Myrmecos

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Today’s bug news carries sensational reports of a study claiming new evidence linking cell phone use and the dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder.

London, England (CNN) — A new study has suggested that cell phone radiation may be contributing to declines in bee populations in some areas of the world.

Bee populations dropped 17 percent in the UK last year, according to the British Bee Association, and nearly 30 percent in the United States says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This bit of silliness resurrects a fanciful hypothesis first raised when honey bees started disappearing a couple years back. Somehow electromagnetic radiation from cell phone towers was messing with the bees’ navigational system, leading to the empty hives characteristic of CCD.

The idea was widely reported by a credulous media. Perhaps this is because some science journalists- we’re not naming names here- care more about cell phones than about science. It turned out that those rumors emerged from an inconclusive study using cordless phones- not cell phones- and that the authors themselves stated the work was irrelevant to CCD.

Now researchers in India have addressed the cell phone issue directly, placing active cell phones inside hives for a few months. They conclude that the bees with phone service were unproductive relative to control bees, and that there might be something to the cell phone/CCD idea:

Abstract: Increase in the usage of electronic gadgets has led to electropollution of the environment. Honeybee behaviour and biology has been affected by electrosmog since these insects have magnetite in their bodies which helps them in navigation. There are reports of sudden disappearance of bee populations from honeybee colonies. The reason is still not clear. We have compared the performance of honeybees in cellphone radiation exposed and unexposed colonies. A significant (p < 0.05) decline in colony strength and in the egg laying rate of the queen was observed. The behaviour of exposed foragers was negatively influenced by the exposure, there was neither honey nor pollen in the colony at the end of the experiment.

Let’s look more closely at the methods:

Four colonies of honeybees, Apis mellifera L, were selected in the apiary of the Zoology Department, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Four colonies?! That’s it?

That’s all we need to see to know this study isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. A sample size of four- two of which were controls- is woefully inadequate to overcome the random ups and downs that normally occur among colonies in any apiary. And the p value from the abstract? The paper doesn’t explain how they arrived at it, or even what test they used. It’s just a regurgitated number with no context.

In other words, there is still no link between cell phones and bee declines.

Do CNN’s science reporters have any understanding of statistical power? Or are they too busy texting to learn?


source: Sharma & Kumar (2010) Changes in honeybee behaviour and biology under the influence of cellphone radiations. Current Science 98: 1376-1378.

Comments

  1. #1 ihateaphids
    June 30, 2010

    yeah i was more or less spitting when i saw that on CNN this morning. poor replication, poor experimental design (15 minute continuous bursts in close proximity to the hive!!??), big news.

  2. #2 Warren
    June 30, 2010

    Poor studies notwithstanding, evidence exists that electromagnetic radiation has deleterious effects on living cells. What is not understood is why. This is the source of most of the confusion about this subject.

  3. #3 Alex Wild
    June 30, 2010

    It’s even funnier than that. They actually put the phones inside the hives.

    Conclusive evidence that calling from inside a beehive isn’t good for the bees.

  4. #4 Chris Grinter
    June 30, 2010

    Aside from CNN being a pack of idiots, I was writing my own blog entry about this article when I came across yours first! So instead I’ll comment.

    Let’s grant them for a moment that their C- level science fair project of a study proves that cell phones have an effect on bees. All it proves is just that, not that cell radiation causes CCD. Had the hive mysteriously turned up empty then maybe there would be a glimmer of truth here. I could have placed a microwave in the hive and shown deleterious effects – but I wouldn’t run around suggesting that microwave transmission towers are the cause.

  5. #5 ihateaphids
    July 1, 2010

    i just went back and looked at the paper more closely. I couldn’t believe there was no method provided for the statistical test. what a piece of trash. they say “significantly” all over the place, but do not once present a test. Now I am not one to believe that a p value is always the most useful thing in the world for evaluating hypotheses, but this is absurd. I’m not even sure which values they are comparing.

  6. #6 MrILoveTheAnts
    July 1, 2010

    Cell phones turned on inside the hive are probably making slight vibrations throughout the comb in the nest. Honey Bees don’t actually see the waggle dance (do they?) they feel it with their feet.

  7. #7 Art
    July 1, 2010

    Clearly the mechanism involved is that the bees with phones in their hive spent more of their time working the phone, Tweeting bees in other colonies and playing sodoku, and less time gathering nectar.

  8. #8 Big Blue
    July 1, 2010

    Uh, this is unclear from the paper, but in the space where they placed the cell phones, did they fill it back up with frames?

    If not, any beek who knows their behind from their elbow can tell them that all the hive’s energy went into making burr comb to fill the gap.

    When was the Langstroth hive invented? 1800s?

  9. #9 qetzal
    July 1, 2010

    Warren,

    Can you point to any good evidence that EMF emitted by cell phones has deleterious effects on cells?

  10. #10 stripey_cat
    July 1, 2010

    How hot did the phone get? IANABeekeeper, but isn’t temperature regulation of the hive really significant?

  11. #11 Chet
    July 1, 2010

    Not sure if Warren meant EMF emitted from cell phones, but certain levels of EM radiation are known to have deleterious effects. No time to find the link, but the FCC has some good writeups and frequencies and power levels. (I did a some cursory research on this with regard to placement of a cell phone tower.)

    –Chet

  12. #12 Big Blue
    July 1, 2010

    @ stripey_cat: Yes, temp is important but cell phones don’t get that hot. Bees do fine in Alaskan winters, they do fine in Arizona summers, couple extra degrees from a few cellphones won’t bother them.

    More important from an “oh crap my hive is empty” perspective: What foundation, if any, was used in the frames, how was it prepared and installed, placement of the hive (facing weather vs. sheltered, windy vs. calm, shade vs. sun), location & abundance of nearest food source, presence of predators or competitors (i.e. robber bees), mites, swarming weather conditions, water source, alternative hive locations (did half of the “installed” bees build a new nest in, say, the neighbor’s attic), disease prevalence and treatment methods.

    In this case, with these methods, I would imagine that if they didn’t keep the hives very far apart, there’s no reason that the new nucleus of bees wouldn’t simply go home to their old familiar queen. I don’t know how the swarming season goes in India, but generally you want to time the colony splits when the bees would naturally swarm, when the hive is feeling a little crowded and the “ladies” are raising extra queens anyway. Even so, you can end up with the new nucleus rejecting the new queen and going home or even dying queenless, some breeds are prone to that–the authors don’t specify breed.

    [/beek]

  13. #13 Sean
    July 1, 2010

    How does this stuff get published? This is a failure of peer-review that happens way too often.

  14. #14 qetzal
    July 2, 2010

    Re: Chet (#11)

    I think it’s only fair to assume Warren is talking about EMF from cellphones, or at least something reasonably comparable. Otherwise the statement is both trivially true and irrelevant.

    After all, it’s 100% certain that EMF of 1 PHz can be fatal. And yet, EMF of 0.5 PHz is virtually harmless by comparison. (1 PHz = 1 petahertz = 300 nm UVB irradiation; 0.5 PHz = 600 nm orange light.)

  15. #15 daedalu2u
    July 2, 2010

    This particular study may not be that great, but one bad study doesn’t provide data that the hypothesis is wrong. I don’t think this study is that bad. I have seen lots that are much worse. If you look up the guy interviewed, Andrew Goldsworthy

    http://www.mastsanity.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=269&Itemid=136

    There is more data and theory behind this than the detractors suggest. Detection of magnetic fields via cryptochromes is pretty new and still not well understood.

    The mechanism of transmission of the waggle dance is probably not vibrations sensed through the feet. Air vibrations from the wings is more likely, electrostatic field changes from charged flapping wings more likely still. Electrostatic field changes would be able to transmit direction of bee movement and magnitude. Vibrations through the feet would not. Air vibrations probably wouldn’t either.

    Electrostatic sensing might be through the wings or it could be something more exotic, like voltage gated ion channels.

    If you look at the differences in the different hives, they are gigantic. You don’t need “statistics” to compare an increase of from 7 to 9, with a decrease from 7 to 5.

    It is difficult to do large numbers of hives simultaneously because the flower resources in the vicinity might not support multiple hives. This is more complicated than it seems because bees harvest from many different plants over the season. Inadequate nectar or pollen during the early part of the season could result in a stunted hive (insufficient bee numbers) that can’t harvest enough to survive the winter.

    The electric field produced by the cell phones and measured by the researchers (58 volts/m) is on the same order as electric fields that have been shown to cause disruption in bees (100 volt/cm).

    In any case, no matter how bad a study is, it provides zero data to support a conclusion opposite of the conclusion of the study.

  16. #16 Paul Hutch
    July 2, 2010

    The FCC RF Safety page is here.

    Linked on that page is a good primer, OET Bulletin No. 56, “Questions and Answers about Biological Effects and Potential Hazards of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields”

  17. #17 Paul Hutch
    July 3, 2010

    No surprise to me that 100 V/cm would cause problems for any organism. 100V/cm = 10,000 V/m, about 175 times greater than the cell phone output of 56.8 V/m.

    Just finished reading the paper and to me the final sentence is way over the top.

    We are fortunate that the warning bells have been sounded and it is for us to timely plan strategies to save not only the bees but life from the ill effects of such EMR.

    The authors seem to be hung up on electrosmog and electropollution which would explain why they are using an RF woo meter instead of proper measuring gear. The paper doesn’t specify it but it sure looks like a TDM-200, available from, cash in on a scared public, retailers.

    I’d be laughed out of the EMC test lab if I showed up with one of those +/-25% accurate non-frequency discriminating meters in my toolkit. At least it appears they only used the meter as a way to verify the cell phones were transmitting.

  18. #18 qetzal
    July 3, 2010

    daedalus2u:

    I don’t think this study is that bad.

    I think you must not have look very closely.

    The abstract claims a significant (p less than 0.05) decline in “colony strength,” but the results give no definition or data for “colony strength” at all. They do define and purport to measure “bee strength.” They also mention “colony growth” and present some results in Table 2 as “Changes in colony status.” But nothing for the specific phrase “colony strength.” Bad enough that they give a p value with no description of what test was used, but they don’t even make clear what values are being tested!

    Also, they describe their two control colonies as:

    Blank colony (B) was equipped with dummy cellphones, while the control colony (C) had no cellphones.

    Never again do they mention this difference in the two “control” colonies. Did the dummy cellphones have any effect? The authors give no clue. (I don’t know why they bothered to label the controls “B” and “C” either, since they never use those labels again.)

    There’s also a disturbing tendency to switch back and forth between talking about the test and control colonies for some results, versus the test or control colony for others. Possibly that’s just sloppy writing or being imperfectly fluent in English, but in light of everything else, I wonder.

    I was also struck by some of the data in the tables. For example, Table 2 says the brood area in the controls was “2033.76 ± 182.6 (7–532)” at the start, and “1975.44 ± 138.8 (0–427)” at the end. What numbers are being averaged there? There are only two control colonies, so are they reporting the mean and SD for two values? And what are the numbers in parenteses? And why do they list start and end values for everything in Table 2 except honey stores?

    I could go on (and on). Bottom line: this is a horribly sloppy mess of a paper, and it’s uninterpretable. Sure, it doesn’t suggest that cell phones are harmless to bees, but neither does it show that they’re harmful. It’s so badly written and seems to have been so badly designed and conducted that it basically shows nothing about bees and cellphones at all.

  19. #19 think465
    July 3, 2010

    I think this is one of the most biased and sensationalist studies I have ever read. Utter crap. As someone stated above, not worth the paper it is written on.

    I tried to post on CNN in the comments but couldn’t. The responses from some of the others who believe the CNN story based on something as simple as the article title, is enough to make anyone agitated. It still amazes me how unscientific the general public has become — especially with the advances we have made in technology.

    Where has critical thinking gone?

  20. #20 daedalus2u
    July 11, 2010

    Paul, the OET Bulletin No. 56 that you link to was last revised in 1999. The only biological effects it focuses on are thermal and induced currents. Magnetic field detection via cryptochromes was unknown in 1999, so not surprisingly, they don’t consider such effects.

    They mention auditory “buzzing”, but do not consider that to be a “health effect”. It is focused on human health, it is not focused on disruption of behaviors that may lead to adverse health effects over time in non-human organisms.

    I made a mistake in my previous comment. I wrote 100 V/cm when I should have written 100 V/m. The reference I was using is this:

    http://www.hese-project.org/hese-uk/en/papers/warnke_bbm.pdf

    page 20. The electric field from the phones (57 V/m) is comparable to that observed to affect bees acutely (100 V/m).

    If the phone radiation didn’t kill or harm the “health” of any bees but only caused them to get lost, then according to the bulletin, the phone radiation has no “health effects”. If a bee “gets lost” because it can’t find its way back to the hive, that is not a “health effect” as this bulletin defines “health effect”. Of course, if too many bees get lost, the hive will decline and die because not enough bees are bringing enough honey and pollen back to the hive.

    This study did show acute effects of phone radiation on number of bees returning to the hive. Those number could be statistically significant because they could have been done on multiple days for multiple lengths of time.

    They do define “bee strength” as the number of frames per colony, both in the text and in table 2. All the hives started out at 7 frames, the non-exposed hives increased to 9, the exposed hives decreased to 5.

    The differences in honey stores are not small. I agree, they should not have tried to use statistics on such small n, and should have simply reported the data. Unfortunately many people have a fetish about statistics and want to see a “statistical analysis” even when the data does not warrant it. Just like some people have a fetish about using the latest and greatest instruments and pooh-pooh data obtained with instruments that can be purchased retail.

    Let me ask the detractors of this study what differences would be enough to be important? Given the constraints of 2 control hives and 2 treatment hives, what differences between those hives would be enough to be important enough to justify more work? I agree that 4 hives is a tiny sample. We know that all it takes to get larger samples is more funding. It is obvious that this study was run on a shoe-string budget. Since the only serious objections are in the sample size used, denying more funding until there is research with larger sample sizes seems to be a way of ensuring there will never be larger sample sizes.

    I am not asking what differences would be enough to justify completely shutting down the entire cell phone industry. One small study can’t provide enough justification. However the issue of bees being adversely affected by cell phones is an important one, but one that the cell phone industry has no economic incentive to investigate. The monetary losses associated with adverse effects on bees do not come out of the cell phone industry’s pockets, any actions to mitigate any potential adverse effects of cell phones on bees will. Putting off any mitigation efforts as long as possible is in the cell phone industries economic interest. It is not in societies economic interest. Finding out if there is an effect, what the magnitude of that effect is, and how to mitigate any such effects is important because bees are an important aspect of food production, and of pollination of domestic and wild plants.

  21. #21 saç ekimi
    July 12, 2010

    Hi all;
    A fatal flaw was that they failed to have any representative posts ready to go up when the blog went live.

    Had they done so, and had the content been surprisingly acceptable, the reception might have been better.

    Instead we get this “Hi! Welcome to ShillBlog!” (crickets) and everyone, quite reasonably, expects the worst.

  22. #22 daedalus2u
    July 12, 2010

    Post 21 is spam. It refers to the PepsiCopocalypse and that poster made a spam comment at erv.