Connected Bumbles take 2012 Environmental "Internet of Things" Award

I'm thrilled to report that our bumblebees were voted by readers as the winner for the 2012 Internet of Things award in the Environmental category! This is a great end to a busy year with the bumblebees, where I installed a lot more technology to monitor their behaviours and environment.

I've created an explanatory page to help explain the relevance and benefits of the technology to our project.

It turned out that for the main colony (as widely reported) it was actually a pretty disastrous year. Foraging proved difficult with so much rain and we had a brood of about 20 early queens in April that all left the nest - none were produced over the summer.

One surviving queen did seem to have an attempt to build a second colony, but it was doomed as no workers emerged and her honey supplies were robbed by other bumblebees.

So, 2012 proved to be quite a different year to 2011, with no colony activity beyond August (November in 2011) - but with the added delights of a short spot in the BBC's Britain in a Day film and the IOT award to round things off!

Two much excitement for one day

Turned into an interesting day today with two bits of news.

Getting Sensitive

First of all I was contacted back by Zettlex - a small company in Cambridge who make "non contact" distance sensors. Their systems are very small and light, based on magnetic resonance, and can very accurately measure the distance between the sensor and an 'antenna' device attached to a moving object.

Now, before you go thinking I'm sticking sensors to bumblebees, I'm not! (That's next year's idea!) ☺ 

The plan, actually is to mount a sensor on the wax moth trap door, so that when it is in use (see below), the movement can be detected. 

bumblebee using the wax moth flapI wasn't sure if Zettlex would have been able to supply such a small, single unit, but they have very kindly offered to help me out - so the least I can do is sing their praises! 

Of course, there will be a lot of work still to get the sensor working, hopefully integrated with the iobridge platform so I can get realtime data and alerts out to the internet and beyond. I'm actually really excited about the possibilities, because over and above tracking simple activity data, such as start and end times of the day, I may be able to get data about how the flap is actually used: for example, how long it takes a bumblebee to master its usage. 

Hitting the screen

Even more exciting news came this afternoon with confirmation that some of our footage has made it into the final "Britain in a Day" film. I'm mentioning it here, because although we submitted several hours worth of material we know that the piece that has been selected concerns our bumblebees. It's actually a lovely segment, filled with emotion and despite its short length, a strong storyline and message; which is probably why it succeeded in being picked.

I don't want to give away too much, so that's all I say; but if you are in the UK, the film should be showing on BBC2 on June 2nd 2012. 

Here's some information about the whole "Britain in a day" project:


Britain In A Day is a major new project designed to capture a unique snapshot of Britain on one day, and people from all corners of the United Kingdom are invited to take part.
On Saturday November 12th we asked people in Britain to film something that captures the intimacy and singularity of their life and to upload it to a dedicated channel on YouTube. With the support of executive producers Ridley Scott and Academy Award winning Kevin Macdonald, director Morgan Matthews will use the rich trove of material submitted to craft a feature-length documentary film that captures the variety and vibrancy of life in Britain today. 
The result will be broadcast on BBC2 next year in the run up to the Olympics.
The idea is based on Life In A Day, the global, user-generated feature film produced by Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free London and directed by Kevin Macdonald. 80,000 videos were submitted to YouTube by people all over the world, wherever they were and whatever they were doing. The result was a powerful and inspiring portrait of the world on a single day. 

We feel privileged to have been selected and are really looking forward to seeing the whole film. If it turns out anything like "Life in a Day" (the original global version) it will be brilliant!



The Internet of Bumblethings - Tech Update

We've always had a strong technology angle on our project - if nothing else, it has made the whole thing far more enjoyable by allowing us such intimate observation in the lives of these amazing creatures. But actually, more than that, it has allowed us some fascinating observations and data collection that sheds (some possibly new) light on their normally private and underground existence. 

A lot is known about bumblebees, but that doesn't mean everything is - and particularly as the climate and macro and micro environments change, so too bumblebees are surely affected. So, we feel that observing, collecting data and reporting our findings is also an important part of our project - and the technology is a big part in that.

There's a fun side to it too - From the outset I've wanted an internet connected bumblebee nest (see Internet of Things), so that we can remotely monitor data, but also do fun things, like have the bumblebees send tweets. This kind of technology, while seemingly frivolous, is actually an important part of our future, in terms of environmental understanding and monitoring. It's the kind of technology that is monitoring habitats, storms, oceans, tidal waves, severe weather and so on. Someone has to explore the "art of the possible" so that we can understand and predict our planet better. 

For our first year I dabbled a bit with some "interconnectedness" - got a few tweets coming out of the CCTV system when it detected movements, but it really was dabbling round the edges. I was also comtemplating a new system called "Twine" which provides temperature and movement detection in a small plastic "soap bar" that can connect to the internet. But it's expensive.

For this year, however, I'm excited to discover iobridge. This clever little modular system connects to your network and internet and a whole range of different types of sensors. You can easily configure its operation and rules through the iobridge website and cloud service, as well as get the system integrated with other webservices, and of course twitter :-) 

iobridge - creating the "internet of things"I plan to document what I'm doing with this on my technology page rather than within the blog, so it's all in one place. 

Suffice to say, there are a lot of possibilities with a connected bumblebee nest, for example:


  • warnings of temperature too high / too low
  • measuring activity levels and correlating with weather and light
  • measuring light levels and entrance / exit behaviour
  • counting bumblebees in and out


The beauty is, all this data can be published on an online dashboard, viewed on the iPhone/iPad and also integrated with other services, as well as sending alerts and messages via email and twitter etc. There really is huge scope to monitor and collect some great data, and completely automate the process. I can even embed some of the realtime data in other websites, such as this blog. 

I've been making good progress so far getting it configured. For example, I have an LED which is green before sunset and red after sunset (so we know when the bumbles should be in), a small alarm that goes off if the temperature gets above 30C (and tweets some warnings in advance), and I'm currently working on counting the breaks in a light beam so we can start to count the bumbles coming and going. 

Can't wait to get it all hooked up in situ!

Final stage: nestbox tech

It was phase 3 of the "Pilkington box" preparation today: installing the tech!

All our nestboxes and the beepol lodge are fitted with at least one (in some cases two) miniature CCTV cameras. They are small and discreet and have a built in microphone and infrared lighting - which means they can essentially see in the dark. They allow continuous monitoring of activity in the box, including the potential for motion detection. 

The other item to fit is a thermometer - the readout is external to the box, but a wire runs inside the box to sample the temperature. 

spy camera in nest box
Here's a wider view of the finished article. 

This is how the box looks located at its final site against our garage wall. The red filter is effective at allowing a view inside the nest without creating disturbance to any resdents. I haven't decided where to mount the thermometer yet. 

installation site for pilkington box

Next is the series of entrance tubes we have fitted. We have three boxes and five tubes. The idea of the tubes is to create a more natural looking entrance and also trick the bumblebees into thinking they are going underground - which of course is especially important for Bombus Terrestris (Bufftailed). 

We have tried to make the tubes look like holes in the undergrowth so that the bumbles we see them easily when scanning the garden for nest sites (of which we've seen several doing). 
entrance tube 1

Entrance tube 1 is for the left hand box. The coloured marking is to attract attention - we have noticed that the high-visibility tape is very successful at attracting bumbles. It would also provide an easier landmark to memorise should a queen check the box out and want to come back later. There is a small amount of old used mouse bedding in the entrance to create an aroma that is also appealing.

entrance tube 2

Entrance tube 2 is for the Pilkington box. This one is facing more directly upward so that it's more easily seen from a height. 

entrance tube 3a
There are three entrance "3's" - left (a), centre (b) and right (c) - as they are all connected to the right hand nestbox. This helps us try a few different designs of entrance. 
entrance tube 3b
entrance tube 3c

Finally, here is the full setup of nestboxes against our garage wall. We've trimmed the nearby grass to make the entrance tubes stand our more easily, but left some grass uncut so that the bumblebees are attracted into the garden in the first place to look for a possible nest site: they do seem to like searching over the uncut grass on the lawn.

We also have some "fake flowers" made of the yellow tape & canes to attract attention (not shown). We've seen several queens now flying from one to the other figuring out what they are. We've created a row that leads them down to the entrance tubes. We'll experiment with this to see what effect different arrangements have and whether it has any effect on queens looking for nests, or whether they don't combine forgaging behaviour with nest searching. 

the full nestbox setup with 3 boxes
We have lots of plants not shown in the picture which are now in bloom, including a Kilmarnock Pussy Willow, which seems to be very popular! But round the boxes we've put white and purple heather - the bumbles are very attracted to purple. 
So, aside from having some low-level radar ☺,  we have a pretty good setup to try and study the garden nest searching behaviour.

Here comes the Sun (and the rain; and the humidity)

I introduced a few technical enhancements to the garden today also. 

The first of these was the new wireless weather sensor system. There are many such systems on the market ranging from £50 to over £500 depending the features and level of "remoteness" you need. The really expensive ones are designed to be used at long distances (e.g. for professional meteorology) rather than in a garden. 

I opted for a reasonably-priced touchscreen system from eBay. It was under £100 but offers all the main features for a home system - and most importantly, is simple to use and program thanks to the touchscreen interface. It has a PC interface and software that allows you to download and plot historical data from the main control unit. All in all, it seems good value for money. 

The pole comes with metal straps for fixing to a fence post, but they were too short to go round my post. So, I drilled the top of the post and mounted the sensor that way.

weather sensor mounted in garden

The purpose of the weather station is to add to our overall awareness and data set so we can correlate with bee behaviour. It will be handy in the first instance just to be able to correlate temperature with activity (if indeed there is a correlation) but also compare other factors, such as impending rain or storm and see how well the bees are able to sense and predict it. (At this stage, I think they can rather well.)

Also, the small LCD thermometers I also ordered from eBay finally arrived the other day too; so the other achievement today was to install that in the front nestbox. It has a metre long wire which runs into the box and the readout (which is permanently on) can just be placed anywhere in the vicinity. Simple, but effective.

Thermometer in front nestboxThe final bit of tech I am testing is the wireless infra-red camera (also an eBay scoop!). I've nothing to report on that yet as I have to test it over the course of several nights in various locations.