Nest-sensor setup (part 1)

I made some further progress today in getting our beepol lodge "internet enabled" - to get temperature, light and activity data automatically logged and available online. 

More details are on the technology page, but I'm using an ioBridge board to capture the data and push it to their web platform, whenceforth all manner of wonderful things can be done with it. 

I've been setting it up over the last week - getting to grips with the way the sensors would and the way data is recorded. I've pretty much got to grips with the basics, as well as some of the features that are possible such as twitter notifications.

The rain and wind and low temperatures continue to make getting in the garden to do jobs a very cold and messy (muddy) affair - notwithstanding, I did some of the setup in the garage, which included drilling through the wall for the wires and getting the network up and running.

getting the iobridge powered up and running in the garage - sensors routed through the wallI mounted a weatherproof box on the outside of the garage. This will contain an ambient light sensor, and some status LEDs (for example, a sunset/sunrise indicator) and a warning buzzer (e.g. for nest "over temperature")

outdoor iobridge sensorsThe white cables are the two temperature sensors - one for inside the nest, the other for the ambient temperature. 

This is the kind of output we're getting at the moment. Once it's been running a few days, I'll set up some rules (such as triggers on temperatures).

iobridge dashboard of bumblebee sensorsYou can see I've set up a "flap input". This is not installed yet, but the plan is to put a small switch on the wax-moth flap (made from aluminium foil) and count the amount of "flap" activity, which will give an indication of how many bumblebees are coming and going into the nest. Just need a dry, warmer day to get that done. 


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!

Can WE take to the sky too?

Newscientist are running a competition to win an amazing Parrot AR Drone helicopter as part of the Ig Noble awards. This brilliant device can be controlled from your iPhone and features 2 onboard cameras.

Naturally I knew straight away what I could use it for. They are after a creative, scientific and fun use. Well, for me, that's bumblebee research - here's my submission:

I would like to use the AR Drone to further our research of Bumblebees.  Here's a link to our current project

Through our current work we have established behaviour patterns of bumblebees in the wild, such as when they leave and return to their nest and what triggers them to do so. They exhibit some remarkable behaviour - for example, here is a video showing a new baby "memorising" the nest location on its first flight:

it only does this once and it has learned where the nest is - it can then fly off.

(here is a montage set to music of lots of them doing it: )

The problem is - we don't know what happens next. In some situations we are able to time how long their trips away from the nest are, and also the colour of the pollen they bring back may give an indication of where they go. But in truth, we don't really know how far they go and we don't know whether their initial flights differ from their "established" flights. How do new baby bumblebees learn what to do?

For example - is their first flight just a short test flight?

We need the Drone to track and follow bees and find where they forage. We would like to understand what distance they fly, what patterns are exhibited by the locations they choose (e.g. are they all disperse or clumped together) - and for this we need to locate, view and measure them in foraging locations. We believe the drone could be used for this - either to spot & count marked bees in known locations or to attempt to track (probably harder) individual bees.

Although that sounds far fetched, there will be occasions when that is very possible. For example, when Queen bumblebees are searching for nest sites or hiberation sites. It is notoriously difficult to track this behaviour, although during spring we manually tracked some nest-searching queens, manually running along fields and ditches to note locations. They search along embankments, close to the ground. One issue is that the Queen can just choose to fly over a ditch or fence or over dense undergrowth to look for her next spot and you have lost her. It might only be 20 feet away, but you cannot follow.

We would like to research the locations that queens choose and how many they look for before finding a successful nest site. This would help us research and gauge the ongoing loss of bumblebee nest sites. Here, for example, is a video of a "cuckoo" bumblebee searching for an established nest to take over & evict..

This type of behaviour is extremely hard to follow on foot due to terrain - the drone could solve this problem, allowing us to chart activity levels, preferred sites and success rates. This would contribute new data to the field of bumbleebee research.

2 Bee or not 2 Bee?

Well, we're back from a 12-day holiday in Scotland, during which time we had to leave our Beepol bees to fend for themselves. 

For a strong colony, of course, this is no issue. However, those of you following the blog will know this was not the case with our nest. Indeed, when we left the colony seemed to be down to about 4 bumblebees, of which one (at least) seemed to be a Queen collecting pollen. So, in fact, we had a "dual colony" situation, where a new queen appeared to have started a new colony in her birth-nest, before going off to hibernate. 

It was hard to tell which bees were in the nest; some were distinctive, so we could uniquely identify them. And we guaged the number by the level of activity we saw at the entrance and the various roles adopted inside the nest. (For example, one bee took entire responsiblity for arranging the bedding we added).

As a set of precautions to help the bees through any tricky weather while we were away and to encourage successful brooding (if indeed that's what was going on), we took the following steps:


  • Adding extra nest-material bedding to the hive. This had proved incredibly successful a few days before, with a small worker bee taking immediate advantage and entirely covering the core of the nest with the bedding we provided. So, we topped this up. Not surprisingly, this small be again spent many hours re-arranging it just how it wanted. 
  • Adding infra-red lighting below the bee lodge. The idea here was to create some extra heat below the nest area to help with keeping the temperature up to 30 degrees. We'd seen two sick/poorly formed bees emerge earlier and I was concerned about the required temperature for development. 
  • Adding some pollen and honey water. This was just to give the bees a little more by way of supplies in case (quite literally) of rainy days. Of course, they drink the honey water immediately, rather than save it. But judging by the CCTV it lasted 3 days for them; every little bit helps. 
  • Installing remote-reboot capability to all our CCTV monitoring. My BT hub is pretty lousy in terms of long term stability and often needs rebooting. Since it is required for remote access to the CCTV, I needed to have a system for being able to reboot the hub if it lost its internet connection. The solution was a "Phone controlled" power switch, that allowed me to dial in over the ordinary phone and turn the hub power on and off. It turned out we needed to use this during the first week. I also added an IP power switch to the CCTV system itself. Using a similar principle, I can control the power to (up to) 4 devices by logging in over the internet and flipping the power. As long as the hub is working, then I can log in and power cycle the CCTV. (Though I didn't have to do this while away). 
  • Sheltering the lodge with our original hive shelter. We used the shelter from our original Koppert installation to shelter the Beepol lodge. This protected it from wind and rain and improved thermal stability. The bees seemed to cope with the change in surroundings without any problems. 
  • Adding a dozen wasp traps to the garden. Although our plastic trap door seemed to have helped prevent wasps raiding honey from the bee nest, I didn't want to take any chances, as the trap was not 100% secure. I tried several designs of wasp trap around the garden, ranging from homemade coke bottle systems to fake wasp nests. Judging by the incredible number of wasps trapped on our return I would say that the Waspinator fake wasp nest is a waste of time and money

We didn't get a lot of time to check on the bees remotely while away, though we did see them from time to time. Mainly I looked at the event logs on the CCTV to check that there was some motion being detected (which there was) so I knew that something was happening. We didn't even really get chance to go over the recorded footage while we were away.

When we got back everything seemed to be intact, although one sad discovery was one of the bees dead outside the box, floating in some water. It's not clear if it drowned, but this seems unlikely. More that it died outside the nest and subsequent rain fell. Unfortuntely, its bedraggled state has made it impossible to tell whether it was a large worker or a queen that we suspected was in the nest. It certainly it fairly large and there is evidence of pollen on its legs so it was collecting.

It will be a great sadness if this turns out to be the queen that we thought was brooding inside the nest: while her young are still waiting to hatch, she goes out to collect pollen and supplies both for herself and for them. 

Meanwhile, the CCTV shows that there are two known bees left in the nest. They are both quite distinctive with markings and shape. One of them is busy going out every day to collect pollen, which is mainly bright orange or yellow at the moment. I have no idea where she is finding it, but she is. She is quite fluffy and large, but I don't think she is a queen. 

bedding in the nest after we returned from holiday

The second bee is a little smaller - more narrow and long in shape and much less fluffy. So much so, the abdomen shows up as distinct stripes on camera. She is extremely busy having taken responsibility for organising the bedding as well as maintaining the security of the nest. She regularly patrols inside the nest and comes out to the entrance, sometimes as frequently as every 5 minutes. This involves coming into the entrance vestibule and either coming out onto the ledge or occasionally sticking her bottom out of the trap door! 

Obviously with the bedding as it is shown above it is impossible for us to now see what is going on underneath. Our hope is that a queen is under there brooding and keeping her wax pots warm, but at the moment we have no real idea. That's why I hope it's not a queen we discovered dead. 

What we can say with certainty, however, is that our two little workers are in there and very active, making the most of their time - and while pollen is being collected we still cling onto the hope that it's for the purposes of a brood that may be about to emerge. 



Mass moss mess

The one thing you discover when you start rigging CCTV all over the place is this: there is never enough

I wasn't at home today, so I was reliant on checking our two home-bound disabled bees via skype and an HD camera in their tub. The setup works brilliantly actually and the Microsoft HD camera is superb quality. But, there are always blind spots in the view which need filling with other cameras! 

The view this morning in the box was crazy - mayhem had occurred in the small hours with moss being tossed all over the box and flowers with honey-water cast aside with abandon. I was a bit concerned, actually, that all the food supply might have been destroyed. It was made a bit worse by the fact I was viewing the iPhone the wrong way round so not all of the picture was showing: which gave the impression that the camera itself had been moved, which was really quite incomprehensible!

"Big Bee" (not named yet) was going a bit beserk every time I looked - it wasn't really clear what was going on. Was it looking for a way out of the box after 36 hours of reasonable calm? Was it hungry? Was it resorting to some sort of "nest fixing" behaviour (I use "fixing" in the loosest possible sense). Don't really know. 

For a while we were concerned for the whereabouts and welfare of Holly - until eventually I saw her; and again periodically throughout the day. At about 6.30pm she was on one of the flowers for a good 10 - 15 minutes, hopefully having a good drink of whatever was left. I managed to grab a screen shot from the iPhone.

Holly having a drink from the daisy. Moss everywhere!

Overall she was pretty calm today from what I could tell - certainly not prodding and shoving "Big bee", at least while on camera. So, a slight change in behaviour. I wonder if "Big bee" had been exerting a bit more dominance? Certainly the way it was racing round the box and leaving chaos everywhere was a change in behaviour too. 

I really don't quite know what to make of today's behaviour - it was all a bit frantic and at times a little concering; and only a closer inspection once home will reveal more of what has been going on and whether out two bees are co-operating or not.

One of my thoughts is whether the moss has been moved to the centre of the box (this would mimic the structure of the Koppert Hive we have outdoors) - which would be a truly fascinating discovery if it has: our first real evidence that our bees are organising their environment as they see fit.