Winners of the 2012 Internet of Things (Environmental) Award

Winners of the 2012 Internet of Things (Environmental) Award

Join us as we get right inside the secret world of bumblebees

Most honeybee and bumblebee research takes place in the lab - obviously a controlled environment allows for controlled experiments. but even when these bees are allowed to forage outdoors, often they 'live' indoors, with controlled food supplies and environment.But what if you want to study bumblebees in the wild and understand the effects of the natural environment?

Some amazing facts from our observations:

  • We measured flight speed at up to 42 mph
  • We measured foraging efficiency at up to 82%
  • Several of our invalid little workers lived for over 100 days. Accepted wisdom is they only live 10 - 30
  • foraging is triggered by the change in morning temperature and continues until thelight fades at almost exactly sunset (up to 16 hours)
  • Some bumblebees leave last, stay out of the nest overnight, and return first thing in the morning
  • bumblebees seem to stick their bottom out of the nest to check the temperature outside

Our bumblebee studies consist of outdoor colonies in a safe, but essentially wild, environment. The bumblebees are free to come and go, are responsible for their own supplies and nest regulation. 
This allows us to observe and study their response to the environment - if you want to see the incredible things we've witnessed, like helping their sick or removing invaders from their nest, head straight to our observations page.

New-born Queens, waiting for a dry day & queuing to leave the nest

New-born Queens, waiting for a dry day & queuing to leave the nest

In order to monitor our colonies we 'Internet enabled' their nest with the following:

  • 9 network video cameras with infra-red capability and motion detection
  • Inside-nest and outside-nest temperature monitoring
  • Light level, wind and rain monitoring
  • Nest entrance activity monitoring

All of this real-time data is made public with real-time triggers piped into a dedicated twitter stream (such as dangerous nest temperatures). The most exciting element of this was developing the ability to automatically tweet activity level so that the bumblebees could generate their own tweets.

So, you may be asking, why? What benefits? Here are a few:

  • Novelty and Education. Novelty generates interest and interest leads to education. Ecologically, bumblebees need their profile raising as alongside honey bees they are criticallyimportant to our food chain and also under great threat, declining in population. During the year we gave a talk to an enthralled group of 4 year olds who were amazed by the secret life of bumbles.
  • Multimedia to bring their world to life. Also on the theme of education, while much has been documented about bumblebees over the last century, far far less has been captured on video for all to see. We're trying to tackle that.
    We also got a 2-minute segment in the beautiful film "Britain in a Day" broadcast in June 2012, Produced by Ridley Scott.  
  • Observing them in nature. By being outside we can observe behaviour that is related to the environment and climate. While it was universally reported that colonies had a disastrous 2012, we could report why; eg we could actually count exactly how many queens were produced and when, and how early they left the colony (months before they would normally do so). We could directly observe the effect of prolonged rain on colony behaviour - see all the queens stacked up in observations!
  • Live triggers - live triggers and warnings pushed through twitter give instant feedback about the health and safety of the colony, allowing evasive action if required.
  • 24x7 global monitoring. Any time, any place we could monitor our colonies, even while on holiday or away on business.
  • Pushing the boundaries of the technology, machine to machine communication and exploring the value of the 'Internet of Things'. Much of this is experimental - exploring the possibilities and what can be done with the data, especially by putting it in the public domain. The activity sensor was quite a challenge and for 2013 we have a new system using aerospace technology!