Bees, Disease, and BS

If you read my Bug Blog, you know that I’ve been commenting lately on Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD is the name that has been given to the latest, and what seems to be the most serious, die-off of honey bee colonies across the US and some areas of Europe.

Honeybees are domesticated animals. Like cows and chickens, they came to America with Europeans as introduced species in the 1600’s. They rapidly displaced the native bee species, and habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanization further weakened our native pollinators.

Honeybees live in artificial “barns” we build for them, and work to pollinate crops that grow in huge monocultures of single plant species. It’s an inherently artificial system. It’s also one that works really well–the value of pollination services is in the Billions yearly in the US.

The New York Times ran an excellent article earlier this week that details some of what is known:

  • Honeybees in Europe and the US are dying. Fact.
  • We just don’t know what the cause is, or if any single cause exists. Fact.
  • We depend heavily on honeybees for pollination services for fruits, vegetables, and some animal food crops. Fact.

Unfortunately, after those statements, things get a little fuzzy. We simply don’t have enough information to say what is killing honey bees, if this is a short-term phenomena, or if the colony death reports are similar in cause.

Part of the problem is that bees tend to die on the wing. They’re off foraging for nectar, and suddenly keel over. Another name for CCD is “Vanishing Bee Syndrome”, where a bee colony will suddenly drop in numbers.

Imagine if people all over the US called up the USDA to report their cows were disappearing:

“Hello? My cows are gone.”
“Did they die? What was the cause?”
“I dunno. Some are dead. But mostly gone.”

You can imagine the potential for conspiracy theorists :)

Because there are few bodies for a post-mortem, this makes things difficult. In the words of a recent news release from a beekeepers conference, the colony deaths have been blamed on just about anything, including “power lines, cell phones, and Martians.” My favorite explanation is that the bees have been raptured.

The mixture of fear of catastrophic consequences and complex, murky science has lent itself to some wild claims, both in the media and online, which we should quite correctly be skeptical of. What are some of the claims?

Our old friend quantum science is trotted out in a theory that sunspots are disrupting bee communication.

In one item, the cause was blamed on “the 250 HZ signals being pumped out of GWEN (ground wave emergency network) stations all over America. This signal makes people angry, so that they support the administrations idea of going after Iran and violence in general. It works great for mass manipulation of opinion. Unfortunately, the same signal will induce a misdirection of up to 10 degrees in the navigation ability of the honeybee.”

A variation on this theory was suggested by someone who clearly doesn’t have a firm grasp on the difference between FM/AM radio and cell transmissions. (Although he might be onto something with the Steve Miller Band idea.)

David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and many others suggest the cause is genetically modified plants. Byrne goes a bit farther and also suggests it’s a plot by GM agribusiness to eliminate bees.

Like many public misunderstandings of science, there are kernels of truth in these reports. Let’s go through the proposed causes:

EMF, cell phones, etc.
There is evidence bees can be disoriented by magnetic field bursts–under certain conditions rarely encountered. Researchers are interested in bee orientation, so sometimes experiment with ways to manipulate bees’ navigation systems.

A small preliminary paper published by a German graduate student about bees and EMF was covered heavily in the media. And, as it turns out, very incorrectly.

For example, this story in a Toronto paper starts Martin Weatherall isn’t surprised that a German researcher has linked cellphone radiation to the mysterious disappearance of millions of bees around the globe.”

The actual research didn’t use cell phones, though. They used mobile phones, which are quite different. They were interested in bee learning in the presence of EMF in the 1880-1900 MHz range–not the 250 MHz range quoted above by alarmists. (FYI, my cell phone is in the 800MHz range, and my cordless phone is 2.4 GHz. I also refer you to this article about EMF, with a quote at the top from the head of the American Physical Society.)

The German researchers have frantically been emailing and calling around the globe, trying to disavow the link between cell phones and bees and set the story straight. This may have seriously damaged one poor scientist’s reputation, and all for a sound bite.

Genetically Modified (GM) plants

GM plants are still in the list of possible causes, but little data exists to connect colonies that have collapsed to these plants. A paper published last month by the CCD Working Group concluded: “While this possibility has not been ruled out, the weight of evidence reported here argues strongly that the current use of Bt crops is not associated with CCD.”

Like all science, that conclusion is subject to revision if further evidence develops–but in the mean time, I’m not going to jump to conclusions in the absence of physical evidence.

Some insecticides do affect bees more than others–this is why you can put Sevin powder on your dog, but it shouldn’t be used on your garden.
The biggest problem with researching insecticides as causal agents for CCD is bee biology: bees store pollen and honey for long-term use. This means that there might be a delay of days or months before contaminated provisions are fed to the colony. Linking symptoms to when an actual exposure to pesticides occurred is extremely difficult.

Nicotine-based pesticides, especially Imidacloprid, have been blamed in Canada as a cause of CCD. However, all the evidence -To Date- is based on surveys of beekeepers. No systematic analysis of bee bodies and honey has been conducted.

Most work on Imidacloprid bee toxicity has been conducted in Europe, and close collaboration between the US and EU scientists may produce new information.

Fungus, Parasites, AIDS, Immune Deficiency, etc.
Several press releases in the last couple of months have suggested either a fungus or a protozoan parasite as the culprit for CCD. Most of these are talking about the same organism–Nosema. There are several species of this organism that are parasitic on bees–it’s not a new occurrance.

Part of the confusion comes from the unclear taxonomic status of Nosema. It has been classified for many years as a Protist, but genetic data now suggests it’s linked to Fungi. This is why the two causes–fungal and parasitic–are actually the same.

American honey bees have been attacked by a variety of parasites (Varoa Mites, Tracheal mites), diseases, and viruses over the last 40 years. It is unknown at this time if an interaction between all these different causes could be causing enough stress for immunosuppression. One thing is clear–the different parasites and viruses aren’t found in all colonies that have CCD. Again, time and more evidence are needed.

I am thrilled the media and the public are finally realizing that we owe much of our food supply to my tiny little friends. But, unfortunately, the media need for a sound bite doesn’t convey this information well. We’re just going to have to be patient for more information, and more systematic data gathering.

Many things in life don’t have one simple, primary cause. This appears to be one of them.

If you want to read more:

*Normally I don’t use Wikipedia as a source, since it’s a dynamic reference. You never know if what you link to one day will change to “your mom is the Jamestown settlement.” However, this article is monitored and edited by two entomologists.

**Because this is written for a lay audience, apiculturists should not get their adeagus in a twist if I oversimplify bee husbandry.


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.

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  1. Thanks for posting this. I've been trying to follow the various stories about this topic, but it's been quite confusing to me. I find the whole thing pretty frightening.

  2. Are all the honeybees one species, and is it a species we humans have futzed around a lot with? This is the first I've heard about this, but it sounds very similar to the problem with "normal" bananas dying (see e.g., here and here).

  3. domesticated honeybees are one species (Apis mellifera), although they have different "races"–rather like dog breeds.

    There are thousands of different bee species–the Xerces link talks about some of the native, wild bees in the US.

  4. Two things: Cell phones and mobile phones are the same thing. There might be mobile phones that aren't cell phones, but cell phones are mobile phones.

    Your phone might be using the 850MHz band, but elsewhere the 1800 and 1900 MHz bands _are_ in use by cell phones.

    From the Wikipedia entry on GSM:

    "Most GSM networks operate in the 900 MHz or 1800 MHz bands. Some countries in the Americas (including the United States and Canada) use the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands because the 900 and 1800 MHz frequency bands were already allocated."

  5. Expanding slightly on what Bjomar, correctly, says: you could argue that the very old and very expensive VHF telephones some people had in their cars were mobile phones but not cell phones. Ditto for more modern satellite phones which are mobile but don't, of course, work as cell phones in the way it's normally thought of. But for all practical purposes now cell and mobile phones are the same thing.

    The first generation of analog mobile phones worked around 800 to 900 MHz. Modern digital mobile phones use similar bands and also bands around 1800 to 1900 MHz. Most European GSM cell phones are dual-band: they can use both 800 and 1800 MHz but some are tri-band which can use a third band, also around 1800 MHz which is used in North America.

    The Wikipedia article on GWEN is worth a look too. The most salient point is that it was shut down in the late 1990s. That doesn't mean that there aren't other powerful VLF transmitters in use, of course.

  6. Two quick notes: first, your Wikipedia link points directly to a footnote. Second, for future reference, you can create a "permalink" which always points to a particular revision of a WP article, if you think that version is particularly good. Use the "permanent link" option in the toolbox on the left-hand sidebar; this is an example.

  7. oh, thanks blake. I will fix that. I've been sick, and I must have goofed.

    cell phones and mobile phone are NOT the same–the cordless phone in my house is not the same as my cell phone.

    Once I stop throwing up, I'll expand on that.

  8. All these speculations would've been great in some sort of panel or group discussion among researchers, and in a way, having them coming out in public could be a great way to show how science is done. Lots of times you have to brainstorm many possible ideas, some outlandish, some less so, to winnow through to get to a few most likely ideas. But since people — lay and press — generally do not really know how science is done, and since these speculations make for good headlines, it's bad for science rather than good — it's distorting the science rather than illuminating the process.

  9. >>"Once I stop throwing up, I’ll expand on that."

    I hope you're feeling better soon.

    The mobile/cell/cordless issue is a language thing.

    Over here (UK), 'mobile' in the context of phone equates directly with the US term 'cellphone', and 'cellphone' isn't a term that's significantly used.

    Here, a short-range (eg DECT) cordless phone would only ever be called cordless, never mobile.

    To the extent there are differences between European and American cellphones, differences seem to be slight changes in the bands used – both low (800-900) and high (1800-1900) MHz bands are used in both regions.

    For cordless phones, in Europe, DECT is the longtime standard, running at ~1.9GHz. DECT seems fairly common worldwide for cordless use.

    In the US, cordles phones seem to use a fair few frequencies, 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, and (most recently allocated) 1.9GHz for DECT-standard phones, but in a slightly different band to European DECT.

  10. Is Roundup used in the US ? Because beekeepers in France have long been trying to ban that herbicide (or pesticide ?) because of the damage it does to bees. I'd always assumed it and other agricultural chemicals were responsible for the bee's disappearance. (it certainly always made sense to me at least, given those chemicals are designed to kill in the first place, and though the toxicity to people might be well-studied, nobody cares about bees)

  11. Yay! Thanks PH. I was talking about DECT. I think it would be great if someone could do a post sometime about the different types of EMF, since there is so much pseudoscience alarmism about it. Some people don't even seem aware that radio is a wave.

    Rozzen, I'm not aware of any *major* glyphosate bee toxicity, but I'll get my pesticide book out and check. Roundup is extremely common here in the US. (I confess, I use it regularly on poison ivy.) It's not commonly used on flowering plants, more on grasses.

    France has banned a couple of the Nicotenoids I mentioned in the article because of bee toxicity, although that has not been adopted in the rest of the EU.

  12. Ok, I made a call, and looked on Cornell's database.

    Consensus is glyphosate (Roundup) is relatively non-toxic to honeybees.

    Its oral and dermal LD50 > 0.1 mg/ bee.

    (I vaguely remember a bee weighs about 80mg; do you concur, Josh?)

    So, as long as the label is followed, and you don't spray individual bees or the hive, I am not too concerned.

    If it's sprayed according to label recommendations, on a warm sunny morning, the plants will be wilting by noon. Bees aren't going to be fiddling with half dead plants when there are better meals to be had elsewhere.

    It's an amazingly safe (relatively speaking) agricultural tool for people, fish, and birds. I hope it isn't banned, because it will make farming very difficult. (and I'll have to remove poison ivy by hand :( )

  13. The actual research didn’t use cell phones, though. They used mobile phones, which are quite different.

    That bit confused me as well because in Australia/UK/Ireland, a mobile phone is a cell phone is a mobile phone. A cordless phone would be a landline phone which is quite different though.

    I've just finished reading Carl Zimmer's book on parasites, so I've been thinking parasites must be the cause for everything, including this bee phenomenon!

  14. Silmarillion,

    I bought Parasite Rex and Soul Made Flesh a few weekends ago, figuring that I would have bedtime reading for several days at least. No such luck: I started Soul Made Flesh on Saturday afternoon, finished it Sunday morning and reached the bibliography of Parasite Rex by dinnertime.

  15. We call them cordless phones here as well, not mobile phones.. mobile phones are cell phones. Though I got what you meant.

    Well written article & enlightening.

    I'm still partial to the theory that the CCD is due to parasites/fungus/virus if for no other reason than the others just don't make sense. I mean if it were radio waves, would this have not have happened sooner? Also this has happened before has it not? (in the 60's-70's?).

    Of course they could be leaving ala the dolphins… "Goodbye & thanks for all the pollen?" ;)

    I'll shut up now.

  16. ok, this comment comes way too late to be read, but whatever…

    Thank you Bug_girl ! That's really interesting, I'll have to read some more about that…

    (a quick google search shows I might have confused Roundup with Regent, that could explain things)

  17. I'm taking a critical thinking/writing course. During the formalities of the first class, my professor was explaining her cell phone policy. She stood before the class and proudly belched that she hated cell phones; they kill honey bees. "Did you know that?" she asked. She looked so proud, like she had just handed us some vital information that we, her students, would champion to the door steps of the industry and demand that they immediately stop the slaughter. I left the class and dropped the course for one with a different instructor.

    Folks, this was a university critical thinking course….sheesh!

    Great post. The links were a great help.

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