Bees, CCD, and Cell phones: Still no Link.

Once again, the media is going bonkers over a bee paper, and making claims way out of proportion to any actual results. Here are some sample headlines:

I do not know why people are so determined to prove that cellphones harm bees.  OMG RADIATIONS IN MAI BEEZ!!!

A preprint of a paper that has not yet appeared in a journal (!) was released this week. It is a preliminary study, and reports results of a bunch of *unreplicated* experiments.
Very. Bad. Science. Reporting.

When you look at the actual paper, you notice two things immediately:

1. There were NO dying bees. At all.

Seriously, the words ‘die’, ‘killed’, and ‘dying’ don’t even occur in the paper.  There is one instance of the word ‘death’ and that is in a reference, not in the body of the paper.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with cell phones.

2. The design of the experiments are questionable; the results are kinda interesting, but they are not linked to CCD in any way, shape, or form.

Like earlier papers that caused a big kerfuffle in the media, when you actually examine the research you find that there are some serious methodology questions. And a lot of distortion of the results.  It’s reporting by press release.

Let’s pick this paper apart and look at why it is not the Beepocalypse that some media have claimed.

Like a paper that I criticized last year, the author put cell phones on top of an actual hive.   Most people do not stand inside–or next to–active beehives when they are chatting about what to get for dinner.  This design is rather analogous to strapping cellphones to your scrotum. Sure you’ll get an effect–but is it a real one that the average scrotum owner needs to worry about?

Even though the phones were–literally–on top of the hive, it wasn’t until they had been transmitting for over 30 minutes before an effect was recorded.  The effect was that the bees began piping (a really cool rhythmic buzzy sound).  It is true that piping bees are related to swarms; however, bees pipe for a lot of other reasons too.  If you bump into a hive, bees will pipe. It’s something they do when they are disturbed.

It’s important to note that no alteration of behavior (swarming or otherwise) other than piping was actually observed, even after 20 hours of exposure to active mobile phone headsets.  The swarming and dying part was completely made up.

The immediate critique that occurs to me is that a cell phone transmitting for over an hour will heat up.  If a hot, noisy object is on top of a bee hive, I think it is reasonable to expect the bees to react.  That effect may have no relationship with cell phone transmission or magnetic fields at all.

It is, frankly, difficult for me to say much about this paper besides negative things, because it is entirely made up of un-replicated experiments. It was a “pilot study”.  As a reviewer, I would not have approved this paper in it’s present form, simply because it is so difficult to figure out just what the methodology was!!

I can’t even say how often the piping occurred because no statistics are presented.  At the very least, I would want to see how long, on average, the phones were on and transmitting before piping began! The acoustic characteristics of the piping are described, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the relationship to phones.

In terms of sample size, we have 8 negative control trials (phones off); 10 inactive trials (phones on, but not transmitting); and 12 active trials (phones on and transmitting for unspecified times).  Each of these conditions (off/on/transmitting) was tested on different days, and at two different locations, but there are no details on which and when.

The “83 experiments” number used in so many of these news stories appears to be a complete misunderstanding of what an experiment actually is. The paper did say that 80 sound recordings were made–but clearly some of those were repeated measures on the same setup.  The actual sample size was at best 12.

So, in summary:

Bees are in trouble, but there is nothing here to indicate that your cell phone is the culprit.

Paper citation:
Daniel Favre (2011). Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping. Apidologie : 10.1007/s13592-001-0016-x

30 thoughts on “Bees, CCD, and Cell phones: Still no Link.

  1. Thanks for posting this. It’s driving me crazy to see how the cell phone story has flooded the internet.

    I have a feeling I’ll bee playing the Honey Bee Murder Mystery Game: http://is.gd/hH1Vk0 with the public for years to set the story straight.

  2. Thank you for that. BTW, could you contact the editors of Apidologie with your concerns. It’s OK having this post but as a fellow scientist we need to get stuck into this poor science at it’s source, the journals. Ta.

  3. I am mystified at some of the stuff that’s been showing up in print lately. This could have been publishable data–IF it had actual numbers and information about what actually happened.

    The author seems to be a wiling participant and promoter of the misinformation, since he is heavily quoted in some of the most egregious articles.

  4. Statement from Dr. phil. nat. Daniel Favre
    Biologist and apiary adviser

    and concerning the scientific article entitled
    “Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping”
    Apidologie, DOI: 10.1007/s13592-011-0016-x
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/bx23551862212177/fulltext.pdf
    ………………………………………………………………………………………………..

    “Active mobile phone handsets have a dramatic impact on the behavior of the bees, namely by inducing the worker piping signal ”

    “In natural conditions, worker piping either announces the swarming process of the bee colony or is a signal of a disturbed bee colony”

    “For future experiments, in complement to the present original study and in order to reach more “natural” conditions, mobile phone apparatuses should be placed at various increasing distances away from the hives”

    “We should ask ourselves, whether the plethora of mobile phone masts also have an impact on the behaviour of the honeybees”

    “Among other factors such as the varroa mite and pesticides, signals from mobile phones and masts could be contributing to the decline of honeybees around the world ; I am calling the international scientific community for more research in this field. ”

  5. Just read “Cell Phones Caused Mysterious Worldwide Bee Deaths, Study Finds” – Front page of FoxNews with a picture – of a bumble bee of course – but labeled as such and not bumblebee). Except for the completely false headline and the apparent lack of understanding that honey bees and bumble bees are different, the article itself isn’t that bad: sites and links to their source (Daily Mail), quotes the ‘former biologist’, and reviews previous work competently, including that ‘other bee experts’ have different opinions about CCD. Then the last third of the article morphs into a report on the decline of bumble bees in North America. Say what? Well, nice picture of a European bumble bee anyway.

  6. Testing the effects of radio signals is NOT rocket science. In industry we have to do this all the time including the CE immunity testing done on most electronic products bearing the CE mark. You simply use calibrated signal generators feeding calibrated amplifiers driving calibrated directional antennas.

    This simple industry standard setup can be kept meters away from the hives eliminating the thermal, acoustic and other mechanical factors that may be introduced by placing electronics in and on hives. The audio recording can also be done from a distance using a parabolic or shotgun microphone. Any decent engineering/physics department should be able to help entomologists get this up and running in short order for a very low cost.

  7. Exactly, Hutch! And with a Faraday cage, you could compare to a hive that is protected from external sources.

    I don’t know why these studies haven’t used a better design, or the expertise of actual physicists.

  8. The cell phone stuff is someone trying to get a buzz. However try and pollinate a vegetable. It is very labor intensive, time consuming, and you don’t even know if your pollination works until you have the cucumber or squash or almond ready to pick.
    As Einstein said, four years after the bees disappear, the human race is finished.

  9. Oh, and I’ve been saving screen shots of the stories i linked to at the top of the post–it’s fairly entertaining to see how they have changed as they try to backpedal.

    (except for Gizmodo, which still has the original title and story–SHAME!)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5727919863/in/photostream

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5713116777/in/photostream/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5712925416/in/photostream/

    Bonus double Fail: photo not a bee, story not news
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bug_girl/5718975306/in/photostream/

  10. The study does not state from where the funding came. Is that information available, as well as any conflicts of interest disclosure?

  11. The spectra of the bee pipes look a bit like the spectrum of the beeps that a GSM phone makes when it interferes with an audio system. As you all probably know GSM phones can have a dramatic effect on audio equipment. The GSM beep is actually an harmonic signal with peaks at multiples of 217 Hz. It has to do with how GSM works.

    You can recreate their experiment minus the bees with a GSM phone (not 3G or 4G), a corded mic and a computer with a spectral analyzer app. I used Spectran http://www.sdrham.com/spectran.html. Put the phone next to the mic cord and start a phone call.

    Here’s a screenshot that shows a recording of the end of a phone call, followed by ambient noise after I hung up the phone: http://tinypic.com/view.php?pic=ezo4qr&s=7 It’s hard to tell how well the spectra agree, but I think they look similar enough to warrant some way of ruling out the phone’s radio unit as the source of the “bee pipe” signal.

  12. Hello everybody,
    please listen to two sounds emitted by undisturbed honeybees (no cellular phones in their close vicinity; similar sounds are obtained with shut-down mobile phones and mobile phones in stand-by mode) :
    http://storage.canalblog.com/58/80/54872/37550264.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/95/66/54872/37550225.wma

    Now, please listen to eight sound files obtained in hives with honeybees that are disturbed by mobile phones :
    http://storage.canalblog.com/09/40/54872/37550322.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/33/36/54872/37550408.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/75/26/54872/47507670.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/43/86/54872/47507675.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/80/32/54872/47507681.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/69/07/54872/47507682.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/83/59/54872/47507686.wma
    http://storage.canalblog.com/30/25/54872/47507695.wma

    I thank you very much for your attention and considerations and remain,
    Dr. phil. nat. Daniel Favre
    author of the scientific article :
    “Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping”
    Apidologie, DOI: 10.1007/s13592-011-0016-x
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/bx23551862212177/fulltext.pdf

  13. That’s very helpful Dr. Favre. I wondered if those files were available. There is no audible GSM radio interference in any of those recordings as far as I can tell. (Incidentally the bee that’s making noise at 00:02-00:03 in 37550408.wma does a pretty good imitation of the GSM buzz for a second.)

  14. Most phones in the U.S. are not GSM, though, right? The U.S. is a decade or so behind Europe on switching to GSM.

    Was that taken into account?

  15. Was it taken into account by the reporters, Ed?
    No, they were too busy making stuff up to bother with a detail like American Cell phones arent’ the same as European ones ;p

  16. Ed: People are not switching to GSM. They’re switching from GSM to newer standards. GSM is an old standard that’s about to begin to be phased out in the US, although that will probably take many years to complete.

  17. Bug-girl, is there a reference or some research group that you would recommend for those of us who might be interested in the history of CCD, and the best, most current research about the issue and possible consensus?

    I ask because I know a few bee-keepers who are genuinely interested, but incredibly technologically illiterate, and would love to pass on some of this info.

    Thanks!

  18. With the rate of disappearing bees, I would think that more experiments ought to be done – the right way – to test the possible impact of these new sources of electromagnetic and microwave energy that have become so pervasive. Many studies show multiple effects of rf on biological life, including humans – enough studies to warrent further verification of effects. See:
    http://bioinitiative.org/

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