2013 Bumblebee season begins

It's all been rather quiet for the start of 2013 on our bumblebee project due to our new baby project! We were thrilled to introduce Edan to the world in February, and have been very busy since taking good care of him and feeding him every few hours night and day!

I have to admit that last year's lodge is still needing to be cleaned and I haven't fully decided whether to source a colony for study this year or just rely on trying to encourage natural nesting. The other complexity is that my CCTV monitoring room is now Edan's bedroom and I haven't figured out anywhere suitable for all the CCTV equipment, other than perhaps the garage.

Anyway, it's been a moot point, as the bees themselves have been very slow to emerge after all the cold snowy weather we've been having through February and March. I'm sure there were a few false starts for some of them, but we've only seen our first bufftailed queens in the last week.

This weekend was a turning point for the weather and I was able to get out into the garden to cut and shape the grass (more on that later) and also create some more potential nest sites. It's remarkable to think that this time last year we had 21 new queens itching to leave the nest and yet this year we are only just seeing hibernating queens coming out and looking to set up home.

The other remarkable thing is that today alone I saw 9 queens in the garden looking for a nest site. (At least two were there together, so granted it could be two bees who made 9 visit to the garden in total). This is unprecedented - we are used to seeing 1 every few days. It leads me to wonder whether a) their normal habitat has been destroyed or rendered less suitable or b) whether these are our own queens coming back to where they were born; indeed, most of them explored the area where the nest had been sited on the stones by the garage wall.

Anyway - a quick run down of what I've done to create additional nest environments - since all the bees I've seen are definitely looking at ground level and digging down, I figured I needed to do something different to my above-ground boxes - I.e some underground cavities.

Transient

First, the grass has been cut (or more correctly, left) in strips that lead to the existing boxes. The bumblebees love to search in the long grass for possible burrow holes and explore the linear edges as a guide - so the strips naturally lead the bumbles to the entrances for the existing boxes (which are tubes hidden in moss).

Transient
Transient

Next, I have created two underground nest sites, inspired by the buried teapot idea. First is a plastic tub, upside down (thus waterproof) with a tube running down into it. The turf on top can be removed for observation if necessary, and I packed some stones and bedding inside. Any bee that chooses to explore that tube is going to find a 5 star residence!

Whilst packing all my tools away after burying the tub I spotted the baby formula tubs we were sending for recycling. I immediately thought that these two would make great underground cavities, being moisture proof and with a handy clippable lid that would also serve well as an observation hatch. So, today I buried one of those, again running a tube into it and packing it with some stones and bedding and moss.
I tried to make the entrances look authentic with some grass cuttings, but will need to let the surrounding lawn grow to encourage searching.

Here's a picture of the two boxes together.

Transient

So, now with underground and on-ground sorted it was time to deal with above-ground. So, I have placed a blue-tit bird box on the fence about a metre above ground - again packing it with bedding material. I've heard numerous folk talk of their blue-tit bird boxes being chosen for bee nests, so I'm hopeful ours will too.

So, looking forward to the next week to see if we get more queens and if they discover what we've laid on for them! :-)


Open Sesame - Nestbox Entrance Design

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:

Entrance tubing using cable tidy tubingI 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:

full entrance pipe with "docking funnel"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:

Fully "docked" entrance tubeIn 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:

fully assembled "docking" system on nestbox 1The 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:

camouflaged entrance on front boxSince 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.

box 2 layout 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.)

new "foam block" entrance on box 2Here 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.

BB28 resting on the foam block, box 2

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".