Another bite at the cherry

The decline of our colony continues with all but a handful of bees active over the last few days. This is despite an increase in activity in general, most notably on our lavender, which has an increasing number of bumblebees with each day: bufftails, redtails, early bumblebees, and common carders to name but a few.

At the latter part of the week and weekend I saw a number of bumblebees around the entrance to our lodge - though wasn't clear if they were coming in or leaving. But they seemed to have difficulty flying and had disappeared from view. (One I specifically saw fall off the ledge).

Naturally I went out to rescue them, but it had been an hour at least since once had disappeared and she was nowhere to be found. I looked hard then and the next day too, but found nothing. I never gave up hope. 

On Saturday I was able to rescue one which had a damaged wing. We quarantined her and eventually added her to our indoor box of invalids. Sadly she actually broke her right wing completely by her burrowing antics, so she definitely couldn't fly. She could certainly climb though! She's the first bumble we've had that been able to climb the plastic box and escape! Till now we thought we were safe! 

rescued with a damaged wing - taking a big drink after being fed with a syringe

It's not lasted long though, sadly today she died. We actually think she might be a boy from "her" antics and they have such terribly short lifespans: 7 - 14 days, so it's not surprising, especially when they've already aged and had difficulties when  they were in the wild.

It was bad news too on the bumblebee I saw go missing but couldn't find - on Sunday I did find her, essentially "drowned" on the gravel outside the lodge. She must have returned there from somewhere else, because I'd thoroughly searched the area previously. We never gave up hope and warmed her up indoors and quarantined her too - but she never revived.

It's not all sad news though. I found the third missing bumblebee close to death on Sunday entangled in the nearby grass (thankfully I hadn't cut the lawn). Although we didn't know at the time, he was a boy, and was soaked through and almost unable to move. His bands were almost pure white. We brought him indoors too, warmed him and fed him directly with a syringe and he gradually revived. At the time we thought he couldn't fly so we just cared for him, provided bedding and kept him warm (but separate from the others). He drank a lot of honey water - a typical sign of a boy.

Amazingly his bands recovered colour (though hard to see from the picture) and today was back to being a vibrant golden colour. Quite remarkable. As he was getting stronger and stronger and the weather was so lovely, we tried to fly him. We'd seen him attempting to fly but not making much of it - I thought his wings were too bent.

"before" and "after" of our rescued boy

But of course, as is the golden rule now, we never gave up. Late this afternoon he was buzzing in the box, flying up to the lid. So, we took him outdoors and within about 30 seconds he was off! He circled up beautifully, getting his bearings then flew off towards the sun.

It's a wonderful moment to know you have probably saved a life like that. Thankfully, as a boy he doesn't need to get to his nest - he will just spend his time outdoors foraging and looking for a queen to mate with (he may already even done so). At least now he has another bite at the cherry, so to speak.


bust or boom?

Ten days ago we'd seen a mystery "large lady" in our colony, and she definitely looked like a queen.

I tracked her movements for a while, but she seemed very interested in the outside, while at the same time exhibiting that "never been out before" behaviour of appearing a little nervous to leave, spending time on the front inner wall of the lodge (perhaps to warm up and sense the environment).

The next day I saw her leave the nest and after that I never saw her come back. So the mystery remains, was she definitely a queen, and if so, a daughter or the founding mother? We'll never know.

The colony had been set back so far by the inability to forage (due to weather) that it was still in decline and up until a few days ago I was estimating there were only a maxiumu of 5 bumblebees making themselves known in the nest. Though we did have this "hanger on" (literally) outside for quite a while - possibly a boy hunting a queen.


Today (20th June) was a much warmer day though - it was already about 24C at 9.30am. This encouraged more activity in the colony and after reviewing the CCTV I could see more trips being made, albeit by a small number of bees. However, the other unusual observation was one or two (seemingly) new larger bees. I'm pretty certain there are two in there at least. One made itself known last night, almost stumbling around the lodge, at one point looking like there was bedding all stuck to her tail.

No evidence of the debris today, but two larger bumbles were mooching around in the nest, and one of them flew at one point, even performed what looked like memorisation, but only partial. The size is about 20mm so they are right on the edge of large-worker vs. small queen, so I can't be sure if they are queens.

So, just as I was about to monitor the colony for its final "death" it's turned up a surprise, and who knows, maybe a resurgence in activity is on the cards?


The Mysterious Queen

It's been another few weeks since the last update, for a couple of reasons. Apart from anything else we've been away for a while, but more significantly, there has been very little activty in the colony. We haven't looked in at night yet - we will soon - but I'm convinced that we're actually down to under a dozen bumblebees alive in the nest. Even on the warmest of days, activity is confined to a few trips per hour, rather than a few per minute. 

It's a bit unusual, but the weather has been so atrocious that the early peak of our nest (20 queens produced in April) has been totally out of sync with the food supply. Lots of rain and wind and unusually cold temperatures for May/June have kept the bumblebees trapped in the nest for extended periods of time and ultimately it seems they have perished. 

However, we have not written everything off yet - we have learnt that bumbleworld is full of surprises and Friday (June 8) was no different. For a few days I'd seen what I thought is a bufftail male scouting the nest, looking for a mate. The behaviour is distinctive - flying around the outside of the nest and especially checking all the edges where he can smell the nest. Then he tries to get into the nest, but he has more trouble with the wax-moth flap than the nest inhabitants; although he does eventually manage it. 

But that's not the most intriguing thing, because it actually seems that on Friday there was also a queen in our nest. You can see from the picture she is at least 2 "squares" in length (nearer 2.3) which would make her 20 - 23 mm in size - definitely queen size and definitely the largest bee we've seen in a while. 

A lone queen appears in the nestIt's not clear if she has come from the nest or come from outside, although most likely she has come from the nest. Nor is it clear whether she is the "mother" queen of the nest, or a later "daughter" queen that has just been born.

All things being equal, the latter would be the norm, as we would expect queens to be hatching now to synchronise with the arrival of the males. However, things have not been normal! We don't know if the early brood of queens from the nest was all our "mother" queen would have laid, or whether she would go on to lay another brood, of which this would be one. 

Or indeed, could this be our "Mother" queen, leaving the nest, perhaps to die? We saw that happen last year too, with two queens. What I can say is she did leave the nest, and I've not yet seen her come back or back inside the nest. That still doesn't narrow things down, so we have to watch and wait and see whether she may have mated, whether she comes back, or indeed whether she has any sisters yet to be born. 


The First Time a Bumblebee sees a Flower it knows exactly what to do..

This is Dusty. Our tiny little disabled bumblebee who has never flown and thus never been to a field, never visited a garden, never had the joy of exploring a flower.

So we put one in her box.

And she knew exactly what to do. First time. 

I love this video. It's the embodiment of the wonder of nature, and instinct developed through millions of years of learning and evolution. 

Dusty is quite an old lady already - at the time of writing she's already at least 38 days old! Good on ya girl!

What's the story?

It's been a fun and busy last two days as our project got picked up by Wired Magazine for a story. (I have to thanks Hans at ioBridge for putting them in touch with me). Of course, the glory is short lived as news stories have a very short half-life these days, but for a humble hobbyist like me, it's a happy achievement. 

Wired were really intrigued to understand the motivation of the project and how the tech made it possible for our bumblebees to generate tweets based on their activity. We had to explain the lifecycle of bumblebees and the challenges they face and why climate is affecting them. 

I spent half an hour or so talking to Olivia, associate editor, and answered a few email questions and she did a wonderful job of writing the story and included my pictures too - so, to say I was thrilled is an understatement. 

Thankfully I didn't suffer a "Stephen Fry" on my site - i.e. a total deluge that takes it out - but there has been plenty of interest in the story. We got a retweet too from Martha Kearney (radio 4 presenter and avid honey bee keeper) which generated some more traffic. Most of the reaction has been "awesome" or "what a cool idea!" - obviously I would agree! The reaction has been really positive and encouraging. The good news really is that it helps to further raise awareness of bumblebees and their plight and that can only be a good thing.

Under the covers

Key to the whole story is what goes on "under the covers" to monitor the activity of our bumblebees. My current implementation is nothing better than a prototype or "proof of concept", but I'm delighted that Zettlex (a company in Cambridge, specialising in high tech sensors) have really taken up the challenge of helping me create a "next-generation" wax-moth flap system that can track the entrance and exit activity from the nest very accurately. I really can't thank those guys enough and I can't wait to go live and take our data capture and monitoring to the next level. I must also mention Dragonfli, providers of the colony and lodge, who have also donated some "wax moth kit" components to help make it all happen.

There's something wonderful about the way these smaller companies are able and willing to help, and tackle new challenges - it's very inspiring and I'm very grateful to them. 

To give an insight into the type of data we'll be collecting, our bumbles were very co-operative today and fairly busy. The data from my current system is show below:

This is very, very basic data, as you can see - and making sense of it to draw insight is a challenge I still have. For the meantime, we generate some simple tweets which gives visibility of what information is being generated. 

However, the Zettlex system is way surperior, and the sensor itself offers the ability to do things like measure and time the inputs (e.g. the amount the flap is moved) to create different triggers. It could, therefore, in principle detect the difference between workers and queens using the flap. Or detect the difference between entrance and exit by the way the flap is pushed and extended. There's a whole ream of possibilities, most of which we haven't though of yet. I'm very excited - gotta run before we walk though. ☺

It's still early days, but I think it's fair to say this part of our project has captured the imagination and has the potential to reveal some fascinating insights into just how busy our busy bees are.