Bees, Cell Phones, and Human Extinction
Like any technology ubiquitous enough to earn borderline essential status in modern society, cellular phones have accumulated a long list of urban legends, catching the blame for a whole slew of modern maladies. From reasonable and scientifically supported claims about cell phones increasing auto accidents and hearing damage to more specious scares over their ability to cause everything from brain cancer to plane crashes, cell phones are the current favorite villain of publicity-starved politicians and people who wear tinfoil hats. Now, cell phones are catching the blame for the mysterious bee disappearance that has hit the United States and Europe this summer, an ecological disruption that is beginning to cause Y2K-like media panic. Has our selfish desire to be phone-accessible to friends and family 24/7 inadvertently set in motion agriculture disaster and mass starvation?
First of all, you may have noticed the creepy X-Files like shortage of bees as a nature curiosity that’s slowly creeping up into the periphery of the media’s visual field. In fact, people hip to the world of bees (known as apiarists, if you were wondering) have been worried about this population decline for a while now, even coming up with not one but two scary acronyms: CCD, for Colony Collapse Disorder, and the much cooler VBS, Vanishing Bee Syndrome. As with a lot of animals, bee numbers have been declining for quite some time, due to a variety of ho-hum factors like urbanization and pesticides. But the sudden uptick in bee disappearances, and the widespread geography of the occurrence, have put the bee community on red alert and set researchers on desperate hunts for the missing factor behind the mystery.
Right now you’re likely thinking “why should I care about bees? Fuck bees!” It’s an understandable impulse, given that bees are best known by humans for their ability to ruin picnics, torment Winnie the Pooh (or Nick Cage), and threaten the life of that pale, sickly kid with all the allergies back in 2nd grade. Furthermore, you’d guess the most direct effect of a bee shortage would be a decline in honey production, which is kind of a bummer, but hardly a foodstuff that is essential to mankind’s continued existence. Ah, but don’t forget the bee’s important day job, pollination, which is not merely the creepy, sexually-deviant process you vaguely remember from biology class, but an essential component of the agricultural industry, playing a role in fertilizing crops such as apples, berries, almonds, cucumbers, and many more.
Hence, when the bees leave town, so too do a lot of our fruits and vegetables, and if the problem gets bad enough (some regions are already reporting a 60-70% decline in populations), one can easily imagine a slippery slope down to Biblical-strength famine conditions, especially if one is a Fox News copywriter. Researchers are therefore justified in urgently tracking down the cause of CCD, and have investigated possible culprits like insecticides, genetically-modified crops, climate change, malnutrition, and weird-sounding beekeeper practices like “bee rental.” But by far the sexiest explanation for the mass bee abductions is the electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phones, a story first publicized by a British paper – always good sources for crazy, erroneous shit – called The Independent.
You see, the weirdest thing about CCD is that you don’t just find an empty beehive with a bunch of dead bees on the ground around it, evidence of the kind of bee genocide you’d expect a nasty insecticide to cause. What is usually found is a colony with no adult bees, without the corresponding pile of dead bee bodies that logically should accompany such a shortage. The bee larvae remain present, and there’s plenty of food stored up, but no adults, as if they all just decided to skip town simultaneously. Thus, one explanation theorizes that the bees aren’t dying off, they’re merely getting lost on their way back home, due to some disruption of their navigational systems.
On April 15, The Independent waded into the scientific publication waters and came back with the most eye-catching explanation of all: cell phones were the true cause of the bee aberrations! They cited a 2007 paper, by the German Stefan Kimmel and colleagues that found (in The Independent’s words), that “bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby.” A quote from the study’s senior author, Jochen Kuhn, appeared to support the newspaper’s interpretation of his results, though astute journalistic observers may have noticed that the “quote” from Kuhn was only one word long: “hint.”
And … they’re off! The media, already starting to smell a good old-fashioned “fear culture” story with the bee disappearance, jumped all over this new connection as the next in a long line of stories exploiting our discomfort with complex modern technology. Throw the word “radiation” and “extinction” together with an electronic object we all hold up to our ears for minutes or hours per day, and you’ve got a crackin’ story, brother! A Google search of “bees AND cell phones” will tell you all you need to know about how fast the story spread around the internets, and the news portal Digg reports over 1300 hits for the original story, with an ensuing discussion that counter-proposes a “bee rapture” and bees’ ability to exist in six simultaneous dimensions as alternate CCD explanations.
There’s a less exciting rebuttal to the cell phone-bee relationship, however; The Independent just read the damn study wrong. A quick reading of Kimmel’s paper shows that 1) it was a small pilot study with very subtle results and 2) they didn’t even use freaking cellular phones in the study. What Kimmel and friends actually tested was the ability of cordless phone base stations that were actually placed inside beehives, to throw off the navigation of bees. Bees were marked as they were leaving their hives (not a fun job, I imagine), and then hives with implanted phone stations were compared to non-phoned-up hives to see how many bees came back. In the end, bees were less likely to return to the hives with the electromagnetic radiation-spouting cordless phone bases, but only by the slimmest of statistically significant margins: 63% for the control group vs. 55% in the experimental groups.
Obviously then, the jump from this short, humble little paper to “OH MY GOD CELL PHONES WILL KILL US ALL” requires a bit of creative license on the part of the newspaper. Caught in the middle were the researchers themselves, who were probably sitting around on April 14th muttering “nobody ever cares about our work” only to be wistfully recalling their long-lost obscurity by the 16th. As reported here and here and here, Kimmel and Kuhn were shocked by the distortion of their study, saying they never set out to study CCD, and bemoaning the media attention: “It's not my fault if people misinterpret our data,” said an obviously flustered Kimmel to the International Herald Tribune. “Ever since The Independent wrote their article, for which they never called or wrote to us, none of us have been able to do any of our work because all our time has been spent in phone calls and e-mails trying to set things straight. This is a horror story for every researcher to have your study reduced to this. Now we are trying to force things back to normal.”
The link between manmade electromagnetic fields and bee navigational issues may not be total fantasy; as this page discusses, bees (and a lot of other insects) use some of the same frequencies as various electronics to orient themselves spatially. However, bees also really like to make hives underneath power lines, which suggests that they don’t really mind being around gigantic sources of electrical interference. The evidence for this interaction, at best, is flimsy, anecdotal, and insignificant compared to the accumulating negatives about how pesticides and genetically-engineered crops affect bees and ecosystems in general. Hell, it may not even be a human effect at all; a similar, but less dramatic, bee decline in 2004/05 was eventually attributed to a gross little parasite called the Vampire Mite. So don’t worry too much that texting your pals is contributing to the global bee disappearance … unless you are texting them from inside a beehive, that is.
ReferencesSylvers E. 2007. Wireless: Case of the disappearing bees creates a buzz about cellphones. International Herald Tribune, April 22, 2007.
SIN (Science in the News)
Too often, the media’s reporting on scientific findings and issues becomes a professional game of Telephone, with each re-telling adding an extra layer of misunderstanding, miscommunication, erroneous information, and dumbed down simplification. Each week, we will take a recent news story and attempt to excavate the original truth behind the hype, correcting the errors of the media’s coverage, commenting upon reoccurring issues with the science-to-public pipeline, and analyzing the motives and machinery behind these distortions.