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!

Hi Viz Gaffer tape & other brainwaves

Last night we had 3 bees with us - two under the cloche and one in the entrance of the buried nest box. The one in the buried box was not captive, so was free to go at any time. Looks like she probably did - as expected; certainly there was no activity on the camera inside the box itself and BCW did not report seeing anything. 

The day started very foggily and during the morning was only about 6C, so was a bit cold for any bumblebee activity (at 5C or below they tend to go into a 'frozen state' where they can't operate. And bear in mind they need to vibrate themselves to 30C to be able to fly!

So, the cloche had a lot of condensation on it, which made it difficult for BCW to see what was going on underneath, if anything. Later in the day it cleared a little and she saw the bufftailed queen on the side of the brick near the box (it is covering an ant trap). No sign of our little Early Bee though. Couldn't blame her if she wanted to just bed down and hide all day!

As I wasn't home today, I can also confirm that camera access via the iPAD is working very well. It's fabulous on the larger screen compared to the iPhone. I am using EagleEyeHD (which is designed for my DVR). I am on the THREE network and can get 3G signal at work - which delivers an excellent picture. Oddly the app doesn't seem to provide sound, even though the iPhone app supports sound no problem - which seems a bit odd. But the picture is good. Certainly good enough to know that there has been no obvious activity in any of the boxes yet!

Creating a colour splash - attracting attention

I also had the idea today of sticking some of my hi-vis gaffer tape on the end of canes in the garden today to attract the attention of passing bumbles. Some sources cite a bright yellow colour around the nest as a way to attract attention (and help memory) and it's something we actually did instintively last year around our Beepol nest. And on sunday we saw a big fat throaty queen fly round the garden and dinstictly check out a small tab of the bright yellow tape I had stuck on my CCTV cable (which was strung across some fence posts). Even if it only encourages a passing queen to dip down into our garden and have a quick mooch, it's worth a go, and increases the chance of her discovering the nest boxes. 

Location Tracking

I also had another bit of a brainwave yesterday to help with tracking and recording the location of where we find our queens. We know the general area from last year, but not the identical spot and density of population. This would be good to capture.

I realised that simple by taking a picture of the location, my iPhone would capture the GPS location and we could plot it later. In fact, most exciting is the new Adobe Lightroom 4 mapping feature (I've still yet to upgrade) which will allow me to produce maps of all the locations. Can't wait to try that out.  It's great to be putting all our tech to good use. 


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.. 



All Change

So, the weekend that marked the beginning of October passed and along with it the uncannily warm weather (still reaching 25 degrees and more) subsided too. I think for our bees this has finally marked the proper transition to Autumn and, if anything, come as a bit of a shock. Temperatures today were down to the 12 / 13 degrees mark - half of what they were a few days ago.

So, it goes without saying, that seeing activity levels drop is to have been expected. To put this into context, here is the data for recent trip activity:

  • 28 Sep - 23 
  • 29 Sep - 17
  • 30 Sep - 12 
  • 1 Oct - 13 
  • 2 Oct - 28 (-2)
  • 3 Oct - 22 (-2)
  • 4 Oct - 12 
  • 5 Oct - 8 (-1)
  • 6 Oct - 1 

In fact some of these are not "round trips" - i.e. these are exits from the nest that have not necessarily been matched by an entrance (the numbers shown in brackets). This highlights another noticeable fact: we've been losing bees at a fairly sizeable rate. Some of our busiest and most effective bees have left the nest and not returned. Sometimes they do leave near to sunset, timing it just a bit too late to get back to the nest in time, and end up having to stay out overnight. But then you see them come back in first thing in the morning. In fact, for a few weeks we had one bee that did this by choice! It always slept away from the nest. 

But my heart always sinks when I count the bees in and out of the nest during the day and as dusk falls there are 2, 3 or 4 unaccounted for. This is always a bad sign. At most usually only 1 or 2 come back the next day. 

We lost our biggest bee this week. She was near identical twin to the one that drowned and had been quite a hard worker, making long trips often up to several hours (one we timed at about 5 hours). Maybe these long trips themselves were symptomatic of something - such as old age. 

We also lost two new-born bees as well. They were very tiny, like beatrice (who is indoors), so not fully developed. One could definitely not fly, so she crawled over the nest entrance, then fell to the floor. It was only later that we saw this had happened and despite a full search of the garden, by then we couldn't find her. It's such a shame, because it would have been wonderful for beatrice to have a companion. A similar thing happened two days later with another tiny new bee. It's such a joy to see them emerge, and this one was capable of some flight and began her "memorisation" procedure. But she too dropped to the ground, rose again, but then disappeared from the CCTV. We never saw her make the nest again. 

So, as of today, we only saw one of our small, regular bees making any trips, down from at least four - and only just one trip at that. No sign of the others at all. It's possible they were bedding down as it has been exceptionally windy, but we've not even seen them inside the nest. 

Outside Interest

It's not been all "doom and gloom" this week though. For starters, we saw another instance of some kind of larvae/debris being removed from the nest (and later saw some kind of moth inside the nest).

It started with interest from a larger bee (not one of ours) circling around the outside of the lodge, examining the joins and cracks, then finally finding the entrance and creeping into the nest. What's going on here then? Twenty minutes inside the nest before leaving and circling. That confirmed this was not a "native" to the nest and he or she was memorising the location with a view to coming back!

Later in the day he returned, as we expected and went back into the nest, staying for about half an hour. I was convinced he was a boy - was he looking for a Queen? Sadly he was out of luck - our Queen had already been laying and now sadly expired inside the nest.

Out of Luck? How wrong we were.

[To Be Continued...]


Hibernation Station

Today's plan was to create some hibernation habitat for ours (or indeed) any other bumble queens. I certainly succeeded but before I go on to explain what i did, a few words about Bumble bee hiberation are in order. 

About Bumblebee Hibernation

The survival of bumblebees depends on hibernation. A bold claim, perhaps, but since colonies are annual and do not survive from year to year, the future "survival" (i.e. development) of a new colony is solely in the hands of the new-born queen and her ability to find a good place to hiberate and survive the winter. The future existence of several hundred bumblebees depends on her success. 

I've found very few scientific papers on Bumblebee hibernation (see Bumblebee Links) - one of the foremost appears to be from 1969 with a more recent study analysing that paper and some its weaknesses as well as providing some new data. 

Of course, this stands to reason: it is difficult to track bumblebees in the wild and given that both the process of entering a hibernation spot and emerging from it in the Spring are but momentary occasions, it's more or less down to chance to be in the right place at the right time to observe it. Of course, knowing a little about preferences and habitat could lead one to have a better clue of where to look and perhaps to be able to find bees during hiberation, but such a practice is not desirable. 

Therefore, we have gleaned what we can to come up with a strategy for possible hibernation in our garden. 

What we've learnt so far is that Bumbles prefer a north-facing location (which helps keep the nest coolness required to prevent them emerging too early in spring) and often hibernate in embankments, under tree stumps or roots and sometimes in/under walls. I've not seen an in-depth analysis of the preferences of each species, this may well be an unresearched area. What we do know is that the Queens will tend to burrow down in loose substrate in order to get deep enough not to get frozen during the winter. This is typically 6 - 8 inches, at least for a usual winter.

At first when I discovered this I nearly abandoned my plan altogether - it seemed to me, without getting the bees well underground, I couldn't guarantee their safety in an above-ground nest box, no matter how well insulated. It looked like I could be tricking them into an environment that would prove to be unsuitable for them.

Then, of course, I had my epiphany. Our boxes are equipped with infra-red cameras; basically very small heaters (as we know from how our "indoor" bumbles loved to gather under them) - so we can actually keep the boxes warm. By controlling the on/off times of the cameras we would in fact be able to keep the boxes at pretty much any temperature that is appropriate. I might even be able to automate the process. So, providing I avoid the risk of making Spring seem to come too early, we should be able to keep the bees very safe from a harsh winter - perhaps more so than out in the "wild".

I fully recognise that the chances of getting a queen to choose one of our artifical locations for hibernation is extremely slim, but we have the nestboxes, so there is no harm in trying to put them to good use.  

Box 1

We had two nestboxes to equip for hibernation so I thought I would try two different designs - each may encourage different types of bees or one may provide a better habitat than the other; either way, we will probably learn more by trying two designs rather than one. 

For the first box I placed a layer of very small decorative stones about 2 inches thick at one end of the box. Although the bees are reported to burrow 6 to 8 inches down, obviously this design is not going to allow them to do that. However, I thought it was sensible to give them the potential to burrow at least some distance, especially as the route down into the box is a good 8 inches in its own right. I filled with extra moss then used all of the "nesting material" that the boxes were actually supplied with. This is to fill the available space and provide insulation, bearing in mind that the bees usually burrow down below the surface of the ground so would not expect a "big" open space (unlike the spaces they would choose for a nest). 


There is tubing to take the bee into the depth of the box and, although not visible in the above picture, it is also equipped with an infra-red camera and a temperature sensor. 

I also thought it made sense to try and re-use the "hummock" I had made in Spring as a disguise for the nest box when queens were nest-searching. Not only would this provide extra insulation but would also help with the subterfuge in trying to create a north-facing "embankment". I had the brainwave to actually turn the shelter round so that it was open at the back and could go flush against the wall. I'm not quite sure why I didn't use it like this in the spring; it seems a far more obvious way to improve the disguise of the box. 

All that was required was to drill a hole to take the tube to the nestbox entrance and I decided to embed the thermometer neatly in the surface; here's the finished article. 

Box 1 under its shelter

I'm actually rather pleased with it!

Box 2 

Box 2 is our original "master" nestbox, which we brought indoors to care for the disabled bees. Consequently it is actually equipped with two cameras, but we are only connecting up one. 

I decided for this box I would try and create something for a bee to really burrow down into if it wanted. So I took the top off an old olive oil bottle, cut it to shape and filled it with more of the small decorative stones. This would lie on its side at and angle, with the stones loose enough for burrowing (well, that's the plan). There's about 3 inches of "burrow length" in this little chamber.

"tunnel chamber"

 The plan, therefore, was to install this chamber inside the box then pack it tight all round with insulating material. BCW kindly went out and gathered some more moss and I also used a bit of our old hamster bedding to create a nice cosy chamber. The only open space is immediately in front of the lower camera, just to give is something to look at. Again, a tube extends from the entrance towards the back wall of the box. I also placed some aluminium foil down one wall to help with insulation. 


box 2 layouti

This box is going to be less protected from the elements than box 1 because it is going under our hive "shelter" which is not a tight fit - thus the wooden box will be exposed directly to the elements. Insulation is therefore paramount and so another layer of webbing goes across the top and then I topped this off with some more aluminium foil (not shown). 

insulating roof layer

Again, it is equipped with a thermometer in the central chamber. I really don't think a Queen could ask for a better winter residence! 

The completed set up

Here's a picture of the completed setup. Both boxes have been mounted in a North facing position, they are very sheltered and shady. So, from an environmental point of view, the main threat is cold/frost as they are not below ground. (Although, that threat still exists for a bee below ground to a degree.) 

our "hibernation station" alongside the beepol lodge

Over the course of the next few days we will monitor the temperatures in the box and check for thermal stability - i.e. demonstration that they are insulated from conditions outside and maintain a more consistent temperature. We will also check the effect of having the internal cameras (i.e. infra-red) on and off. 

If I'm honest, I'm not really expecting anything to use them, but I'd like to think that a bufftail (which loves to go underground) might at least give the fully-covered box a nosey. I'm really pleased with it - ok so the colours are a bit garish - but I think it has the makings of something that could just about convince a bumble to investigate. 

We don't quite know when our (or any) Queens will start looking to hibernate - it may be a month or more yet - it may be sooner. But at least we now have something to offer them if they are curious.