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 am TOTALLY F***ING WRONG, YOU GUYS.
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