Hi Ho, Hi Ho

..it's off to work we go.

Our small brood of bees, somewhere around 6 in number, is still working hard to keep their nest supplied despite entering the last 10 days of September. A more detailed analysis of the activity today showed about 58 trips from the nest over the course of about 12 hours, mainly by 3 bees, with a little help from a fourth.

As the number of bees under consideration goes up it becomes quite hard to tell one from the other, especially when reviewing CCTV at fast-forward speed. I have to rely mainly on judging the size of each one as well as any distinctive markings and, interestingly, behaviour patterns. We've noticed that each bee has its own behaviour characteristics, whether it's the way it walks, the way it takes off, the way it enters the nest, the roles it takes, the places it heads for etc. By piecing all this together I can generally figure out which one I'm looking at. 

It is, of course, greatly helped when several of them appear on screen at once, as in the video below. This acts a bit like a kind of system reset, calibrating my judgement of absolute and relative sizes. I included this clip below, because not only is it fairly rare, but I thought it was fun to see all three heading off to work together and then returning, bulging with pollen! And it helps to judge those relative sizes.  

In the clip is the largest worker, a medium worker and the smallest worker in the nest. Perfect calibration! 


Among them was the cutest of them all, little tiny bee, who we saw in the nest for the first time last week and finally yesterday we saw her take her first flight and perform her nest memorisation. She actually did a wee 10-second test flight just beforehand too. 

After that, there was no stopping her and she has been one of the busiest contributors to the nest pollen supply. She is coming back with bright orange and pale yellow pollen - often together, striped in her pollen baskets. So, it looks like she has found herself two handy locations to keep visiting. It could be that our sunflower patch is one of them. 

She's very small in comparison to Big Mamma - the largest and most secretive bee in our nest. She is the queen and she might still be laying. She rarely makes an appearance, but in this clip she showed up at the same time as baby bee, so we can very clearly see the vast difference in sizes:

Little baby bee is brimming with confidence: she leaves without hesitation and always returns with bulging pollen baskets, clearly not afraid to go out hunting hard for the ever scarcening pollen. She hasn't been put off by the wind either; and when she returns, she's straight onto the ramp, under the door and into the nest without a flinch. Mind you, she's so small, she doesn't even touch the entrance flap as she whizzes underneath. She is surely testament to the hard working nature of girl bumblebees!


Looking for Lucy?

We came downstairs on Wednesday morning and confirmed that, sadly, Lucy had indeed died. She was curled in her "ICU" tub, static and fragile as he had been for the last 12 hours or more. She'd made an amazing recovery two weeks earlier when she looked almost the same, but this time it was final. 

There at the entrance of the nestbox was Holly, adopting the position we have seen other sentinel bees adopt outside: head poking out of the entrance hole; one front foot in, one front foot out. She was checking something. 

A few minutes later she was back in her nestbox, mooching in her moss. The absence of Lucy had caused an immediate change in Holly that was reminiscent of her former behaviour - just sleeping in the moss all day. It was the introduction of the other bees for company that seemed bring Holly out of her shell and adopt a role as head nest Matron and General Floor Scratcher. 

We left her to be, slightly concerned, but thankful she appeared to be as energetic as usual, even if her behaviour pattern was different. An hour or so later when we came to check on her she wasn't in her box at all! There she was, poking round the big tub! This is only the second time it has happened; the first time was a week earlier after LBB had died and Holly came out with Lucy. At the time we wondered whether somehow Lucy had encouraged Holly to come out, but following this latest pattern it looks more like a search for a lost friend. 

I took this video of Holly exploring round the box. It's quite long because it was such a rare opportunity and we don't get a lot of chance to study her or see what patterns she adopts when she's out of the nestbox. 

It was clear she was going to stay in the "outdoors" all day so we made special provision by bring in more lavender and coating it with some honey water. Some of the lavender was wet too, and to our great joy she climbed straight onto it and drank and drank as if she'd just run a marathon. All along we've wanted to make things as natural as possible for all our bees and this was an opportunity to try and teach her something all her siblings absolutely love to do: feast on lavender!

Holly continued to give us a few scares by not going back in her box overnight and managing to hide herself around the tub. This behaviour is concerning because it's in the last few days of life that we've seen the other bees start to change their sleeping pattern. The plastic tube rolling into the centre of the tub was the first consequence of her attempting to push herself into an imaginary cubby hole underneath it. It shocked us when we discovered how far she'd been able to move it - though it probably shocked her more as it set off down the incline! But, she was determined to stay out and burrow into the tube, so in the end we covered her with some moss and to the best of our knowledge she stayed there all night. 

She's been doing the same today - traversing round the box, resting at times. We haven't really seen her drink, which is a worry; but she seems to have lots of energy, even though she now seems to be on a 10 hour day, compared to her previous 24! The important thing is that she has been active rather than burying away for extended periods, as if she has lost interest in being a bee. 

What's most baffling, though, is the complete change. And the fact that it is syncronised with the loss of Lucy. She has a box with infra-red heating that she loved to sleep in, going empty! It seemed as though Holly was looking for Lucy at first - and now that she can't be found, Holly has changed role. She doesn't need to be Matron (or floor-scratcher for that matter). Perhaps she's come out into retirement!


Bum Fandango

Since the death of BLB we made a few adjustments to the nest environment for Holly, who survives him. 

One of the key things was to start putting honey-water inside the nestbox as she rarely seemed to be coming out to drink. In fact she seemed to have reverted to "nesting behaviour" - i.e. staying inside the nestbox, guarding it, fixing it and patrolling it whenever there was a disruption. We started to think she had adopted this as a "role" and was thus destined not to come out of the box. Therefore, just as in a real nest, we would have to provide supplies for her inside the nest. 

This worked well - we provided a few droplets of honey water each day and they would be disappearing and we could hear her being active. We couldn't see her much when the lid was on the box because she spent a lot of time in an area of bad video coverage and also under the moss - but we could hear her scratching around. 

However, as time went by I was a little concerned that she was becoming more dormant - spending most of the time resting (sleeping?) under the most and not doing anything. If we disrupted her nest she would come to the entrance, perhaps outside by a few centimetres for about 15 seconds - but basically was more or less "hibernating" under her favourite patch of moss in the nest.

We thought maybe some extra heat would encourage activity as it seemed to have a postive effect when she and BLB were in the smaller icecream tub. So, we discarded the normal wooden lid of the nest box and built a cardboard one with a hole in it. Over this hole I mounted the infra red light I had bought to boost the night vision in the garden (but never yet used). This light packs some serious punch - designed to light a 20 metre square area. 

The light is doing a wonderful job of heating the box - underneath it is getting to about 30 degrees - at the far end about 25 degrees. This is perfect for Holly as bumblebees keep their nest at 30 degrees. And we can tell she loves it. First of all she spends most of her time under the light, every once in a while doing the "bum fandango" (as BCW calls it) and twirling round on the spot. 


We also decided to add pollen to the box. Although this is used to feed larvae in the nest (a source of protein), there is a role for the nest-dwelling bees to make this happen, and they make "pollen bread" for this purpose by mixing pollen and honey. We haven't been disappointed - Holly has shown great interest in the pollen (even though she didn't when it was in the original ice cream tub). We can't quite tell what she's doing with it, but on occasions it looks like she is pushing little pollen balls around and possible making them or breaking them up. Tonight we saw her standing in the pollen, drinking honey-water, then heading into the pollen to scratch around.


She also spends a lot of time scratching at the floor (as shown in the videos). We don't really know what this behaviour is - it seems really pointless, but then I wondered if this is what she would be doing if she was helping new bees to be born - trying to scratch/break them out of the waxy pots. 

The thing is, we are using "bee logic" to figure out what to do and to make sense of what we see. We make the assumption that Holly will behave most naturally as if she is in a nest if she believes she is really in a colonised nest. And so making her environment as nest-like as possible means getting the temperature right, the contents right, the food source right and so on. I truly think we are now managing to get those parameters as close as we can realistically expect to (in a nest that is inhabited by one bee). Consequently she is carrying out the type of behaviours she would do in a real nest, even though she doesn't realise how fruitless they are.

What I'd love to do is add some "robot" bees to the nest, to see how she interacts with them :-)


Into the Light

below is a short video compilation of a few clips from recent CCTV that caught our attention - it contains the following clips:


  • A bee that climbs out of the nest onto the box and then falls off! No idea what was happening there!
  • A bee flying out of the box into the morning sun - I just like the way it's backlit against the sun
  • Two bees leaving the box on after the other, turning round then taking off in reverse


I was rather bemused by the two bees that came out of the box and took off in reverse, wondering why on earth they would do that. And especially why two would do it in succession. Then of course it dawned on me (almost literally) - it was just at the time the sun was shining directly onto the front of the box, so I surmise they are avoiding the glare of flying directly into the sun and are instead launching in reverse. 

Is this a known behaviour?

Mind your head!

We've now got to the point where our CCTV DVR system has been tweaked with all the motion detection and camera angles that we can fairly quickly run through our footage and look for interesting activity. Over the next few postings I'll post a few of the videos we have found that have caught our attention.

Today's is just a funny little clip. BCW actually spotted this as it happened - a bee flew in and instead of flying into the entrance, just flew straight into the box and fell the ground! It then seemed to buzz off into the nearby lavender to recover! The clip below is in slow motion so you can see what happens more easily. 

It's not actually the only instance - we've seen this happen at least one other time. We don't really have an explanation other than a last minute brake failure!