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

Fox News FAIL: Insect Museums

Ok, I’m a couple of days late to this, but that’s mostly because I had to wait until I could stop cussing and breathing in a bag to calm down.  If you haven’t already heard, Anthony Cognato got sandbagged by Fox News when they sent Tucker Carleson in to interview him about a grant he received from NSF to upgrade the MSU insect collection facility.

They called it wasted stimulus money! OMGWTF?

I think the issue of why keeping historic specimens is important has been addressed elsewhere, and Anthony had a pretty good answer in the video–it’s a library of the past, that we need to preserve.  Aside from just knowing what species occurred where, the genetic material in those specimens is invaluable. How have insects changed since the introduction of different agrochemicals and introduced competitors?  It’s all in this library of dead insects.

I’m sure my friends at the NCSU Insect Museum can provide a better and more detailed explanation of the value of insect collections.  (*cough* HINT!) Their blog makes their work more public, which is a great idea!  People don’t value what they don’t understand. Witness: The Fox “news” story.

Those of you who have not worked with historic collections (insect or otherwise!) may not be aware that dead insects and other animals are very fragile things.  It is a constant battle to keep them from being eaten or decaying. The primary culprits are dermestid beetles–little larvae that can wreak havoc on everything from a 200-year old insect specimen to your favorite sweater.

In fact, dermestids are good enough at eating things that they are commonly used by museums in another context–to clean off all the remaining flesh from a vertebrate skeleton.

Many, many students have made fabulous insect collections, but not listened to my admonitions to use a tightly sealed box with moth balls or other repellents …and ended up with a box of brightly colored dust.  It is very, very difficult to keep dermestids out, because they are so tiny. You need specially sealed cabinets. And that is why MSU applied for, and received, a grant to upgrade their storage for a collection that dates back to 1867.

An additional issue is human health: everything that is commonly used to repel insects from collections is toxic to people. While I find the aroma of mothballs relaxing and homey, most people recognize it as a carcinogen. And keeping those vapors sealed tightly in a cabinet is healthier for entomologists.

Want to know more?

Check out this National Park Service publication for horrifying photos of the kinds of damage that dermestids (and other insect pests) can do:

National Park Service Conserv-O-Gram: How to Identify Museum Insect Pest Damage (PDF)

Anthony explains what the grant was for…without the entomophobia hype or anti-gubmint crap:

Want to skeletonize something at home? How to Skeletonize a mammal with Dermestids (UofM Museum)