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Is the Cellphone Killing the Honeybee? Uh…No

Is the Cellphone Killing the Honeybee? Uh…No

Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomena which has been observed in North America, Europe and to a lesser extent Asia and Australia.  It’s the depopulation of bees, primarily European honey bees and related species and has caused a great deal of concern over the potential impacts to pollination of vital crops.    The problem has become  acute in recent years, with some areas seeing as many as 40% of honey bee colonies die off due to CCD.

The exact cause of the condition remains uncertain, but data indicates that the most likely cause is related to parasites or viral infection of the bees.   This may be exacerbated by other stresses on the species including localized pollution, insecticides and environmental changes. Israel acute paralysis virus has been suggested as a likely cause or contributing factor to colony collapse.

Unfortunately, the condition has also been a lightning rod for questionable scientific claims. For some time, a number of groups have latched onto this and claimed that it is likely the result of genetic engineering of plants or other organisms. Despite there being no evidence for this, the Sierra Club stated:

Highly respected scientists believe that exposure to genetically engineered crops and their plant-produced pesticides merit serious consideration as either the cause or a contributory factor to the development and spread of CCD

Well no scientist I have much respect for.

Needless to say, there’s no evidence for this and no reason to presume it would be the case. Others have blamed the feeding of bees with high fructose corn syrup or other sugars from genetically modified plants. This despite the fact that the phenomena has not been shown to have any relationship to this practice. It has also not been shown to be more likely to occur in areas where genetically modified crops are in use. Indeed, colony collapse has been seen across Europe, including areas where genetically engineered crops are all but non-existent.

Others have claimed that colony collapse is related to electromagnetic radiation, especially from cell phones. This claim too lacks any empirical evidence to support it and would seem to make even less sense than some of the others. Somehow these honeybees of the UK were able to whether World War II and the early Cold War, despite the Island nation bristling with high power RAF radar installations. The hundreds of kilowatts of FM radio and television didn’t phase them nor did the decades of microwave relay networks. Now, however, some are claiming that the minuscule amount of radiation from a cell phone tower is killing bees and thus endangering civilization as we know it.

There is also no explanation given for why there appears to be no coloration at all between cell phone coverage or signal strength and colony collapse. While colony collapse has been observed in rural areas of the United States (where cell service ranges from fair to poor) it has not been seen in parts of Asia that have extreme density of mobile base stations.  In Europe, CCD appears to be limited primarily to southern portions of the continent. The UK, Sweden and other countries have seen only sporadic and mild to moderate cases of CCD. This despite the fact that their mobile coverage is at least as good (or better than) that found in the rural US or other areas where CCD has been at its worst.

To this end, a study was conducted, and not surprisingly, it’s a very poor one.

Via the Telegraph:

Their disappearance has caused alarm throughout Europe and North America where campaigners have blamed agricultural pesticides, climate change and the advent of genetically modified crops for what is now known as ‘colony collapse disorder.’ Britain has seen a 15 per cent decline in its bee population in the last two years and shrinking numbers has led to a rise in thefts of hives.

Now researchers from Chandigarh’s Punjab University claim they have found the cause which could be the first step in reversing the decline: They have established that radiation from mobile telephones is a key factor in the phenomenon and say that it probably interfering with the bee’s navigation senses.

They set up a controlled experiment in Punjab earlier this year comparing the behaviour and productivity of bees in two hives – one fitted with two mobile telephones which were powered on for two fifteen minute sessions per day for three months. The other had dummy models installed.

After three months the researchers recorded a dramatic decline in the size of the hive fitted with the mobile phon, a significant reduction in the number of eggs laid by the queen bee. The bees also stopped producing honey.

Do I need to go any further with this? They came to the conclusion based on TWO hives. ONE active and ONE control. Three months, one experiment, two hives.

I am glad, however, to see that the Telegraph also published an opposing (and correct) viewpoint:

Mobile phones and bees: shoddy research helps no one

Riding high at the top of the most viewed list in the Telegraph earth section today is a story headed ‘Mobile phones responsible for disappearance of honey bee‘, which describes a study of hives in India and concludes that electromagnetic radiation is the cause of colony collapse disorder [CCD], the phenomenon – that has mostly affected the United States – of beehive populations crashing with no obvious cause.

As a beekeeper myself I’d be very glad to know what has caused the problems plaguing the almond and cotton fields of the US, but I’m afraid that this study does little to get us closer to an answer.

The researchers took four hives and placed two working 900MHz mobile phones (a very common frequency) in two of them and dummy, non-functioning phones in the other two. From February to April they were put in call mode for 15 minutes a day between 11am and 3pm, twice a week. The hives with phones were found to produce less honey, and their queens laid fewer eggs.

Combined with previous studies that found adverse effects on honeybees from electrical power lines, the researchers conclude that ‘the present study therefore suggests that colony collapse does occur as a result of exposure to cellphone radiations,’ but it does nothing of the sort.

Four hives is an incredibly small sample size, and every beekeeper will tell you that hives right next to each other can thrive or fail for a huge variety of reasons. No sensible conclusion can be drawn from such a tiny experiment.

It’s also the case that most colony collapse has been observed in rural America, where mobile phone coverage is poor. No attempt to measure signal strength in fields where colonies have been lost was made. The researchers note that the countries that have reported CCD (the US, areas of southern Europe) are all in the developed world, where mobile phones are ubiquitous, whereas countries such as India, where technology that generates electromagnetic radiation is ‘comparatively new’ are unaffected. As GSM 900MHz networks are very common in India and throughout the developing world, this is clearly false. The UK is also unaffected by CCD, and we have some of the best mobile phone coverage in the world.

Unfortunately, this “study” has been getting far more press than it deserves and articles critical of it have been getting all too little. Yet that seems to be the way it always is, doesn’t it?


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