In which Sci is WRONG, you guys. Follow up on bees and cell phones

So I posted something the other day on bees and cell phones. The science in the paper itself wasn't convincing to me, but the other references they pulled out in the discussion made me pull an about face. I thought, hey, maybe the electromagnetic field potentials from the cell phones ARE contributing to colony collapse disorder.

And thus I wrote my post.

And then came the morning, and Jonathan, on Twitter, who pointed out I was wrong (Credit to him and all the people at Ars Technica, for not only doing good writing, but for including links to papers at the end!!! WOO!!). And I looked, and asked, and then asked around.


I hate being wrong. I feel really dumb, and I feel like I've let you all down (all two of you who read the blog). I'm sorry, you guys. 🙁

SO. Like the good little scientist, I am going to revise my hypothesis. We're going to cover this paper again, with MOAR references, and MOAR research. And I'm going to get it RIGHT. Or as right as I can under the circumstances.

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

(This dog in a bee suit, however, is NEVER wrong and way too cute. Source via Creative Commons)

So the thing is, when I first read the paper and the article that Desiree handed me, I thought, OMG this is so dumb. Cell phones aren't killing bees! And the data in the paper itself convinced me of nothing. But when I got to the discussion, the many sources they threw out made me rethink, and I become convinced that maybe the electromagnetic field potentials released by cell phone towers and cell phones might put stress on bee colonies, making them more vulnerable to infection. But I also noted that a LOT more studies would be needed to figure out if this was the case.

But here, Sci fell prey to an insidious thing in scientific papers: people are more likely to cite sources that prove their points. Not ones that make them look silly. When I'm working with a topic that I know well, this is entirely obvious to me, and I'll sometimes read a paper and tsk "no WONDER they didn't cite so and so, it would totally disprove their whole idea!", etc, etc. But when I'm reading something far outside my field (like, about bees), well, I'm more inclined to take their word for it. And clearly, I shouldn't have.

So. Bees. They pollinate things and...pollinate things.

And they are very much an important part of the agricultural process. And populations of bees HAVE been declining. But it's probably not due to cell phones. Or, if it is, people have yet to substantially prove it. In fact, bee populations have been declining since WWII, and the colony collapse disorder of which we have heard so much, seems to be a new challenge in a generally challenging environment.

So what IS Colony Collapse Disorder? According to a FABULOUS tutorial by entomologist Reed Johnson (it's free! You can get access to it here), colony collapse disorder dates back to around 2006, when this guy David Hackenburg took 400 bee colonies to Florida. Here you might say "WHOA THAT'S A LOT OF BEES", and indeed it really it. What this guy is doing is a mass pollination outfit, which is apparently pretty common. Since many major agricultural outfits don't want to take the trouble of keeping their own bees, they hire guys like Hackenburg, who raise HUGE numbers of bees (in what is called an apiary) and then truck them around the country to various farms, have the bees get busy, and then bring them somewhere else. This allows the farmers to get the pollination they need at the right time of year, and the bees follow the pollination crop times, trucking from farm to farm (the trucking seems awfully stressful to me, so I figure if they can make it through that, then I think cell phones might be, at most, a minor annoyance).

So Hackenburg took his bees to Florida in 2006, and left. When he came back, the bees were GONE. Not dead. GONE, leaving their baby bees and the queen behind them. No dead bees around, so not pesticides. Soon other bee farmers noticed a similar problem, which they called colony collapse disorder. The causes are still unknown, but the MOST LIKELY ones are: new diseases, pesticides, possible immune suppression in the bees related to things like bee management practices, and possible changes in the bee diet.

So why don't they think cell phones are likely? Because a very similar outbreak, with declines in bee populations, happened in the 1970s (that's a pdf). Not only that, because colony collapse disorder doesn't occur everywhere that there are bees. And finally, because there are a lot of other, more likely causes. Scientists have found increased transcripts for specific gene expression in the guts bees with colony collapse disorder, which may mean that the bees were infected by a virus or parasite. Other studies have found co-infection with a bee virus and a parasite, microsporidia, in bees with CCD, adding another weight in favor of infection. On the pesticide side, high levels of pesticides have been found in apiaries (some of which are dosed to get rid of mites that plague bees, interestingly), which could contribute to making bees susceptible to infection.

So why NOT cell phones contributing too? Well, as I noted in the last post, there's no study yet so far providing conclusive proof. People have put cell phones in bee hives, but that doesn't mean that GENERAL electromagnetic field potentials are killing bees. Not only that, the cell phone in bee hive experiments are often badly controlled, not replicated, and generally not good papers. Even when I, personally, was slightly convinced, I thought we needed more experiments, showing actual correlations between CCD and increased electromagnetic field potentials. Those studies do not exist.

For better coverage of the specific study, I'd like to turn to the wonderful commentary from Bug Girl:

When you look at the actual paper, you notice two things immediately:

1. There were NO dying bees. At all.

Seriously, the words ‘die’, ‘killed’, and ‘dying’ don’t even occur in the paper. There is one instance of the word ‘death’ and that is in a reference, not in the body of the paper. And it doesn’t have anything to do with cell phones.

2. The design of the experiments are questionable; the results are kinda interesting, but they are not linked to CCD in any way, shape, or form.

Like earlier papers that caused a big kerfuffle in the media, when you actually examine the research you find that there are some serious methodology questions. And a lot of distortion of the results. It’s reporting by press release.

Let’s pick this paper apart and look at why it is not the Beepocalypse that some media have claimed.

That's a quote from part of her post. I recommend you head over there and read the whole thing.

When I asked Alex Wild of Myrmecos about this, he noted to me that CCD "is Bee Biology's version of anti-vaxxers and anti-pharma". Basically, any person who has an agenda wants a piece of the bees to promote it. People who dislike pesticides, people who dislike cell phones and wi-fi, etc, etc. So there's a LOT of misinformation out there on bees and colony collapse disorder and its potential causes, and Sci was dumb enough to fall right into it.

So, net result? I was WRONG, and the causes of colony collapse disorder are probably a lot more simple, and yet a lot more INTERESTING, than I thought! After all, watching a virus jump from one species of bee to another (which may be one cause), or seeing immune suppression make some bees more sensitive to disease than others (another possible cause), or even seeing a mite evolve to take advantage, are all much more interesting than a bunch of bees just getting all confused by electromagnetic fields and forgetting to come home. Added bonus: you can use your cell phones without worrying about the bees. Your cell phone probably isn't harming bees unless it's your designated bee smashing device.

I'll be adding a link to this post at the top of my previous one, turning anyone who searches google to the better article. In addition, I will be adding MOAR SOURCES as people get back to me, and if anyone has anything else, please chime in in the comments (or, if you chime in on Twitter, please do chime in in the comments as well, not all people who read me follow Twitter and I want everyone to get the most information). My thanks particularly to Alex Wild at Myrmecos, Jonathan Gitlin from Ars Technica, And Reed Johnson at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for their advice, references, and willingness to put up with an entomological n00b.

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

19 responses so far

  • I admire your willingness to admit and correct the mistake; yet another reason why "Sci rocks" was the correct answer to that survey a while back. 🙂

  • Michele says:

    I'm working with some science teachers about science teaching--trying to get some critical thinking going on this summer. Mind if I use your two posts and the original "bee paper" in my work with them? I think this would be a great "case study" to put before students who are trying to learn to think like scientists.

  • Will Hoyles says:

    There is a brilliant book on CCD by Alison Benjamin and Brian MacCullum - - It's an entertaining read and really informative. It does come to the same 'Still no idea' answer but errs towards it being a combination thing.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    The whole episode was worth it for the LOL apology...and the dog in the bee suit.

  • lilech says:

    I wish our culture hadn't so stigmatized being occasionally wrong while honestly seeking the truth. It's part of doing science and it's no shame. Thanks for advancing the discussion.

  • MZ says:

    Yes, thanks so much for this. What a great model of how science is supposed to work and often doesn't. And Bug Girl and Myrmecos are two of my favorite sources.

  • migg says:

    Sci rocks indeed. Sci, your saying you were mistaken is commendable. you're a true scientist.

  • Liath says:

    People with belly buttons are allow 20% for error. What's the chances that the synergistic effect of all the chemicals released into the atmosphere since WWII might have something to do with the problems bees are having? If it were something like that how would you prove it?

    • Jeff says:

      Being neither an apiologist nor a toxicologist, I can't offer an answer to the first question other than "between 0 and 100%," I can think of how to test the question.

      It is possible to raise bees in an environment mostly free from modern atmospheric pollutants--filtered air, purified food, a few generations to eliminate chemicals passed mother-to-daughter. All you'd have to do is compare the probability of collapse of such a colony and a colony exposed to modern pollutants.

      That's probably not feasible, though, because colony collapse seems to be a (relatively) rare event, so you'd need to watch many colonies over a long period of time to have any chance of statistical strength.

      • Liath says:

        Thank you for the reply Sci. Come to think of it if all those chemicals were the problem collapsing colonys would probably not be such a rare event. Phooey! Here I was thinking if we could just get rid of all our chemicals we'd save the bees.

  • [...] Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, In Context – MYRMECOS. Drove through a series of posts on colony collapse disorder today as linked to cell phones today following the hoopla over a report [...]

  • FiSH says:

    Sci, I'll add my admiration for your openness to that expressed by everyone else. One of the worse things about our society is that people can't admit when they are wrong; partially because someone always has to recieve blame for anything that goes wrong, so that there's no such thing as an honest mistake anymore. This is particularly frustrating amongst scientists, most of whom seem to have rather inflated but fragile egos, and really, when it comes down to it, we are exploring the edges of knowledge and it is likely that most of what we say is wrong anyway - not that we don't get to the truth in the end, but it is sometimes a rather long and circuitous path, one shortened by honest and open debate of ideas.

    Oh, and I missed the first post, but your discription of the wroving beekeeper made me think that perhaps this is too blame - if this practice is more common that it used to be they must be introducing new infectious agents to new populations in the process

  • lenteme says:

    Not sure you even have anything to apologise for.

    1. You drew some conclusions from a study you read but you remained cautious and wanted further information.

    2. Further information appeared.

    3. You revised your earlier opinion in the light of this information.

    4. You advised all your readers that you no longer held your original opinion because the new information contradicted it.

    Isn't this how science is meant to work?

  • deever says:

    Pretty dumb blog item.

  • Right, not that all your links (sources) were reliable but certainly these findings are questionable. My question is what could possibly be the motivation for targeting cell phones? I don't doubt that is a possibility but I just can't figure out why and who has this agenda.

  • […] Scicurious wrote a nice essay, a while back, about realizing you’ve been wrong: […]

  • julien says:

    The link (which should lead to this update) at the top of previous article is not working anymore...

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