Bees, Cell phones, and BS

The interwebs are all abuzz (ha!) with a new report that cellphones might be responsible for the losses in honeybee populations. Specifically, the news stories reference this paper:

Ved Parkash Sharma and Neelima R. Kumar (2010). Changes in honeybee behaviour and biology under the influence of cellphone radiations Current Science, 98 (10), 1376-1378

It’s a peer reviewed paper…but frankly, I think the journal editor has a lot of questions to answer about letting this paper be published.

There are many things wrong with this paper that make me discount all of its findings. A short list:

1. They tested only FOUR hives–and each hive had a different treatment. This means that there was NO replication for their treatments!!
Basically, they put cell phones in two hives, cellphones with no batteries in another hive, and left another hive alone.  Because multiple hives were not tested, this calls all the measurements reported into question. For example, one of the things measured was the egg laying rate of the queen bee in each hive. Because there is only one queen per hive….and one hive per treatment….if one of the queens happened to be substandard, or just have a bad day, that would skew the results.  And there is no way to say what really caused the differences without a SAMPLE of many hives, each with the same treatments, or lack of treatment.

2. Because the sample size was so small, the claim of “significant” statistical results is invalid. Essentially, they had a sample size of one. You can’t do statistics on that. No statistical values were presented in the paper, although the word “significant” was used and the phrase “(p<0.05)” was in the abstract.  This is an inappropriate use of these numbers.

3. They used an EMF monitor in a way that (as best as I can tell) it was not meant to be used (see photo). EMF monitors are finicky things, and are supposed to be used in carefully calibrated conditions. Walking around with it and plopping it on a beehive are NOT part of standard procedure.

Additionally, there was no shielding on the other two hives that were NOT treated with cellphones–so they really received a background dose of whatever the cellphones in the region were producing, not a true control.

4. They put the cell phones in the freakin’ hive (see photo). Now, granted, maybe that is where Eddie Izzard takes his phone calls. But 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. I’m betting you’ll get an effect–but is it a real one that the average scrotum owner needs to worry about?

5. The references cited include newspaper articles and advocacy websites, which are not authoritative sources for a scientific paper. An article on X-rays, (which are not the same as cell phone emissions!), was cited as a reference showing cell phones could cause elevated drone production.  Additionally, that paper was published in 1986, much earlier than cellphones were in common production or use.

This paper (which for a student research paper would be questionable) should not have been in a journal.
It definitely should not have postulated a connection to Colony Collapse Disorder.
And it should never have made the levels of press exposure that it did. Shame on all of you newsies.

This is a classic example of Bad Science Reporting.  OMG RADIATION IN MAI BEEZ!!!


The idea that cellphones affect bees has been around since 2007–and it wasn’t legit that time, either. You might also find this discussion of electromagnetic fields at the Skeptic’s Dictionary helpful.

BTW, this paper would be a great exercise for a classroom–take one of the press reports I cited above, and have your students evaluate this paper. Can they spot the ways in which it’s not quite proper science?

(cross posted at the Bug Blog)


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. I have also heard that cell phones cause
    global climate change,
    solar eclipses,
    souring of milk,
    asteroid showers
    and texting. OMG! WTF? LOL

  2. It’s all a matter of giving things the right spin. If I were a PR company working for cell phone makers, I’d send a press release to news outlets with this title:

    “Cell phones effective protection against bees, study finds.”

  3. Great post, bug_girl! I really like the idea of turning it into a learning lesson. I’m going to show this one to my kids. The CNN article doesn’t describe the testing procedures used. Thanks!

  4. @rider: An article in quickies isn’t a sign of endorsement. It’s about bringing an article to the attention of the skeptical community.

  5. Also @rider – The hallmark of a skeptical publication is that they are willing to correct themselves based on new evidence (even if that evidence is just stuff they hadn’t considered before). Scientific studies like this come out all the time, they get buzz (heh), then they get criticized, and then better controlled studies get done. Yea Science! I read the quickie, and had questions about the study, so I really appreciate Bug Girl looking into it more for us.

  6. The error isn’t in the study, it’s in the conclusion! They’re wrong to blame cell phones, because the EMF data clearly shows that GHOSTS were responsible for the population losses.

  7. @Joshua
    New study: Replace the EMF monitor with a ouija board. In order to keep your control group unaffected, place dream catchers between the two hives…

  8. @rider – So skeptics are supposed to teach your kids about how multinational corporations want to take over the world using genetically modified foods.
    Good to know.

  9. @rider – I think Jo is right. There’s been other links to articles that were of interest to skepticism. The link/article was typically spouting off some claim or assertion. And I’ve never thought that Skepchick was endorsing the assertions. Rather, I think the point is for us to know about them, and perhaps even post comments there (or here on skepchick) that give valid skeptical criticism.

  10. @rider:
    What part of “This study is total crap” don’t you get? (Paraphrase of Bug_Girl’s comment, which had a link to more details about why it was crap.)

    BTW, Bug_girl, about point 4, speaking as an average scrotum owner, we worry A LOT.

    The upper case LOLBEEZ stuff, is that a quote from Death of Bees?

    And finally, is it good to use examples of Bad Science when teaching? Is there a danger that the students will remember the bad conclusions without remembering that they were unjustified? On the other hand, my 8 year old niece could demolish this in seconds.

  11. A bad experiment, depressingly bad. But it doesn’t prove the null hypothesis. It doesn’t prove much of anything. To come to the conclusion that cell phones don’t effect bees is fallacious.

  12. To come to the conclusion that cell phones don’t affect bees is, however, a reasonable assumption under prior probability. If there were a well-understood mechanism suggesting a way that bees might be injured by cell phone signals, then circumspection would be warranted. Absent such a mechanism (cell phone signals are low wattage, non-ionising, etc., etc., so we wouldn’t expect them to cause biological damage in any species) or a positive result from a well-designed study, the provisional conclusion that cell phone signals don’t harm bees is entirely reasonable.

    “Proven”? No, but why should the burden be on those saying there’s no link between cell phones and CCD? Especially when there are more likely explanations like varroa mites.

  13. @Joshua:
    As a “provisional” conclusion perhaps, but my point is that a bad experiment does nothing to strengthen that conclusion. It has no effect on the matter at all.

  14. @tiberious:
    You never need to prove the null hypothesis it is always the default position. Whether you think that objects with mass attract each other or that psychic aliens cause cancer in sheep the default position is always that there is no effect or relationship; you then do experiments and examine the evidence and can only move from the null hypothesis if the evidence is strong enough to disprove it.

    What I think you are trying to say is that there is no strong evidence either way. There is also no strong evidence either way proving or disproving that aliens are visiting the Earth, that doesn’t mean that either alternative is equally likely. The reason we default to the null hypothesis is because the chance that any suggested relationship is true in the absence of good evidence is very small. It may be sensible in some cases to take precautions against unproven phenomena but that’s from weighing the consequences of being wrong against the inconvenience of taking precautions and in no way suggests that we should ever allow our scientific opinion to vary from the null hypothesis without evidence.

  15. I hate making a comment without citing a source but I know I just read somewhere that bees are actually doing better (healthier, produce better honey) in cities than in rural areas. If cell phones had a significant effect, you would think in an urban setting bees would suffer because of it…

  16. @rider: Er, likewise?

    I see a link posted in the quickie with a quote from the article. That’s it. No commentary. No endorsement of the findings. Which is characteristic of most of the articles posted in quickies.

  17. I read the report and had come to the same conclusions. The biggest problem for me is the size (or lack thereof) of the study. It’s nowhere near enough to justify their findings.

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