Cell phones and bees: hang up and forage!
In graduate school I took a class from Gerardo Chin-Leo, a passionate and intelligent faculty member at The Evergreen State College. The class was about harmful algae blooms, but the first assignment was to find articles in the popular press and compare them to the scientific papers they were supposedly based on. OMG. It was truly an eye-opening exercise.
Recently, a rash of stories have appeared in the news media about a paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Apidologie. The popular headlines tell us that cell phones are causing the death of bees, they cause colony collapse, they cause bees to get confused, fly away, or die.
I have read the paper in question, “Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping” by Daniel Favre. As usual, the press has totally distorted the findings. The paper itself is very much like most scientific papers in that the author tells how he designed his experiment and reports on what he found. He doesn’t make sweeping generalizations from his data. The press does that all by itself.
Our understanding of the natural world comes from many, many such scientists. Each one looks at a tiny piece of the puzzle. Once the work is published, it helps other scientists design their experiments. They may build on the work, refute the work, or confirm the work. Science does not happen in a vacuum. So, no, you can’t fault the author of the paper or the journal that printed it. Fault the press.
Basically, the author put cell phones in beehives and compared the bee’s activity to the activity of bees with no cell service. He found that when the cell was in standby mode the bees behaved like other bees, but when the cell was in communications mode the bees became agitated, especially after about 30 minutes.
The worker bees exposed to the phones emitted more piping sounds, a behavior that is seen when bees become agitated—as when they are about to swarm or when the hive is jarred, intruded, or exposed to excess noise. He also found that, after prolonged phone calls, the bees remained agitated for as much as twelve hours.
All this is interesting and relevant information in the search for how electromagnetic fields affect bees, but it doesn’t prove that cell phones cause colony collapse disorder. Favre summarizes his own work like this:
The present study suggests that active mobile phone handsets in beehives noticeably induce the rate of worker piping.
He then goes on to suggest what research is needed in the future. One obvious short-coming that he points out himself is that this study needs to be repeated using phones that are various distances from the hive. After all, how many people keep their cell phones in a beehive?