Treat your bees, but hold the lithium
This week my inbox is choked with questions about using lithium to treat varroa mites. Although I don’t know a thing about lithium, I feel compelled to answer.
If you haven’t heard, a paper was published on January 12 about lithium chloride as a possible treatment for varroa mites. The peer-reviewed work with the alluring title “Lithium chloride effectively kills the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor by a systemic mode of action”1 appeared on Nature.com and is available on line.
The paper is typical of research papers in general and worth a read. I applaud scientific inquiry and find it reassuring that people continue to work diligently on the problems that plague our society.
Beekeepers jumping the gun
But the response I have heard from beekeepers is incomprehensible. People who know nothing about biology, chemistry, or scientific inquiry are making a rush on lithium chloride. People who never heard of a millimole are mixing this stuff up on their kitchen counters with measuring cups and teaspoons. This is insanity.
Others are ripping the paper apart without reading it, claiming the authors are fixated on financial gain (the authors have filed for a patent) or that the study is flawed, incomplete, and conclusory.
The nature of science
One of the things I’ve learned from this website is that people can be divided into groups. There are those who think anything a scientist writes is fact. Another group thinks that anything a scientist writes is a lie. The remaining group gets it. Those people realize that science is a process, a system of discovery. By itself, science is not right or wrong, truth or lie. It is simply a path.
Most everything we know about the universe, including honey bees, comes to us in bits and pieces. In its simplest form, a scientist might notice something; let’s say he sees a correlation between two events. He doesn’t know if one event causes the other or not, but he writes a statement called a hypothesis. Then he designs an experiment to test the truth of his statement.
An old system that works
Now, how to write a good hypothesis and how to design an effective experiment are complex subjects which I won’t attempt to explain. But my point here is that we learn by observing and testing. Sometimes we are proven right and sometimes we fail, but we nearly always learn something in the process.
After you compile and analyze your experimental results, you attempt to get your work published. At reputable scientific journals your work is first reviewed by a panel of experts in your field. If they find obvious holes in your experimental design or your reasoning, they will send it back to you for further work. Or, if you’ve been careful and covered your bases, your work may be published.
And then the hard part
Once your work is published, it becomes a target. Bullets come from every direction. This is an important part of the process for both reader and writer, and the very reason these papers are published in journals.
When I was writing my master’s thesis, I fired multiple bullets (kindly, I hope) into papers I read, and I was amazed at the result. Although a few authors never answered, others patiently explained how I misinterpreted what they had written, while two sheepishly admitted that I was correct in my criticism and had discovered a flaw. This is how science works and it’s exciting.
Brick by brick
To me, a scientific breakthrough is like a brick wall where each brick is built by a different mason. If by some stroke of luck the bricks all fit together, the result is a magnificent structure. Or else the bricks don’t quite interlock, and after a while, the whole thing comes tumbling down. You can’t build higher and higher if the bottom is flawed.
The recent lithium paper is a brick. It is the beginning of a structure that hasn’t yet been built. It is a place to begin further research, an opening into a new area of inquiry, but not the finished product. I have no doubt that others will build on this work. Ultimately, it will lead to a new mite treatment or not. It is fascinating, newsworthy, compelling, but it’s not a done deal.
Be patient: hold the lithium
So in response to the many folks who asked how to do it, I say don’t. In my opinion, you have no business dumping lithium in your bee hive because neither you nor anyone else knows how it will affect your bees or the people who eat your honey.
However, I encourage you to read the paper, ask questions, or suggest improvements in experimental design. Learn as much as you can. Just remember you can’t build a wall with only a single brick, and it’s foolish to anticipate the end if you don’t understand the beginning.
1Ziegelmann B, Abele E, Hannus S, Beitzinger M, Berg S, Rosenkranz P. 2018. Lithium chloride effectively kills the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor by a systemic mode of action. Scientific Reports 8, article number: 683.doi:10.1038/s41598-017-19137-5
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