Are Cell Phones Killing the Bees?

IMPORTANT NOTE: Sci was too credulous when she wrote this post. I have since seen the error, written a correction, and the result is up here. PLEASE GO THERE for the real story on bees and cell phones. Thanks, y'all!
- a very ashamed Scicurious

Sci has been really interested in the latest literature on cell phones. Partially because some of it involves holding a cell phone over a petri dish filled with sperm, I will admit. :) But it's also just one of those things that really interest people. We're using these super cool little gadgets that can access the internet anywhere...what ARE they doing to us? To our environments? Is it bad when you talk for a while and they get all warm and stuff? So I've begun digging through the lit. And just the other day, the brilliant and talented Desiree of Skeptically Speaking handed me this little gem.

It's Official: Cell Phones are Killing Bees.

My first thought was...well KILLING seems an awfully strong word, especially if you're not smashing a bee with your cell phone. So I had to read the paper. And now...I think I might be convinced.

Favre, D. "Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping" Apidologie, 2011.

So today we are taking a break from the cranial nerves (hey, I never said I would do them all straight through!) and delving into this. Everyone, put on your bee suits.


(Source via Creative Commons)

Most people know on an intellectual level that bees are important. We know they pollinate things and...pollinate things. You know. But bees are in fact REALLY essential parts of the agricultural process. If we lost all our bees, we'd see agricultural damage to the tune of at least $215 billion dollars (pdf). And of course we've all heard by this point that bee populations are decreasing. In fact, bee populations have been decreasing steadily for the past 100 years or so. This could be due to a host of hypothesized problems, including climate change, pesticides, mites, parasites, etc, etc. But the decreases occurring over the last 100 years are nothing to the major decreases that started happening sometime in 2003 (or at least, that's when we noticed it). What's happening now is called Colony Collapse disorder, where worker bees abandon the hive, leaving the queen and all of her larvae to starve. It's become a major problem and is making the potential loss of the honeybee a very scary possibility.

Of course people want to know what's happening and why. Some hypotheses include the invasion of mites, and I saw a very good paper on how disease might affect particular bees with ribosome problems.

But of course, WHAT increased dramatically in the early 2000s? Cell phone use (among many other things). Cell phones produce electromagnetic field potentials which are now spreading pretty much worldwide. And bees may be able to detect these electromagnetic field potentials. They have little crystals made of magnetite (otherwise known as ferrous-ferric oxide) in their fat cells. The magnetite in the bees is part of their system for magnetoreception, usually used to help the bees orient themselves along the magnetic fields of the earth. This means that the magnetite crystals are extremely sensitive, and could be disturbed by electromagnetic field potentials resulting from man made interference. And electromagnetic field potentials have increased all over the place as cell phones spread. So the author of this study wanted to see the effect of cell phones and their electromagnetic field potentials on bee behavior.

To do this, he took a bunch of cell phones, a bunch of bee hives, and a large amount of sensitive sound recording equipment. He set up the equipment to record the sounds going on INSIDE the hive, recording what kinds of sounds the bees were making. Then, he put cell phones inside the bee hive. In one condition, the cell phone was off and just sat there. In the second condition, the cell phone was on, but not receiving or emitting a signal (standby). In the third, the cell phone was on, and receiving a signal from a radio at some distance outside the hive, which was playing the France info program. Each cell phone condition lasted 20 hours, and the author recorded sound from the bee hives the whole time.

In the top condition you can see the sound results when the phone was activated at time point 1. You get nothing for a bit, and then an increase in hive sound. In the panel B, you can see the hive sounds when the phone has been active for 20 hours, with large increases in pulsed sound. The hives stayed quiet with both an off cell phone and a cell phone on standby.

So what is this increase in hive noise? It's NOT the radio sending in the France info station. Rather it's an increase in worker bee "piping", a sound that is associated with some normal worker activity, but is also associated with worker bee swarming. As to what this MEANS...well that wasn't looked at. They did not look at how the bees flew or behaved, or how foraging behavior was affected. All they recorded was the sound in the beehive in the presence or absence of an active cell phone.

The final conclusion? Don't put your "on" cell phone in a bee hive.

Now sure. Not a single bee died in this experiment. And it's not this experiment alone that convinced me that cell phones might really be harming bee populations in ways that haven't been defined yet. No, all this study convinced me of was not to stick my cell phone in a bee hive, but, you know, common sense and all that.

What convinced me was the pile of studies cited in the discussion section of this paper. While this study looking specifically at cell phones being on in the immediate vicinity of hives, other studies have shown that the presence of cell phone towers causes drastic changes in honeybee foraging, and that electromagnetic field potentials like those found with cell phones (which are far lower than those that do any actual straight up physical harm) can seriously impact bee behavior. The piping that the bees were doing in this experiment is often associated with hive stress (like when a hive gets bumped or jostled), and is also associated with the onset of swarming, as bees leave the hive en masse. While no swarming was shown in this study, the exposure was for only 20 hours. Another study has found (it's cited in this and other papers but I can't find the link to the actual study anywhere, unfortunately) colony collapse when the bees are put next to an active cell phone for ten days. While 10 days of active cell phone exposure seems a bit far fetched for real life, the changes in foraging behavior associated with electromagnetic field potentials might be more important. Changes in foraging behavior themselves might not result in immediate dead bees, but they may put enough stress on the hive that the colony might be vulnerable to infection.

That said, this PARTICULAR study didn't really convince me of anything. While the literature they cited made me interested in further work on electromagnetic field potentials and bees, the conclusions from this particular paper don't support the idea that cell phones are, on their own, killing bees (unless you smash a bee with your cell phone. I've got no argument for that one), because there was no data taken on the effect of the honeybee piping on how the bees subsequently behaved. And while I think this and other studies definitely show that there's concern with electromagnetic fields from cell phones changing bee behavior, it doesn't address the GLOBAL increase in elecrtromagnetic field potential. This was one phone INSIDE a hive. What about electromagnetic fields affecting worker bees outside the hive? What about effects of global electromagnetic field potentials on mating behavior during the queen bee's outing? Not only that, while this looked at electromagnetic field potential inside the hive, the study could not control for the global electromagnetic field potentials going on outside at the same time.

So while this is an interesting preliminary study, there are a couple of other ways to look at this. First off you could compare rates of colony collapse disorder in bees with geographic location and the strength of electromagnetic fields in those localities (we know that putting a cell phone tower in has caused colony collapse before, but this would be more global). Are there more colony collapses in areas where electromagnetic fields are high? Do the rates of colony collapse disorder correlate in time with the increase in cell phone usage in the area? Secondly, you could isolate several hives, insulating them carefully from most electromagnetic field potential (though if you wanted to do this totally, you'd need a pretty big space). Do those hives them behave differently? Are they less susceptible to disease?

So while this study didn't really convince me that cell phones are killing bees, the literature out there certainly seems to say it annoys them a bit, and I think more research is needed on how the bees are affected, and to what extent. And then...comes the problem of FIXING IT.

Favre (2010). Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping Apidologie

Edit: An interesting comment from Twitter yielded this link, which provides links to other studies showing that viral and fungal culprits are more likely. This isn't my specialty, so I'm totally willing to be convinced on this one. Arguments, anyone?

8 responses so far

  • Tobias says:

    Well, influencing a crystall using high frequency fields is mindbogglingly counterintuitve to most professionals, extremely rare, extremely difficult and part of my phd topic.

    So when I read that article I thought that, the only frequencies where a cellphone could plausibly be the framing frequencies of GSM ( 200 Hz and 4 KHz, but if it was those it would mean that the effect could not exist for G3 phones. Those are also known to affect, loudspeakers and microphones.

    Imagine my suprise when the article said, that only GSM was tested and the characteristic frequencies where 200Hz and its multiples.

    So if we are lucky, the switch to G3 phones might stop CCD. Crazy.
    If you ever run into an article that repeats this experiment with G3 phones please tell us.

  • Jonathan says:

    I'm less convinced. Yes, he showed some effects, but a combination of environmental stress (fungal and viral pathogens, neonicotinoid pesticides seem to be the most prominent) and farming practices (trucking hives from across the US to California each year to pollinate almonds, then trucking them back) are more likely culprits.

    CCD happens in rural areas with no cell phones, and GSM until recently has been much less prevalent than CDMA over here in the US.

    More thoughts here: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/05/stemming-the-tide-of-careless-science-reporting-one-post-at-a-time.ars

    Jay Timmer has written more about the biological effects of consumer electronics EM radiation than I have, but it definitely has the feel of "OMG INVISIBLE SCARY" and irresponsible articles like the ones linked in my post (I don't include your post in this because you actually read the paper and did some digging in the literature) don't help.

    As for there being a lot of literature that looks convincing, I can compare it to the fuss we saw last week over Elizabeth Blackburn and her company that wants to sell telomere length tests. Telomere Health's website has 120+ references of studies on telomere length and health, but none of it rises to the level that makes me think anyone should spend $200 of their own money (especially not yearly or monthly like they suggest) to get tested.

  • p says:

    Yeah, we're quick to dismiss studies that imply we might have to change something to which we've become accustomed, aren't we? And it's odd that this particular story, however flawed, is making its way around the internet virally when it was news last summer too, for different reasons (upon which this post touched earlier)-
    http://articles.cnn.com/2010-06-30/world/bee.decline.mobile.phones_1_bee-populations-cell-phone-radiation-ofcom?_s=PM:WORLD

    Why didn't that one go viral?

  • huff says:

    so basically what your saying is cell phones don't do shit they just annoy the bees so there is no killing happening just dont kill abee

  • Dr Barnes says:

    Just take a look my geographic study. See above website.

    Bee colony collapse correlates better with wireless technology than it does with pesticides -that is not to say that multiple factors cant bee involved.

  • Dr Barnes says:

    Just take a look my geographic study. See website.http://www.drchrisbarnes.co.uk

    Bee colony collapse correlates better with wireless technology than it does with pesticides -that is not to say that multiple factors cant bee involved.

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