We created the World's first tweeting bumblebees, and now we've won the Internet of Things Award (Environmental) 2012! Thank you to our readers for your votes!
Our Bumblebee nesting project started in 2011 as a bit of conservation to help the declining bumblebee population by encouraging one (or more) to nest in boxes in our garden. We discovered it's not easy, and our project quickly evolved into an ongoing and intimate study of these amazing creatures, which we are sharing here for the benefit of all.
Amongst our unexpected successes are:
- A short clip in the film "Britain in a Day" by Ridley Scott (Broadcast by the BBC in 2012)
- Featured in Wired Magazine for creating the World's first tweeting bumblebees
- Winner of the Internet of Things award 2012 - Environmental Category
- Oldest recorded age we can find of a worker Bufftailed Bumblebee - at 103 days
We've discovered, observed and collected a sizeable amount of real-world data, still being analysed and written up (Overview here). Additionally,
- We've sourced several live colonies from commercial providers and have been looking after numerous disabled bees indoors.
- We've learnt to recognise individual bees, spot specific/individual behaviour patterns
- We measured efficiency and can predict some of their behaviour triggers.
- We have some CCTV cameras pointing at the nestboxes and inside!
- You can also follow BeeBoxALula on twitter where our bumblebees tweet live for themselves!
We're also using tech to monitor the lives of our bumblebees - visual, audio, temperature, sunlight, weather. We can see how the environment impacts their behaviour and understand, capture and share the marvels of their secret lives.
As a species under great threat, we've brought the critical study of Bumblebees into the Multimedia age and revealed intriguing and new insights based on direct observation.
Today I also made a slight modification to the nestbox in the back garden to bring it up to a similar standard to the front nestbox.
The changes/modifcations were as follows:
- change internal tubing
- add internal remote thermometer
- add small capsule of honey-water (having seen this consumed with great gusto in the front nestbox by BB33)
The tubing change consisted of:
- changing to white tubing from black to allow a little more light/translucency into the box
- curving the tube to send the bee into the main body of the box
- creating a hole in the tube below the camera so that we can positively confirm seeing the bee enter and exit the box
The box layout now looks like this:
You can see the obvious new tubing layout and in the bottom right you can see the pen-lid filled with honey water. It is just gaffer-taped to the side of the box, which has proven to be a wholly adequate technique. The thermometer sensor is in the top right of the picture and runs to an external display unit a meter away. This LCD unit is actually suitable for embedding in a device or surface, so I may come up with some further ideas on where/how to mount it, if not in the box itself (e.g. it could be embedded in the box lid.)
We got chance to test the latest incarnation of the box out when I caught a bufftail (BB34) in the afternoon.
The new tubing system worked a treat and we could easily see her enter and leave the box. She went in the box for about an hour. She was quite placid with some mooching around and cleaning behaviour. Then after an hour she left of her own accord.
She didn't attempt to try the honey-water, so she obviously had other things to be getting on with!
Over the weekend we made yet further modifications to the layout and entrances of our nestboxes. It has been a process of constant tinkering, which in itself might be argued contributes to a lack of success attracting a Queen Bee. On the other hand, all the information we've read suggests that commercial nest boxes like those we are using have very low success rates. Apparently even research scientists struggle to achieve 10% occupancy in nest boxes.
So, our strategy has been to apply "bee logic" as we have gone along: to take all we have read and learned alongside everything we have observed in the wild to try and combine all the best elements as seen through "bee eyes". This has been a process with several phases, making adapations to the following elements:
- the internal layout of the box
- the position of the boxes
- the environment surrounding the boxes (including other plants and flowers)
- the features of the entrance both internally and externally
In this article I'm going to discuss the latest enhancements to the entrance. It should be borne in mind that when I say "enhancements" this combine human enhancements (i.e. things that improve our ability to work with the nestbox) and suspected bee enhancements (i.e. things we think will appeal to the bees).
Box Tube with Funnelled Entrance
One of the pieces of advice we had read regularly but not yet acted on was to use some tubing inside the nestbox, which is thought to create a stronger sense of going underground for the Bumblebee. Since most of them either insist, prefer or are happy to nest underground, it seems like good advice. And to be honest, we probably should have tried it earlier.
We've seen this technique in two separate guises and we have combined both:
- a short tube inside the box which leads the bee towards the nest area
- a longer tube outside the box, possibly paritally buried, which gives a sense of tunneling underground
I tried a few bits of random tubing I had lying around to no avail - nothing really fitted properly and we were also concerned not to make the entrance too narrow for the bees to safely pass through. So, in the end I opted to use some cable ducting, designed to make the cables at the back of your TV tidier. This tubing is actually split all down the centre so that you can adjust it's diameter to any size.
So, here's the first piece of tubing:
I trimmed the tube so that the overlaps were minimal. The gaffer tape is keeping the tube together at the "narrow end" which inserts into the actual nest box entrance. I suspect the ridges are quite useful as they will channel any water, although the aim is to keep it as dry as possible as bees do not like the wet. I also used a bradawl to create holes all along the tube so that it can drain whatever orientation it is.
A short piece of tube like this was pushed halfway into the entrance hole inside the box - nothing more to do there.
For the outside we needed to create a flat or funnel shape, because if we are manually introducing bees to the box, we need to be able to "dock" the pot we capture them in; i.e. we have to be able to seal the pot against the box so that the bee cannot escape. The solution I can up with was to attach the top of a soft-drink bottle to the tube:
It all looks a bit heath robinson but do bear in mind this is just a first version, so there is scope to improve it going forward. The gaffer tape actually serves a very useful purpose aside from being great at holding it all together: it helps to create smooth, soft edges.
It also turns out that the pot BCW (Bee Catching Wizard) is using to catch bees actually fits this diameter perfectly and will "dock" into the funnel such that it can be left hands-free. See below:
In case you are wondering what the hi-vis reflective tape is for, this is to help us see the entrance when it is in situ, because it is quite well camouflaged and surrounded by grasses. It also helps at night when we have found it very hard to see: a quick flash of a torch will easily locate the entrance.
In the next picture you can see the full system fully assembled:
The picture above shows nestbox one - which our best equipped box (it has two cameras). You can see the overall layout inside the box too, as well as the two cameras. The reflective tape inside the box serves a similar purpose: it helps align the cameras and make sense of the view once the lid is on and it is dark. There is nothing particularly special about the pattern of stickers, it's fairly random!
Once the tube is installed we are able to apply some camouflaging, as below:
Since taking this picture, we've actually greatly increased the foliage and camouflage around the entrance and it looks fabulous. The good thing is - and here comes the bee logic - it looks like a really obvious hole in the foliage that is surely worthy of exploration by any curious Queen Bee. I'm pretty confident if they were poking around this part of our garden they would be tempted to have a look; which is the (w)hole point!
Box Tube with Foam Entrance
Because we have the luxury of two boxes, we have tried something a little different on the second box. This is really just to hedge our bets as we don't know if a bee is smart enough to tell the above entrance is a bottle and possibly a piece of litter. Or maybe it is too shiny and smooth. When we reflect on our observations of where Bumbles are looking for nests, it's in long tall grasses or dried, cracked muddy embankments, quite often near trees or bramble bushes. So, these are all parameters we have to consider and try to mimic.
So, for the rear box, we have used some "dry foam" (which is used for flower arranging) as a block into which to mount the entrance tubing. In all other senses the box is the same, although the exterior camouflaging is also different and the box only has one camera.
Once installed this is how the box looks with a bee's-eye view (see below). Although the exposure in this picture is a bit bright, the foam block is light brown and resembles a piece of muddy embankment. (We could even carve some rough shapes in it, if we were so inclined.)
Here is a picture of Bumblebum 28 resting on the foam block. She refused to enter both boxes and tucked herself up under the grasses to sleep.
We've not yet tested these designs in the wet, so once that has happened there may be further work to do. In particular, I'm not sure how well the foam will stand up to the rain, so that is something I will monitor closely. Aside from that I'm very pleased with the effect - and I just hope the Bees are also suitably tempted by the new "look".
After "losing" the two previous redtails during the night we decided we would persevere with our "new tube" strategy today, but avoid sealing the bees in from now on (even for a short time). It was a hot day again today so we left our hunting until later in the evening. BCW had been unsuccessful, but as I was on the way out to meet her I decided to wander along the ditch at the side of the field, just to try a slightly new tactic.
As per usual I was giving up hope having only seen one bee zooming across the field on the way home. At that moment I saw a bufftail nest hunting in the embankment and I was able to catch her!
We have learnt that we now have to be looking out for Cuckoo bees and make sure we get a proper Queen, so I was very careful to try and examine her. I also took a photo so that I could check after the fact too.
We are pretty confident this is the real deal and not a cuckloo bee. The band across the abdomen is an indicator and it looks as though the legs are correct: i.e. long hairs on the upper parts with a smoother "pollen basket". In contrast the cuckoos have more-uniform, shorter hairs on their legs, because they don't carry pollen.
Our strategy for introduction to the nest box is the same as before: using the pot directly against the entrance until the bumble climbs in. However, instead of leaving it at that, our latest technique is to add a length of tubing (about 10 cm) into the entrance (on the outside). We have proven the bees can get down this tube ok. The reasoning behind this technique is to try and trick the bee into thinking it is going further underground than it is. Some suggestions we have seen say the tube should be inside the box, but we have avoided this for the sake of our cameras, so it's a bit of a compromise. Also, of course, our bee will only get to experience the tube on the way our, rather than on the way in: so we don't know if it will have any useful effect.
We also made another adjustment tonight, which was to tape a pen-lid full of honey-water inside the box. I wanted to see if having access to some sustenance would encourage BB23 to stay longer and whether she would even bother to try drinking from it.
She took about 15 - 20 minutes to go into the box and, unlike many of the other bees, headed straight for the back upper corner of the box, near where I had put the honey-water. In fact, she seemed to pause over this momentarily, maybe she did actually take a drink. Rather frustratingly she settled somewhere higher up in the box, behind camera 2, where there is no visual coverage! Just our luck. But we could hear a bit of scratching on and off and she was very placid.
Within about 30 minutes she'd stopped making any noise, so to the best of our knowledge she is still in the box! (The advantage of box 1 with the two cameras is that the entrance is much better covered and it would be hard for her to leave without us getting visual confirmation. This is a good thing as in low light the end of the new tube is hard to see, since we have disguised it within some grass.)
The difference in behaviour is quite different to what we saw when the entrance is sealed, and it is immediate. That is to say, it's not as if the bee tries to find the exit then satisfies herself it's unblocked, but just seems to immediately know this is the case; almost instinctively. At this stage we can only surmise that the levels of light (even if low) and perhaps slightly cool air coming through the tube are sufficiently detectable and relevant to her.
BB23 has also shown a different behaviour to other bees introduced to an unblocked box, in that she has gone much further from the entrance, rather than staying very close to it. Only tomorrow will tell if this means anything significant. Meanwhile we hope she is having a lovely slumber.
Well, you can't rest when it comes to bee conservation! I didn't have time to report yesterday, so there is a bit more to write today, and it's been a very interesting two days with some significant new learning; so it's in two parts.
Starting with yesterday; we managed to each catch a redtail bumblebee within about 30 minutes of each other. (Am I now officially a Junior BCW?) It had been a hot day, possibly hottest of the year, about 10 degrees above the normal average so we left it later to go hunting. It's funny how the bee searching goes: we're not seeing as many now (except for cuckoo bees emerging) and I get a bit disheartened that we've run out of time to find a queen that hasn't nested yet.
And then, usually when we've given up and are walking home we'll see one random bee, probably thinking the same as us, just giving up and going home! And we pounce. This strategy works on several levels (in our heads, at least):
- if we bring them to the box earlier in the day, there's a greater chance they will just leave immediately and carry on their daily business
- we are genuinely trying to be as kind as possible to the bee - so if it is near to the time when it needs to bed down safely, we are offering excellent overnight accomodation!
Anyway, I digress. Prior to catching the redtails (BB21 & BB22) we had agreed on a new strategy. For a second day we were going to seal the entrance for a few hours to see if they would stay in the box longer; but we were going to add about 10cm of tubing to the entrance to simulate "going underground", hoping this might be more of a convincer. We were also going to unseal the pipe after dark, assuming the bee would be asleep, cover it in a bit of grass (such that the bee could burrow out if necessary) and see whether this made any difference to behaviour the next day. So, that's what we did.
The behaviour we observed was both new and fascinating and, interestingly pretty much identical for both bees.
Unlike the cuckoo bee of the day before, when these two red tails were introduced to the box they were darting around the box, clearly looking for the exit which we had sealed. Of course, we can never know whether a bumblebee feels truly "anxious" or whether it is simply following a pre-programmed reaction - it's own system of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (assuring security). Of course, we don't deliberately want to stress the bee, so if we felt it was excessive and entirely undue we would let the bee go. However, we know that the bees do settle down and also it is not our default strategy to seal the box; we were doing it specifically as a piece of learning.
It was fascinating to be able to compare two redtails simultaneously. The bee in the front box searched the box, but then calmed down relatively quickly and just mooched around a bit. In contrast the bee in the back nestbox (essentially in identical conditions) was far more active and feisty, with a lot more buzzing for a lot longer. Within about an hour they were both fairly still and quiet and we assumed they were going to sleep as BB20 had done the night before.
By this time is was dark, although fairly warm at 16 degrees ambient temperature (presumably much more inside the box) so we carried out the next part of our plan which was to unblock the tube in the entrance and semi-seal it with grass. We did this at about 45 minute intervals, but in both cases we were amazed to see the redtail emerge within about 30 seconds of us doing so, even in the darkness. We confirmed they were safe; in the case of the front box she wandered along the outside of the tube and then into the grass around the box.
I was happy this was sufficient for the bee to be safe overnight given past observations, having seen them sleep under the box roof and under a heather pot! So, we let them bee! There was no sign of them in the morning.
We were both astounded by this behaviour having not seen it before, so I think we take away a few learning points from this:
- the bees do get agitated when the box is sealed and (from other observations) it seems to be the case they instantly know whether the box is sealed or not - we are still figuring out how they do
- the vestal cuckoo bee from the night before was placid and just quietly went to sleep, unlike these two redtails. Perhaps that is a difference between the bee types: it makes sense that the cuckoo bee would be quiet and stealthy and hang around to see what goes on inside the box. In contrast, the proper queens are more concerned to find a safe location
- if the bee is not happy with its location it will even be prepared to come out into the dark to get 'safe' (whatever that means in bee world)
Needless to say, we are not planning to seal the box again - the experiment is over and showed that it offers no benefit in terms of encouraging the bee to stay (arguably the opposite). We can't of course comment on the success or otherwise of the new tubing, other than we can confirm that the bees can traverse it safely.