muddled thinking

Plastic debris for brains

Journalists continue to bug me. Just after I published “A journalist’s bumble,” I noticed several stories about bees using plastic debris to build their nests. The news articles were based on a research paper by J. Scott MacIvor and Andrew E. Moore which appeared in the December issue of the scientific journal Ecosphere.

The researchers found that two species of bee, Megachile campanulae and Megachile rotundata, are using bits of chewed plastic for nest building. The M. campanulae sometimes replaced plant resins, which they normally use, with chewed pieces of polyurethane-based building sealant (caulking) to create brood cells. The M. rotundata (a leafcutter) used pieces of polyethylene-based plastic bags instead of leaf parts in some brood cells.

This is fascinating news, but the part that irks me is the photos. To illustrate “Urban Bees Using Plastic to Build Hives,” (hives?) Science Daily used a photo of a populous honey bee colony. With “Urban Bees Using Plastic Waste to Build Nests,” Nature World News used a photo of a honey bee in flight. Along with their article, “Bees Use Discarded Plastic to Build Nests,” used a photo of a honey bee on a yellow flower. Click Green (UK) used a honey bee with their piece, “Study Finds Bees have Started Using Plastic Waste to Build their Hives” (hives?). Mind you, these articles have nothing to do with honey bees, so why are honey bees being used to illustrate them?

To its credit, the Toronto Star used a photo of a bee in a dandelion that could be in the Megachilidae family. It’s hard to see clearly, but it looks to have pollen adhering to its abdomen, which at least gets it close to the bees in the article.

If I were one of the scientists who did the research, I would be unglued by these reports. Most people will read the headlines, see the photos of honey bees, and conclude (can you blame them?) that honey bees are now using plastic debris to build their combs. Before you know it, people will stop eating honey.

Is it any wonder we are so confused?


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  • You are absolutely right. I have been interviewed perhaps 50 times over the past 50 years about various projects I have been involved in. The media is not that interested in accuracy. They need to knock out a story to fill the paper and get on to their next deadline. They misquote often, make assumptions to fill in what they think is missing and use Google Images to suppliment stories with inacurate graphics. My rule of thumb is to assume the article will have errors. That way I’m never disappointed.

  • A few years back I got a call from a Nashville TV station asking if they could interview me about bees. He mentioned something about cell phones and bees. When he got there that late afternoon he took a lot of film and ask me a few questions. One of which was “the effect cell phones and cell towers have on agitating bees.” I told him there was no truth to the story. Many times while I am in my hives I have gotten calls on my cell phone. I talk to the caller and then resume working the bees. I told him I never saw any difference in the bees while answering the phone or talking on the phone. Well, that night I was on TV and he mentioned bees and cell phones but the part about bees never being agitated by cell phones was not part of the interview.

  • I have seen the same thing as Robert Williams. There was a big “hubub” last year between a local beekeeper and his neighbor and the city council. I read a few newspaper articles about this story from different sources and I could not believe the number of factual errors in each one. Sheesh!

  • I am not at all surprised. I worked in the UK media 30 years ago and things were bad then but, since then, the standards in language and knowledge have steadily declined in all but the very best. I have no idea whether or not ‘Science Daily’ has a large circulation and resources, but to all the journalists in our newsroom a bee was a honey bee and anything else would have been inconceivable.

  • I’m just happy that more attention is being paid to bees and pollinators in general whether it’s this story or one on colony collapse or beekeepers or whatever.

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