. She's been through a recognisable period of struggle and agitation that seems to be common to many of the dying bees we've cared for. It's horrible to see any creature go through this.

The end, it would seem is nigh.

I am really very sad. Firstly because it's a horrible lingering death for her. But foremost because we had hopes that she might survive the winter and go on to have a successful colony in spring.

Sadly that won't happen. She's attempted a colony too soon, in the wrong season, because the weather has been so mild. That colony could never develop properly in winter, so she has been cruelly tricked into doing what she is programmed to do: be a mother.

What, I think, we've also learned, is that queens do not change role. Once they have started brooding they will continue to so, even if conditions prevail against them; to the death.

This happens in the normal course of events (usually about August time), when after laying daughter queens, a mother queen can be driven from her own nest while she also succumbs to age and dies a natural death, at an age of 12 -16 months or so.

It looks like that even at an age of just two months, our queen has inherited the same fate. Perhaps the completion of egg laying triggers a natural demise, regardless of age. Either way, the prospect of hibernation and a second brood in spring is a impossibility. It always was a fond hope.

This has been an astonishing and incredible journey. We've never been so close to nature, so bewitched and entranced by the daily activities of our buzzy bumbly friends. Their hidden world has been a constant source of fascination and intrigue. There is still room for a surprise, I'm sure: we've been treated to those many times. But for now we feel a pang of sorrow for the end of an era.


It's been a weird rollercoaster of a week.

Last Sunday (it's now Saturday at the time of writing) we consigned all of our bees to a sad demise. Over the prior days our Queen had become increasingly active earlier and earlier in the morning (as early as 3am), constantly showing signs of wanting to leave at that time in the morning. Of course, it was impossible for her because bumblebees can't fly in the dark. However, one morning she had crept out onto the roof of the lodge at about 4.30am, disappeared and then returned at 6.30 when the sun rose. She did this again last Saturday, except it was a much colder day, and she never came back. We went out to look for her, but no luck. And for the rest of the week we never saw her. 

Not only that, but each bumblebee that was left in the nest (3) took a trip out that day and never returned. And to top that off, it looked liked a brand new hatched bee also appeared in the nest. She was struggling to climb around, but eventually made it to the entrance. As she explored it, she lost her grip and fell to the ground. I only saw it on the recording a few hours later and dashed out to look for her on the lawn. Again. no luck. It seemed to me she had a problem with her leg and maybe hadn't fully developed, although she was a decent size. I always feel increased sense of loss when the first voyage into the world is not successful. 

For 4 days we sat and waited and wondered and hoped at least one of them might return. Nothing.

Then on Thursday I heard the CCTV triggering on and off in the next room. Thought nothing of it, it had been doing so already the last few days due to some flies poking around the nest. I assumed it was them. For some reason, as I went for a coffee, I took a look and was astonished to see a Queen back on the entrance to our nest box. She was cold, wet and tired and very slow moving, but somehow she'd climbed up there. We went out to inspect and I was sure she was our Queen. We videoed it all... 

This was actually the best chance we've had to look at her - she is big and bright and beautfully coloured, and had the two distinctive white tail stripes that confirmed her to be ours. We fed her some honey water after which she showed a very rapid recovery and eventually flew off. To our relief she returned later in the day and spent the evening in the nest keeping warm, dry and safe.

That wasn't the only surprise. While all that was happening, BCW spotted another bumble moving in the grass - she was drenched, bedraggled, cold, tired and frail. We rescued her in a jar and brought her inside. I knew instantly she was the newbie we'd seen fall from the nest. How and where had she survived for 5 days in such dreadful weather? We got her in a tub and brought her inside to warm up and she responded well. We gave her honey water and rested her tub on a warm wheat bag. We could now also see that she only had 5 legs - one had not developed. This explained exactly what I saw and her difficulty with movement and holding on. It also adds weight to the theory she has just been born, because the nest is certainly not at the 30 degrees needed to develop properly.

Sadly we came down this morning to find she had died quite suddenly overnight. We have no real explanation, other than she was truly exhausted, and of course not fully developed.

Meanwhile our Queen spent the night organising bedding in front of the infrared camera in the nestbox to keep warm. By early morning she was itching to get back out again and made a few trips to and from the box - but early afternoon she disappeared again and hasn't come back. I hope she can survive tonight and come back again tomorrow. 


The curious incident

For the last week or so I've been occasionally seeing a tiny bee in our nest, showing all the signs of being fairly new born and exploring her way around. So, for the last few days I was wondering when was she going to emerge and fly for the first time?

In fact, only yesterday I thought that her lack of attempt to leave the nest might have been a sign she couldn't fly and had resigned herself to permanently helping inside the nest. Having said that, it's a not a behaviour I'd previously seen - all our bumblebees, regardless of capability,  have been programmed to leave the nest and "give it a go" - and in the last few weeks, 3 of them have failed. (One, of course, we rescued: Beatrice). 

Quite by chance we found this little one on the lawn today as we checked the honey water level. I naturally assumed she'd come out for her first flight and failed, as so many of the tiny under-developed bees have done before her. 

So, we rescued her and brought her indoors to warm up and feed, and to see whether she could fly. She showed signs that she might be able to, so after half an hour we took her to outside the nest and took the lid off. She ran around a bit and then clamped herself to the lavender sprig we'd put in the box - just as if she'd been caught out in the rain. I figured that the movement of the tub and the feel of the air blowing might have made her go into "hold on tight" mode!

We put the lid back on and immediately she released from the lavender and started trying to fly in small leaps. We took our moment and removed the lid again, and within a few seconds she was off. She circled at a height of about 2 metres, doing a "mini" memorisation procedure (which makes sense, since we'd been moving her around in the tub), then flew off onto a nearby patio chair, into the bright sun to get warm. 

This evening I wanted to go back and check when she had left the nest and when/if she had returned ok. I'll admit to being slightly flummoxed at not being able to identify her at all on the footage. So I can only assume she is actually the tiny bee I saw "mini-memorising" four days ago, and who dutifully began collecting pollen. I have no good explanation for why she was on the grass right outside the nestbox today - there's no real reason for her getting too cold to fly - so, this remains a mystery. And I can only hope she was one of the smaller bees I saw returning later in the day with pollen.  


7: the lucky Clingons' number

Yesterday was another one of those days where it was showery and blustery without good warning.

The lavender is now proving such an attraction that it is swarming with bees for most of the day, and they actually seem reluctant to leave it.

So much so, that when the rain comes, they keep on foraging. We are regularly seeing the bees continue to work even while raining and sometimes quite heavily. The Common Carder bees are  the most dedicated: they will continue flying in almost anything, meanwhile their cousins begin to cling to the underside of the lavender and (especially when windy) hang on for dear life. (We've never yet seen a Carder do this: they always seem to manage to keep on going or head off home).

Yesterday the showers came and those unlucky "clingons" (6 buff-tailed and one red-tailed) had to hang on for hours.

By 8.45pm they were looking decidely miserable, their colourful bands dull, flattened and matted, and their wings so soaked that flight was impossible. They lock their grip round the lavender in the bee-equivalent of a bear hug and just hold out for as long as it takes.

We found seven and took them in a large plastic storage box to the garage where we could heat and dry them with the infra-red patio heater.

Within a few minutes the first few were twitching, then cleaning, then doing the "bum dance" (they stick their behind in the air and straighten their legs and clean their head, legs and thorax), shimmying as they do so. This is usually the sign they are about to take off soon. Sure enough, off they went, taking off in slow-motion VTOL-style.

The remainder were more bedraggled and it was a longer process. They don't really like letting go of the lavender either, even when they are warming up and drying out - it seems like an instinct for them to cling on until they are almost ready to fly. Interestingly, they each in turn made their way to the bits of gaffer tape we had stuck some paper towel down with. We checked and discovered that the temperature of the tape was greater than that of the paper towel - they do like their warmth, these bees, especially after a drenching! So, we have now also found the perfect surface for warming up chilly bees!

It was getting late - about 9.30  (official sunset was a 9.20) and we were concerned that the light levels were no longer conducive to a safe flight home. We had one tiny little redtailed bumble still remaining in the box, quite unkeen to leave. So, we filled an old jelly pot with artificial nesting material and moss and placed her on top of it, then placed it in the secure tub on top of our beehive shelter. Within moments she had buried herself so deep into the pot that we couldn't see her - obviously choosing a safe, warm dry bed for the night over a precarious flight home.

We were pleased to see that this morning she had gone - quite possibly staight back to the nearby lavender where the redtails are in abundance.

Seven rescued in one go, that's a record so far!