Effect Measure

Cell phones and honeybees

There’s a curious story in the UK newspaper, The Independent, on mobile phones and the collapse of bee colonies (hat tip Randy, aka MRK). I don’t quite know what to make of it, although I am skeptical:

[Some scientists] are putting forward the theory that radiation given off by mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets is a possible answer to one of the more bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world – the abrupt disappearance of the bees that pollinate crops. Late last week, some bee-keepers claimed that the phenomenon – which started in the US, then spread to continental Europe – was beginning to hit Britain as well.

The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees’ navigation systems, preventing the famously homeloving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) occurs when a hive’s inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers, like so many apian Mary Celestes. The vanished bees are never found, but thought to die singly far from home. The parasites, wildlife and other bees that normally raid the honey and pollen left behind when a colony dies, refuse to go anywhere near the abandoned hives.

The alarm was first sounded last autumn, but has now hit half of all American states. The West Coast is thought to have lost 60 per cent of its commercial bee population, with 70 per cent missing on the East Coast. (The Independent)

I’ve been following the bee story for a while. It is both serious and worrisome, considering the important place bees have in crop pollination. But mobile phones? I rather doubt it. Not because I think mobile phones are harmless. On the contrary, I have always been concerned about the transmitters we hold in our hands, not the cell towers that seem to worry some people. The exposure from the towers is small but the transmitter on the handset is right up next to us. I don’t think there is that much cell phone RF noise in the honeybee’s world, although that’s an empirical question. But the appearance of the disease, first in the US, which has less cell phone use than Europe, and the pattern of geographic spread, doesn’t sound like cell phones would be the cause. Chemicals are possible but again the pattern and timing don’t sound like a chemical problem. It sounds much more like a parasite, a fungus or a virus, although no agent has been found as yet. The door is thus open to any person’s favorite bogey man: cell phones, GM crops, global warming, endocrine disruptors. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dick Cheney were involved somehow.

I’m not trying to make light of this. The collapse of honeybees worldwide could have serious and unforeseen ecological consequences. Whether it’s cell phones or Dick Cheney, I hope they figure this out pretty soon. Especially if it’s Dick Cheney.


  1. #1 cow_2001
    April 16, 2007

    If cellular phones’ radiation is the cause for their trouble, the only way for them to survive is to natural select themselves into understanding GPS beacons…

  2. #2 Darin
    April 16, 2007

    Government control signals via the cell phone towers, it’s a supersecret war, find out more at tinfoilhat.com.

    Seriously, I’ve got five on the current solar flares. Why? Cause I have no idea and I’m just guessing… just like these luddite scientists.

  3. #3 Melanie
    April 16, 2007

    I’ve been following CCD for a couple of years. If you don’t think it matters yet, check on the price of honey at your local mega-mart.

    I suspect that aspartame and artificial sweetners have something to do with it. The New Yorker carried three weeks of articles about it ten years ago (can’t find the link.) The stuff both attracts bees and kills them.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t be eating it? But that’s just me….

  4. #4 M. Randolph Kruger
    April 16, 2007

    Cheney is taking the queens out for a hunting trip.

    It is serious though. Einstein once said that if all the honey bees disappeared we would have four years to live.

  5. #5 K
    April 16, 2007

    On other sites it has been suggested that cell phone and other electrical signals in the air might have reached a threshold that suddenly caused the bees to disorient. But it would be strange for that to happen in other countries at the same time as in the US.

    Endocrine disrupters should effect the queen and the males not the workers orientation

    GM would only hold if the other countries were also planting GM crops.

    The clue may somehow be in the strange fact that honey robbers are staying away. The Dick Cheney theory may be the best one because if he isn’t the cause he should be blamed anyway.

  6. #6 SmellyTerror
    April 16, 2007

    Dick Cheney’s genetically modified cell phone is clearly interacting with the satellite mind control beams and informing the bees the truth about JFK.

    Clearly they are all translocating to the same magical dimension that JFK, Elvis, and Princess Di went.

  7. #7 Hank Roberts
    April 16, 2007

    My speculation here (suspect neonicotinoids).
    Comments from the Reveres most welcome about this whole class of chemicals; all I found on mammalian toxicology was one article from India, cited there.

    (Einstein putative quote also debunked there and everywhere.)

  8. #8 M. Randolph Kruger
    April 17, 2007

    Are they still spraying for Med flies out there in CA and were they in Europe?

    Lots of weird stuff. Has anyone checked to see if the agonic line has shifted?
    I was to ship some stuff to the N. Pole (magnetic) for NBC’s “Where In The World Is Matt Lauer) last year. I said no problem its in Greenland, right? They said they didnt know. So I had to check and Lauer would need a boat because its far, far west of where it was when I was in my teens. Its in Canada now. So did their little homing devices get screwed up by a magnetic line shift, are powerlines and cellphones heating up the core of the earth and frying bee brains? Are they loaded up on nicotine based pesticides?

    Are the big yellow and black bastard bumblebees affected too? It does and will affect crops even though there are other critters that pollinate trees and crops. They just arent as effective as our little buddies.

    Not enough information here. Hive absconding is not unusual, but in this scale it is. Normally the queen hauls outta there, not the drones.


  9. #9 Hank Roberts
    April 17, 2007

    I’ve spent an hour or so poking about with Google Scholar.

    Impression, purely an impression — most all the studies I found claiming no problem with the neonicotinoid insecticides were surveys and compilations, and the main author was from Bayer.

    Compare this:
    R. Schmuck
    Department of Regulatory and Public Affairs, Bayer CropScience Deutschland GmbH, Elisabeth-Selbert-Strasse 4a, D-40764 Langenfeld, Germany

    Abstract Previous studies have shown that imidacloprid and insecticidally active imidacloprid plant metabolites are rapidly metabolized by honeybees. Accordingly, no striking differences were expected between the acute and the chronic dietary toxicity of imidacloprid to honeybees. More recently, however, an unexpectedly high chronic dietary toxicity to honeybees was reported for imidacloprid and imidacloprid plant metabolites, and a novel pharmacologic mechanism unrelated to the parent toxophor was postulated. In an extensive literature survey, no further evidence was found for the reported high difference between the acute and the chronic dietary toxicity of imidacloprid and its plant metabolites to honeybees. The majority of data indicated a dietary no observed lethal-effect concentration >0.04 and 0.02 mg/L 50% sucrose solution, respectively, for an acute and a chronic dietary exposure of honeybees to either imidacloprid or its plant metabolites. …

    with this:

    doi: 10.1897/1551-5028(2001)020<2482:DBAACT>2.0.CO;2
    Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry: Vol. 20, No. 11, pp. 2482�2486.

    S�verine Suchail,1 David Guez,1 and Luc P. Belzunces1

    1. INRA, Laboratoire de Toxicologie Environnementale, UMR INRA-UAPV Ecologie des Invert�br�s, Site Agroparc, 84914 Avignon Cedex 9, France

    (Received August 3, 2000; Accepted March 19, 2001)

    Abstract — Imidacloprid is a systemic nitroguanidine insecticide that belongs to the neonicotinoid family. As an agonist of the acetylcholine receptor, it attacks the insect nervous system and is extremely effective against various sucking and mining pests. Oral acute and chronic toxicity of imidacloprid and its main metabolites (5-hydroxyimidacloprid, 4,5-dihydroxyimidacloprid, desnitroimidacloprid, 6-chloronicotinic acid, olefin, and urea derivative) were investigated in Apis mellifera. Acute intoxication by imidacloprid or its metabolites resulted in the rapid appearance of neurotoxicity symptoms, such as hyperresponsiveness, hyperactivity, and trembling and led to hyporesponsiveness and hypoactivity. For acute toxicity tests, bees were treated with doses of toxic compounds ranging from 1 to 1,000 ng/bee (10�10,000 μg/kg). Acute toxicity (LD50) values of imidacloprid were about 60 ng/bee (600 μg/kg) at 48 h and about 40 ng/bee (400 μg/kg) at 72 and 96 h. Out of the six imidacloprid metabolites tested, only two (5-hydroxyimidacloprid and olefin) exhibited a toxicity close to that of imidacloprid. Olefin LD50 values were lower than those of imidacloprid. The 5-hydroxyimidacloprid showed a lower toxicity than imidacloprid with a LD50 four to six times higher than that of imidacloprid. Urea also appeared as a compound of nonnegligible toxicity by eliciting close to 40% mortality at 1,000 ng/bee (10,000 μg/kg). However, no significant toxicity was observed with 4,5-dihydroxyimidacloprid, 6-chloronicotinic acid, and desnitroimidacloprid in the range of doses tested. To test chronic toxicity, worker bees were fed sucrose solutions containing 0.1, 1, and 10 μg/L of imidacloprid and its metabolites for 10 d. Fifty percent mortality was reached at approximately 8 d. Hence, considering that sucrose syrup was consumed at the mean rate of 12 μl/d and per bee, after an 8-d period the cumulated doses were approximately 0.01, 0.1, and 1 ng/bee (0.1, 1, and 10 μg/kg). Thus, all tested compounds were toxic at doses 30 to 3,000 (olefin), 60 to 6,000 (imidacloprid), 200 to 20,000 (5-OH-imidacloprid), and >1,000 to 100,000 (remaining metabolites) times lower than those required to produce the same effect in acute intoxication studies. For all products tested, bee mortality was induced only 72 h after the onset of intoxication….

    and worry after reading this:



    The favorable selective toxicity of neonicotinoid insecticides (represented here by imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and a nitromethylene analogue) for insects versus mammals is not shared by three of their N-unsubstituted imine derivatives or by nicotine or epibatidine. The same selectivity pattern is evident at the receptor level, i.e., the insect nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) versus mammalian nAChR subtypes (1, 3, 4, and 7) assayed independently. The insect-selective compounds are not protonated with a nitroimine, cyanoimine, or nitromethylene group and the mammalian-selective compounds are ionized at physiological pH. ….

  10. #10 Bob O'H
    April 17, 2007

    A certain amount of scepticism has been expressed at the Bad Science fora. Well, it was being before they sidetracked themselves.


  11. #11 Interrobang
    April 17, 2007

    The guy from Bayer’s actual name is “Schmuck”?! How…unfortunate.

    I literally just finished reading the Pennsylvania State University Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group’s preliminary report, and it looks as though their evidence points away from cell phones. While their survey size doesn’t seem conclusive, it looks as though transporting hives and colony splitting (both of which are apparently stressors on bee populations) are significantly coincident with CCD.

    I’m going to be following this more closely from now on, since it worries me quite a bit.

  12. #12 Hank Roberts
    April 17, 2007
  13. #13 Alex
    April 17, 2007

    “Heating up the core of the earth”? He really said that? BTW, you do know that the magnetic pole moves *all the time*?

    BTW, the link Interrobang provides mentions cases documented in 1896, 1915, and 1930.

  14. #14 M. Randolph Kruger
    April 17, 2007

    Yep Alex and the worst may not be known about that. It could be the reason for Global Climate Change, rather than G. Warming. What is a microwave oven? Nothing more than a Klystron emitter resonating on the same frequency level that water heats up on. Background resonance from telephones, electrical power grids, computers, light bulbs, and the latest in the field of debate… high frequency cell phones and towers. These came on line in the last 10 years and are different from the old analog signals.

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    April 17, 2007

    Ignoring the newage stuff; the Bayer approach appears to be to claim that all sorts of other things can destabilize a bee hive (true) so their product can’t be responsible (does not follow), and to sue the French beekeeping group that got their product banned. Smells funny. The bits of hints about chemistry suggest to me that the difference between compounds that affect insects strongly and mammals less so is not a dramatic one, and that’d make me think breakdown and change in the environment could turn these things or their metabolites dangerous. I see no longterm studies. The neonicotinoids are being rushed to market as earlier pesticides fail —- it’s the antibiotic resistance problem writ large, anything sprayed by the multi-ton lot is going to be a strong selective factor.

    I always wondered how many of the businesspeople who sell this stuff for agriculture believe in evolution. I doubt it’s as high as the average fifty percent.

  16. #16 Susan Och
    April 17, 2007

    Both transporting hives and splitting hives require that the bees learn to navigate in a new location. If you just split a hive and leave it in the same yard, the bees will go out and forage then return to the original hive. You must move them, at night, to a location more than two miles away, and let them reorient in the new spot. After a sufficient time, you can move the hive back to the original location, using the same move-at-night method.

    Bees are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field. They also can perceive polarized light, so they can use the sun to navigate even if it is cloudy. Bees see a different spectrum of light than humans; they see colors past indigo.

    The reports of hives being left full of pollen and honey are the oddest part of this story for me.

  17. #17 Alex
    April 17, 2007

    These came on line in the last 10 years

    Not in countries with real mobile phone systems they didn’t. Try 20. And you need to learn some maths if you think systems with peak tx power around 10 watts will “warm up the earth’s core”.

    Polarised light – I recall reading that Viking navigators may have used a particular mineral as a reflector to locate the sun on cloudy days.

  18. #18 crfullmoon
    April 17, 2007

    “Einstein once said that if all the honey bees disappeared
    we would have four years to live”

    Well, the longer these honeybee problems go on, which may have multiple causes interacting, the more ominous the gut feeling is.
    Are backyard beekeepers, that don’t relocate their hives, having these same losses?

  19. #19 Ellen
    April 17, 2007

    George Carlo was all over the news with this story. Whenever you see George Carlo, have a good laugh and move on. The guy is a public health specialist (epi, I think) and a lawyer. He started out as a prostitute for the tobacco industry working with Jim Tozzi (former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, White House Office of Management and Budget, under Reagan – Tozzi was the original anti-reg guy who more recently was the architect of the Data Quality Act) and Steven Milloy (JunkScience.com) in MBE, which was funded by Phillip Morris to fight regulation of second-hand smoke by debunking science. Carlo was then hired by the CELL PHONE industry to run a $28 million project to debunk any science that showed that cell phones don’t cause cancer. Well, Carlo had a contract dispute with the cell phone industry and decided to play whistle-blower and claim that they were actually suppressing information suggesting a link between cell phone use and cancer. Too bad for him that the National Research Council and other major international scientific bodies have all said otherwise. Then Carlo jumped on the EMF bandwagon – you know, high voltage power lines cause everything from hemorrhoids to schizophrenia. Now he is back to cell phones.

    So, if you see Carlo’s name associated with something, be skeptical. Very skeptical.

  20. #20 revere
    April 17, 2007

    Ellen: Yes, the guy’s notorious. That’s one reason I didn’t quote him.

  21. #21 bigTom
    April 17, 2007

    Well mag pole drift is at least interesting. The rate of change has been increasing. Its associated with a possible near future magnetic reversal event. It would be pretty darned hard for us surface dwellers to effect the core’s dynamo, so if it were due to accelerated rate of change of the earths mag field, it would be a natural (but rare) phenomena. I’d give 99% odds it isn’t mag field related, but 99.9% that it isn’t cell phones.

  22. #22 Interrobang
    April 17, 2007

    Susan — Yes, I agree. There’s obviously something else going on there, since the lack of robbery is very telling, as are the lack of dead bees found in or in front of the collapsed colonies. Note I said that transporting hives was “coincident,” not “correlated.”

    All evidence points to a large amount of “we don’t know.”

    Incidentally, Randy, check out that report I linked. This isn’t just bees getting disoriented because of fluxes in magnetic fields; there are actual, observable signs, such as discolourations in the head tissues, swelling of the sting glands, and massive fungal infections. I was looking at the photographs last night.

    I’ll probably post on the report sometime later, but right now I’m in the midst of beating up on the report on abstinence-only education that came out on Friday in the Bush DocuDump™, so it’ll be a while.

  23. #23 Nat
    April 17, 2007

    Does anyone know whether the same phenomenon is being observed in the Southern Hemisphere? Particularly Australian and New Zealand?

  24. #24 marquer
    April 17, 2007

    Are the big yellow and black bastard bumblebees affected too? It does and will affect crops even though there are other critters that pollinate trees and crops. They just arent as effective as our little buddies.

    Bumblebees are superbly effective pollinators.

    They’re able to carry larger pollen loads. They work in gloomy weather when honeybees stay in the hive. And they are physically strong enough to “sonicate” certain flowers which require that process (it turns out, funnily enough, that there is an explanation already on hand here at ScienceBlogs, courtesy of GirlScientist).

    If this mystery honeybee ailment is getting Bombus as well, then everyone and everything is in real trouble.

  25. #25 Hank Roberts
    April 18, 2007

    Bumblebees too.


    (Looks really weird, but that’s a working URL)

    Biologists abuzz over bumblebees’ decline

    “… concern that the bumblebee populations are on the decline.
    “… a once common bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis, appears to have disappeared in San Francisco. And McFrederick hasn’t been able to find another species, Bombus caliginosus. …

    … native-bee researchers to set up a consistent protocol for studying bumblebees. Now the network has 200 people, including researchers in Canada and Brazil.
    …. England and other European countries have better records of tracking their pollinating species. U.S. scientists have observed declines in native bee populations, but they can share only anecdotal information.

    “The United States doesn’t have baseline data. We know we’ve lost pollinators — both vertebrates and invertebrates — but we don’t have the comparative baseline data. It just doesn’t exist,” said Buchmann, founder of the Bee Works, a native-bee research center in Tucson.

    McFrederick is seeking volunteers through a bumblebee Web site: userwww.sfsu.edu/~sfbee. People can follow directions on how to record the presence of bumblebees in their gardens.

  26. #26 crfullmoon
    April 18, 2007

    McFrederick should get on flickr and ask for help. Photographers all over the world, some of whom may get interested and go out of their way to help look (I, and folks from several states and a few nations helped someone with a plant-related project who, needed data); also there are already people there who are formally, or informally, studying bees.

    Just an example, Nigel Jones work: http://www.flickr.com/photos/insectman/sets/
    Solitary bees: http://www.insectpix.net/

  27. #27 Melanie
    April 19, 2007

    It looks like Hank is right. The primary die-offs are near corn fields.

  28. #28 Tom DVM
    April 19, 2007

    Something is seriously screwing up bee’s brains almost simultaneously around the world…

    …could be hormonal, chemical, electrical or a pathogen.