Bees, CCD, and Cellphones: Still no Link

Bees, CCD, and Cellphones: Still no Link

Once again, the media is going bonkers over a bee paper, and making claims way out of proportion to any actual results.  OMG RADIATIONS IN MAI BEEZ!!!

Here are some sample headlines:

I do not know why people are so determined to prove that cellphones harm bees.

A preprint of a paper that has not yet appeared in a journal was released this week. It is a preliminary study, and reports results of a bunch of *unreplicated* experiments.
Bad. Science. Reporting.

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.

Like a paper that I criticized last year, the author put cell phones on top of an actual hive.  Most people do not stand inside–or next to–active beehives when they are chatting about what to get for dinner.  This design is rather analogous to strapping cellphones to your scrotum. Sure you’ll get an effect–but is it a real one that the average scrotum owner needs to worry about?

Even though the phones were–literally–on top of the hive, it wasn’t until they had been transmitting for over 30 minutes before an effect was recorded.  The effect was that the bees began piping (a really cool rhythmic buzzy sound).  It is true that piping bees are related to swarms; however, bees pipe for a lot of other reasons too.  If you bump into a hive, bees will pipe. It’s something they do when they are disturbed.

It’s important to note that no alteration of behavior (swarming or otherwise) other than piping was actually observed, even after 20 hours of exposure to active mobile phone headsets.  The swarming and dying part was completely made up.

The immediate critique that occurs to me is that a cell phone transmitting for over an hour will heat up.  If a hot, noisy object is on top of a bee hive, I think it is reasonable to expect the bees to react.  That effect may have no relationship with cell phone transmission or magnetic fields at all.

It is, frankly, difficult for me to say much about this paper besides negative things, because it is entirely made up of un-replicated experiments. It was a “pilot study”.  As a reviewer, I would not have approved this paper in it’s present form, simply because it is so difficult to figure out just what the methodology was!!

I can’t even say how often the piping occurred because no statistics are presented.  At the very least, I would want to see how long, on average, the phones were on and transmitting before piping began! The acoustic characteristics of the piping are described, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the relationship to phones.

In terms of sample size, we have 8 negative control trials (phones off); 10 inactive trials (phones on, but not transmitting); and 12 active trials (phones on and transmitting for unspecified times.  Each of these conditions (off/on/transmitting) was tested on different days, and at two different locations, but there are no details on which and when.

The “83 experiments” number used in so many of these news stories appears to be a complete misunderstanding of what an experiment actually is. The paper did say that 80 sound recordings were made–but clearly some of those were repeated measures on the same setup.  The actual sample size was at best 12.

So, in summary:

Bees are in trouble, but there is nothing here to indicate that your cell phone is the culprit.

Paper citation:

Daniel Favre (2011). Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping. Apidologie : 10.1007/s13592-001-0016-x

Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

30 Comments

  1. Even Mashable is spreading this crap: http://mashable.com/2011/05/12/cellphone-bees

  2. the average scrotum owner

    I have never thought of myself as a scrotum owner. Thanks for broadening my horizons.

  3. Thanks for this! I’ve noticed this story popping up recently (most recently on Facebook), and while I did peruse the paper myself, I’m glad to have a clearer explanation from someone with expertise to put into words what I thought I was seeing.

  4. THANK YOU! Damn, I’ve had to refute this paper twice today with the mere skills of a low level scientist in the field of immunology! I will now refer people directly to your article.

  5. They could put a cell phone in a Faraday cage (a grounded conductive mesh where the mesh size is smaller than the radio wavelength) to rule out RF, and/or use a dummy cellphone (a battery and resistive load to simulate the heat emissions, plus a recorder/speaker system such as in one of those annoying talking birthday cards playing a recording of cell phone audio) to see if either or both of these causes the piping, but it doesn’t sound like they did either of this things. A cell phone is way too complicated a device to test in such a simplistic fashion as they did.

    Obviously, the real cause of CCD is the aliens who set their communicators down on convenient bee hives while they are making crop circles. If we could just get them to turn them off first, problem solved!

  6. (I was on a project once where the corporate standard beepers vibrated so vigorously that we called them dual-purpose devices. “Beep me! Beep me!” ;-)

  7. Honestly, computers put out so many frequencies it can be hard to tell what the heck is going on. At times I’ve been able to hear the high-pitched electronic hum of computers, TVs, and other electronic devices. These things are not exactly naturally quiet.

    There is some evidence (not really well researched) that bees are sensitive to changes in magnetic fields. So it’s certainly possible that they could hear or feel extremely close and strong changing electric fields. So I guess it could possibly be slightly *more* unwise to talk for long periods on a cell phone while wearing a beehive on your head. ;->

  8. (A little bit of experimenting reveals that my inkjet printer produces an audible high pitched whine whenever powered on — even when idle. I’ve experienced similar effects with other equipment. But it’s generally only noticeable in a really quiet room.)

  9. The question rather is, “why [skeptos] are so determined to prove that cellphones [do not] harm bees [or everything else with cells in its body, true to the xenobiotic nature of such synthetic radiation]“.

    Have a go debunking this:
    ………

    The Chair {Canadian Parliamentary Committee last Apr 29]:
    [...]

    We are now going to go to video conference, and we are going to start in Athens, Greece, with Dr. Dimitris Panagopoulos.

    Welcome, Doctor.

    Dr. Dimitris Panagopoulos:
    Hello. Thanks for inviting me.

    I shall try to describe, within a few lines, 10 basic conclusions from our experimental and theoretical work at the University of Athens over the last 11 years on the biological effects of mobile telephony radiation.

    Conclusion number one is that GSM radiation at 900 and 1,800 megahertz, from mobile phone handsets, is found to reduce insect reproduction by up to 60%. The insects were exposed for six minutes daily during the first five days of their adult lives. Both males and females were found to be affected.

    Second, the reduction of insect reproductive capacity was found to be due to cell death induction in reproductive cells. In the papers distributed to the committee members, we can see pictures of eggs from insects. In the first picture, we see eggs from a non-exposed insect. In the second picture, we see eggs from an insect exposed to radiation from a mobile phone handset. We can see the characteristic fluorescence denoting DNA fragmentation and cell death. You have more pictures like this.

    Third, the effect of short-term exposure is evident at radiation intensities down to one microwatt per square centimetre. This radiation intensity is found at a distance of about one metre from a cellphone or 100 metres from a corresponding base station antenna. This radiation intensity is 450 times and 900 times lower than the limits set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, ICNIRP, at 900 and 1,800 megahertz, respectively.

    It is possible that for long-term exposure durations of weeks or months or years, the effect would be evident at even longer distances or at even lower intensities. For this, a safety factor should be introduced in the above value, of one microwatt per square centimetre. By introducing a safety factor of 10, the above value becomes 0.1 microwatts per square centimetre, which is the limit proposed by the BioInitiative Report.

    Fourth, the effect is strongest for intensities higher than 200 microwatts per square centimetre; this is when we have a cellphone very close to our heads. Within that so-called window, around the intensity value of 10 microwatts per square centimetre, the effect becomes even stronger. This intensity value of 10 microwatts per square centimetre corresponds to a distance of about 20 to 30 centimetres from a mobile phone handset or 20 to 30 metres from a base station antenna.

    Fifth, the effect increases with increasing daily duration of exposure in terms of short-term exposures of one minute to 21 minutes daily.

    Sixth, the effect is non-thermal. There are no temperature increases during the exposures.

    Seventh, the effect at the cellular level is most likely due to the irregular gating of ion channels on cell membranes, which is caused by the electromagnetic fields. This leads to disruption of the cell’s electrochemical balance and function. This mechanism is a non-thermal one.

    Eighth, although we cannot simply extrapolate the above results from insects to humans, similar effects on humans cannot be excluded. On the contrary, they are possible, first because insects are, in general, much more resistant to radiation than mammals, and second, because the presented findings are in agreement with the results of other experimenters who are reporting DNA damage in mammalian cells or mammalian and human infertility. There are many references for these findings in papers also distributed to the committee.

    + -(0930)

    Ninth, reported observations during the last years regarding the diminishing of insect populations, especially bees, can be explained by a decrease in their reproductive capacity, as I described.

    Our tenth and last conclusion is that symptoms referred to as “microwave syndrome”, like headaches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, etc., among people residing around base station antennas, can possibly be explained by cellular stress induction on brain cells or even cell death induction on a number of brain cells.

    Thank you for your attention.
    ………

    • Thanks for the giant copy/paste. I’m guessing that the person talking to this legislative body (not a group of scientists) was this guy:

      http://bit.ly/iKsMjE

      The publication that I linked to is a theoretical model, BTW.

      The only work I could find that he’s done on insects was on drosophila (fruit flies)–where he basically stuck them next to an antenna of a GSM mobile phone–a european G2 phone, if you will. It’s behind a paywall, so I can’t look at it directly until monday.

      My immediate thought is that a tiny insect next to a big emitting device–I would be amazed if there *wasn’t* an effect! That is really difficult to extrapolate to an insect like a honey bee, in which the majority of the colony does not reproduce, are bigger, and, in general, do not reside on cell phone antennas.

      Also note that while Panagopoulos says himself “we cannot simply extrapolate the above results from insects to humans”, he goes right ahead and does just that. And the data on human effects are still very far from complete.

      One example : “In the absence of experimental evidence and given the methodological uncertainties in the epidemiologic literature, there is no chronic disease for which an etiological relation to EMF can be regarded as established.”

      • Here are a bunch of questions I immediately have about this research.

        Just from the abstract, the mechanism sounds to me exactly like the mechanism that microwaves couple to water molecules in a microwave oven to induce heating, but in the cut & paste, Panagopoulos describes it as non-thermal. I can’t understand how it could work without also inducing obvious heating with much greater destructive effects that would completely swamp his postulated mechanism. Another point I question is whether the voltages involved in real-world cell phone RF exposure is remotely close to that required to switch cell membrane gates. I think the ion channel voltages are typically of the order of a volt, whereas the potentials involved in cell phones are millivolts or microvolts, 3-6 orders of magnitude smaller. Lastly, has anyone replicated any of this in the 11 years since?
        .
        I did some googling, and all I can find are a few articles by Panagopoulos and colleagues lost in a vast array of woo. The abstract of one review article on PubMed is vague and inconclusive.

  10. (What is wrong with a cut & paste?)

    Before any further consideration of the actual studies authored by Panagop., consider that he, as well as two colleagues invited to testify at that Ottawa Parl. committee (transcript pasted from), were ousted from their academic offices afterwards, as was a fourth committee witness for such whistleblowing activity just before retirement (Johansson, Sasco, Goldsworthy). In various interchanges with skeptos I have found striking self-limitation in application of skepto faculties. Eg lack of interest evinced when told it has long been shown that industry-connected research yields some 80% of “no harm” results, the opposite for independent study, making for the ludicrous “weight of evidence” (more $ co-optation, more weight) relied on by your authorities to establish “safety” guidelines.
    Dimitris recently authored a textbook chapter on the irregular gating, replete with equations if that is to your taste. More germane for public policy is the outcry from so many people suffering who have clued in that it is due to exposures to such “safe” radiation that they are suffering, and finally some establishment bodies are speaking out, see eg very recent Council of Europe statement, as well as Russian national body re radiation oversight. There is a veritable ton of material, scientific to journalistic to personal histories, to condemn latter day wireless mania. The insurance industry has stayed away for a long time — what do they know that you don’t, or along with so many skeptos, seem very reluctant to find out about?

    If one is to go picking about the Favre study, what is more intriguing is that the queen stays put — is she so much stronger to be able to withstand the microwave onslaught? Or different on other terms that she does not sense the danger? Etc? And re Panagop’s extrapolation, in the summary he states a good reason, how did you miss that? You must not know of the many studies showing deleterious effect on human reproductive function (Agarwal e.g., or here’s one, http://greenparty.ca/blogs/930/2009-07-16/it-takes-green-dangers-wireless#comment-11473 )…There’s so much, I don’t know what to bring here, maybe some other skepto misguided commentary & argument against…?

    This is deeply serious, justifiably thought by some to constitute the gravest health and environmental threat of our time. If you’re intent on getting to the heart of the matter, I can refer you to some of that ton of material.

    • What’s wrong with cut&paste? It’s much better to post a link. Then people can see the remarks in context, and see any comments that they might have elicited.
      .
      You aren’t doing your argument any favors by the way you are presenting it here. Evidence and logical inference from that evidence are paramount. A plausible theoretical basis stemming from previously known science helps, but is neither necessary nor sufficient. (If the evidence is there, the theory can come later. A plausible hypothesis on its own without supporting evidence proves nothing.)
      .
      Instead, you argue conspiracy theories, the classic persecution complex and ad hominen and straw man attacks on your opponents. We’ve seen all this before and it doesn’t impress us.
      .
      Popular outcry is meaningless. The purported symptoms listed for electromagnetic sensitivity at Wikipedia are burning and tingling sensations in the skin of the head and extremities, fatigue, sleep disturbances, dizziness, loss of mental attention, reaction times and memory retentiveness, headaches, malaise, tachycardia (heart palpitations), or disturbances of the digestive system, match closely with the self-reported symptoms of people claiming cell phone injuries in several of the articles and agenda-driven web sites I found. You may find these symptoms compelling, but I do not. They are same vague and non-specific symptoms that pertain to virtually all pseudoscientific health modalities (homeopathy, chiropractic, reflexology, etc.) claim to treat or cure. There is a reason for this. These symptoms can and often are psychogenic in origin and are self-limiting, making it very difficult to disprove a link between the reputed therapy and the cure. By the same token, it is equally difficult (but not impossible) to disprove a link between these symptoms and EMF, or any other suspected cause, such as green jelly beans.
      .
      First, come up with some real health effect that correlates with cell phone usage. (Epidemiological studies have found nothing.)
      .
      Second, do some replicable, well controlled, double-blind experiments showing some kind of deleterious health effects due to cell phone RF that controls for other effects, such as heat, noise, chemicals from the casing or battery, and a zillion other confounding factors.
      .
      Third, get independent replication of the science.
      .
      Fourth, get them published in actual peer-reviewed journals.
      .
      Fifth, when discussing items 1 to 4, post actual links to them, not misspelled names of the authors, or links to political web sites.
      .
      Do the above, and you will have some credibility. Do it well, and most or all the skeptics (not “skeptico”; is that a lame attempt at derision?) will accept your conclusions and bin our cells.
      .
      Part of being a skeptic is accepting compelling evidence, and we do. That’s why we accept evolution, the 14 billion year age of the universe, AGW (most of us), the utility of science-based medicine, that the moon landings really occurred, and that crop circles are made by pranksters. If you can prove that cell phones cause brain cancer or some other real, deleterious health effect, we’ll accept that too. But you need evidence.

      • Again, I’ve been through this with skeptos before, maybe I should just send you to where their useless argumentation has failed, I can think of three sites.

        “Epidemiological studies have found nothing.”

        I see. So you are familiar with the dozen or so studies on cell mast radiation effects (such study discouraged by WHO etc, but tells a skepto nothing, we see), almost every single one showing danger, eg latest (with more statistical sophistication as well) https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxub2NlbGx0b3dlcmlub3VybmVpZ2hib3Job29kfGd4OjFiMDg5Yzk0ZWE3Y2U0Y2U&pli=1 ; or you watched Interphone, where the best studies showed indeed heightened cancer danger (Hardell; but the long delay tactic in putting out this hapless Interphone report tells nothing to a skepto, we know).

        “well controlled, double-blind ”

        It is true that lab attempts to provoke “EHS” (an unfortunate term, but prevalent) tend to not succeed, but there are heaps of problems with such provocation studies, one amusing one pointed out in another important (review) paper, http://www.scribd.com/doc/43372770/NRC-Journal-Report-on-Cell-Towers (looks like original online publisher has been pressured to take the paper offline at http://rparticle.web-p.cisti.nrc.ca/rparticle/printablehtml.cps?journal=er&issn=1181-8700&volume=18&year=2010&issue=NA&startPage=369&msno=a10-018&htmlExists=Y&calyLang=eng ),
        where (in a typical move) unreported in a provocation failure was that the most reactive pulled out of the study!

        “independent replication of the science”

        there’s plenty; consult eg the compendium BioInitiative Report 2007, 2009; which moved the EU Parl. to declare its perturbation at the status quo, and now more, with even stronger evidence since, that Council of Europe thing I referred to,
        http://assembly.coe.int/main.asp?Link=/documents/workingdocs/doc11/edoc12608.htm .

        “get them published in actual peer-reviewed journals”

        come on… what else happened to, eg, our Panagopoulos example? Not only loses his office, but after acceptance at a prestigious research institute (where he applied after this persecutory episode) had his transfer there blocked, and now has had a journal, where he has long published oft-cited work, actually in irregular process refuse his latest paper! A credulous skepto about sheer adequacy of peer-review, we see.

        I have been doing this posting at great speed and with great motivation to awaken a complacent and hoodwinked public to this great danger, so forgive typos and overlookable inadequacies as i make haste, yours is one site among very many indeed…

        “That’s why we accept evolution”

        not a great way to talk about compulsion of evidence; more germane is to talk about who sets and how is set the evidentiary bar.

        “cause brain cancer”

        cancer-focus is very wrong-headed (although i admit to bring it up just above), but when a 10-yr-latency is shown for what used to be “heavy” users (1/2/day!), that is among the fastest carcinogenesis of all; best to pay attention to a symptomology list such as in the Eger paper above, long before cancer, which is way too late, long delay playing into perpetrators’ hands…

        • Sorry to feed the troll, but I checked the first link, which turns out to be a self-reported survey of people living near one (count them, ONE) cell tower. It’s not clear if it was actually published; I don’t think google.docs is a peer-reviewed journal. It might qualify as a pilot study. Maybe. Of course the only conclusion you can draw from a pilot study is whether it might be worth further study. They asked for reports of 88 different health effects; it isn’t clear if the so-called control effects weren’t picked solely because they showed no correlation with distance from the tower. Same with the effects they claim to have found. but I’m swearing off green jelly beans. Since Deever led with this, I’m assuming it’s the best he’s got.

    • Buzz has done a great job replying to your disjointed conspiracy theory. Thank you Buzz!!

      Deever, your statements here just undermine you further. “Why doesn’t the queen leave the hive?”
      Because she’s the queen, dude! You’ve betrayed some rather spectacular ignorance of the animals in question. Queens stay in the hive, workers go out and…do all the work. And care for the brood.

      By your own admission, this is a drive by concern trolling:

      I have been doing this posting at great speed and with great motivation to awaken a complacent and hoodwinked public to this great danger, so forgive typos and overlookable inadequacies as i make haste, yours is one site among very many indeed…

      Please spare us the conspiracy theories.

  11. Plus, what’s the deal with the time scales? The controls are shown up to 30 min where the others are shown in minutes. Could one cherry pick the few minutes of activity out of what appears to be noise in the longer time course?

    Why cell phones? Why not all the other EM the world is bathed in?

    It is the Journal of INRA, a European research consortium. I’m not even sure if that’s peer reviewed.

  12. Ever been sweeped by a long range search radar? You can sometimes “hear” the radar. Apparently the high power pulse heats the fluid in your cochlea (as well as the rest of your body). It also jammed my calculator. Had to put it in a foil pouch so it would work properly. Probably should have put my head in a foil pouch. I’m all right. Really. What did you say? Never heard of bees being affected by radar. Supposedly birds will avoid it.

    • Yep, and there is some data that suggests sonar could have effects on marine mammals.

      But. Not bees.

      And it’s not at all the same as the frequencies of cell phones.

      • If you put a 100 kilowatt sonar next to a bee hive they would not be too happy.

        • And just how likely is that? And how much should beekeepers worry about sudden sonar arrays showing up?

          Not much.

  13. Yeesh. The comments in this thread have convinced me people will go Time Cube on literally any subject. Conspiracy theories and passionate copy/paste diatribes about cell phones and bees? Not even, “This is my hobby. Let me show you where I think you’re wrong.” We’ve got a full on manifesto!

    Fuck. This is the single most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.

  14. Just a small heads-up folks, Deever is a troll who for a while heavily infested/infected Skeptic North with his endless, disjointed, illogical, and frequently self-contradictory rambles. It’s probably safe to say that Deever can be ignored without suffering a loss of sleep.

  15. I see you hangers out here are indeed of the skeptokook ilk, have a look at those ‘kook North pages, and i’ll let you go, you can all be the last to know, but care can a skepto? all over pg http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/11/levitt-and-lai-peddling-discredited-emf-science/ & see http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/12/devra-davis-disconnected-from-science-part-ii/#comments & there’s a ton more (maybe some 2000 papers), but i see little evidence of capable types here — the queen stays ’cause that’s what she does, good thinking: why does she not react to the EM insult is the question, bug_girl; and Buzz P. seems not able to understand the study he says must be the best stuff (gevalt)…have fun with your kill phones, wifi, wild conspiracy charges, blinkered rationality….enough?

    • Thanks for the links deever. They fully illuminate the total intellectual bankruptcy of your position. For everyone else, the posts cited are quite informative.

    • Facepalm…

  16. Great analysis, thanks! One thing though, as a scrotum owner who carries his cell phone in his pants pocket, I’d have to think that strapping a phone directly to it is not that far from practical reality… at least as far as proximity goes. (That it would be neither comfortable, convenient, nor much of a fashion statement, not withstanding.)

  17. Oh, and I’ve been saving screen shots of the stories i linked to at the top of the post–it’s fairly entertaining to see how they have changed as they try to backpedal.

    (except for Gizmodo, which still has the original title and story–SHAME!)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5727919863/in/photostream

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5713116777/in/photostream/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5712925416/in/photostream/

    Bonus double Fail: photo not a bee, story not news
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5718975306/in/photostream/

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