I Not the Bees!!!don’t know about my entomological colleagues, but I am getting rather snippy over stories about the latest thing that’s killing bees.

Some of this I think is related to the false sense of urgency mainstream media seems to need to create about all stories. OMG NOT THE BEEZ!!!  (obligatory photo of Nicholas Cage inserted here).

Some of it is also the way in which the honeybee problem is framed.  It’s presented as a simple cause/effect relationship between bee declines and some unknown toxic thing.  A new identity of this cause is covered breathlessly every few months, but the reality of the research suggests there is no single cause.   As I said in an interview, it’s not that there isn’t a smoking gun, it’s that there are 20 guns.

This morning several people sent me a link to this article:

Diesel Fumes May Be Behind Global Collapse Of Honey Bee Colonies

Researchers from the University of Southampton believe nanoparticles emitted from diesel engines could be affecting bees’ brains and damaging their in-built navigation skills.

They believe this may stop worker bees finding their way back to the hive.

There is also a theory that diesel fumes mop up flower smells in the atmosphere, making it difficult for the insects to find food.

There were several things about this article that made my antennae twitch.  First, it’s from Huffington Post, which has a pretty dismal reputation for science reporting.  But then I found almost exactly the same article on the BBC website. And PhysOrg.

So, clearly, there is a consensus that this is newsworthy. And I can see why–people are interested in nanotechnology, and in bee disappearance.   But what lay readers ask when they forward these stories to me is along the lines of “Did you know that truck exhaust is killing bees?
Even though it is coverage of an investigation that is planned. It isn’t based on any research results yet.

We don’t know there is a relationship.

I am sure the researchers have some preliminary evidence, or they would not have gotten funded. And it’s certainly an interesting question that is worthy of study.  My question for my readers is: Is this really national news?

I don’t think it is. I think it’s interesting, but I’m not so sure it’s ready for prime time.  My reasoning is partly because the evidence just isn’t there yet; and partly that releasing it as news gives it the weight of evidence.  You can see people jumping to conclusions all over the web:

But when it comes to serious alarms, dear reader, consider only the small print of this week’s news. Not banks or battles, but bees, dying in their millions, perhaps poisoned or brain-damaged by diesel fumes.

Most of the news stories are careful to say this is an investigation–but what is clearly being heard is “diesel fumes are hurting bees.”

I find myself in the problematic position of not wanting something to be covered widely as news because people aren’t listening or thinking carefully enough. (Which, frankly, could cover a lot of the daily news cycle, not just stories about insects.)

What do you think?

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. If the investigation hasn’t been done yet, I think news media should have refrained from reporting on it. An investigation might turn up convincing evidence of a link between bee declines and diesel fumes, or it might not, or maybe it would find evidence for a different cause. Either way, it’s better to have accurate information out there, so people who want to do something can focus on the right problems.

  2. Most news seems pretty vapid and panic-inducing, while ignoring fundamental issues of concern – it’s a means of distraction, almost. Thanks for linking to the article from the Scientific American, though.

  3. Don’t know if you’ve read Hannah Nordhaus’ book The Beekeeper’s Lament, but it does a fantastic job of explaining CCD and the latest research in a non-sensationalized way. I reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Review of Books (http://lareviewofbooks.org/post/11058952252/honey-and-the-long-haul) and thought it was super. I love your statement about hating the “OMG NOT THE BEEZ!!!” approach.

  4. I got tired of reading articles a few months ago claiming that mobile phones were killing bees, based on the misreporting of the Daniel Favre research. It was clear that the journalists who wrote them a) knew very little about bees and b) either hadn’t read the research paper or had read it but had completely misunderstood or ignored its findings. Journalists are under pressure to attract readers and some can’t resist hysterical, over-the-top headlines.

  5. Well, that will teach me to blog about a subject in which I’m interested but not a died-in-the-wool expert. I’ve kept bees in the past, saw the report in a couple of places and mentioned it on my blog. Yes, I’m one of those naughty people who flagged the story up and caught Buggirl’s attention.

    What I didn’t say was that “diesel fumes kill bees”. Nor did I say there was a relationship between diesel fumes and CCD. What I actually said was “yet another new theory” has been proposed and that “I suspect the collapse is probably due to an interlinked set of factors”. I concluded by saying “if only it were that simply to identify the wider cause of colony collapse”.

    I’d have thought that having some members of the wider public taking an interest would have had some merit, but no, it seems not. We should leave it to the experts or risk arousing their ire because we don’t know enough to say or contribute anything worthwhile. Does anyone else see a problem with that?

  6. I think you read Waaay more into my comments than was meant, Stoney!

    Many people sent me that article from HuffPo, and it wasn’t until I started investigating that I realized that it was being run, almost unchanged, all over the web by news organizations. That’s what I have an issue with!

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