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Are Cell Phones Killing Off Bees?

June 17, 2011

There I was surfing along Facebook, when I saw a link my sister posted: "It's Official - Cell Phones are Killing Bees."

Whoa, I thought, that's taking it a bit far. I'd heard about bee populations mysteriously dwindling, but wasn't really too concerned -- the price of honey in the supermarket, the surest sign of an impending shortage, seemed about the same. The gist of the arguments I'd heard were along the lines of "Lots of bees are dying in America over the past thirty years, just when cell phones have gotten popular!"

Yeah, a whole lot else has changed in the past thirty years too -- we have car alarms now, that's gotta be a net minus. Maybe global warming's killing them off. Maybe disco did.

But with half an hour to kill before Game Five of the NBA championship tipped off, I clicked the link on her Facebook page.

Cell Phones Ringing, Ringing and Ringing Bother Me Too.

It took me to Inhabitant -- site's tag line: "Design will save the world." The writer claimed research conducted in Switzerland showed that "the signal from cell phones not only confuses bees, but also may lead to their death. Over 83 experiments have yielded the same results."

That story linked back to a piece in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, titled "Why a mobile phone ring may make bees buzz off: Insects infuriated by handset signals." It was a bit calmer in tone, opening with "Signals from mobile phones could be partly to blame for the mysterious deaths of honeybees, new research shows."

According to the Daily Mail, a researcher put a cell phone under a bee hive, and noted their reaction when the phone rang. It appears the bees were agitated, as I am when a cell phone rings and rings and nobody answers it. If the phone had a Miley Cyrus song sample as its ring tone I'd say we have our scientific answer right there.

The researchers reported that when the cell phone rang the bees made the kind of buzzing and squeaking sound they make to tell each other okay guys, it's time to leave the hive now. Dr. Daniel Favre, who conducted the research, "recorded the high pitched calls made by the bees when the handsets were switched off, placed on stand-by and activated," the Daily Mail said.

Bothered, Yes. Destructive Swarming... Well, Not So Much.

What Favre found was that "around 20 to 40 minutes after the phones were activated, the bees began to emit piping calls -- a series of high pitched squeaks that announce the start of swarming. Within two minutes of the phone call ending, the worker bees calmed down."

But Favre admitted in his findings published in the bee keeping journal Apidologie, the bees didn't actually swarm, "even after 20 hours' exposure to mobile phone signals."

In fact, the Daily Mail wrote, Favre himself concluded the study did not show that mobile phones were deadly for bees. The most he'd commit himself to was a hypothesis that electromagnetic fields "might be contributing to the disappearance of bee colonies."

Well, that's certainly a far cry from "It's Official - Cell Phones are Killing Bees." Note to self: Take any future Inhabitant headlines at less than face value.

TIME magazine found scientists on both sides of the fence, citing Andrew Goldsworthy a British biologist, saying that cellphone radiation affects the insects' ability to find their hives, and quoted Norman Carreck, a scientist at the University of Sussex, saying "We know they are sensitive to magnetic fields. What we don't know is what use they actually make of them,."

But The Bees Are Disappearing, Right?

Nobody's really arguing whether bee populations are declining. They are. "The decline in the US bee population, first observed in 2006, is continuing, a phenomenon that still baffles researchers and beekeepers," wrote Agence France-Presse in late May.

In fact, as AFP says, data from the US Department of Agriculture "show a 29 percent drop in beehives in 2009, following a 36 percent decline in 2008 and a 32 percent fall in 2007." Scientists call it "colony collapse disorder," and say it could be due to viruses, parasites, insecticides, malnutrition and other environmental factors, or a combination of the above.

In 2010 British website The Ecologist reported that beekeepers lost one in six of their honey bee hives over the winter, citing statistics provided by the British Beekeepers Association. In a glass-half-full note, though, the BBKA added that "the nationwide figure is slightly improved on the 19 per cent losses suffered in 2008 and considerably less than the 30 per cent losses from 2007."

And cell phone use in Britain hasn't decreased from 2007. Okay, you don't kill a bee whenever you make a cell phone call. That's good to know. So why are the bees disappearing?


"Research conducted in 23 US states and Canada and published in the Public Library of Science journal found 121 different pesticides in 887 samples of bees, wax, pollen and other elements of hives," AFP reported. Canada's CBC News noted back in 2008 that pesticides designed to protect honeybees "are losing their effectiveness... leading to a second year in a row of heavy colony losses across Canada," due to parasitic mites.

But frankly pesticides aren't widely seen as the sum total of the problem. In the journal Science, Professor Ratniek from the University of Sussex said pesticides aren't the culprit, except among those with an agenda:

"Personally, I think there are people that want to put the blame on certain factors that fit their worldview. People want to blame pesticides but I think it is highly unlikely. We're not saying they are good for bees but they are not to blame for the declined."

Oh, and scratch global warming: "Other factors, including a longer winter and wetter spring in some regions and a failure to control a newly introduced virus called Nosema ceranae have led to widespread colony losses," CBC notes.

I told you, it's disco. All that polyester can't be good for anyone.

Habitat Loss

The Ecologist wrote in early 2010 that "intensification of farming and subsequent decline in food sources, rather than pesticides or disease, is seen as biggest threat to honey bees." The British journal cited loss of wild habitat and forage as "the most significant long-term threat to honey bee populations in Europe and the US."

Britain's The Independent quoted Jeff Pettis, lead researcher at Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, saying the best thing to help bees is "to try to limit habitat destruction," leaving more natural areas in agriculture and in cities such so honey bees can have "a diverse natural environment."


In late 2010 Sydney Cameron, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, after a three-year study of eight species of bumblebees in the United States, presented a paper comparing current and historical distributions of eight bumblebee species, finding that four species have declined by up to 96 percent, and that not only have their surveyed geographic ranges shrunk by 23-87 percent, but that "declining populations have significantly higher infection levels of the microsporidian pathogen Nosema bombi and lower genetic diversity compared with co-occurring populations of the stable (nondeclining) species."

As Cameron concluded, then, "higher pathogen prevalence and reduced genetic diversity are, thus, realistic predictors of these alarming patterns of decline in North America, although cause and effect remain uncertain."

Even back in 2004 National Geographic cited Maryann Frazier, a senior extension associate in the department of entomology with Pennsylvania State University, saying honeybee shortages are due in great part to the varroa mite, a bloodsucking parasite that attacks young and adult honeybees: "Attacked bees often have deformed wings and abdomens and a shortened life span. The varroa mite is also really effective at transmitting disease, particularly viruses."

Frazier said that left untreated, "a varroa mite infestation can wipe out a bee colony within a few months."

It's Not Just The Honey, Honey.

The problem with declining bee populations isn't just that there's less honey. Bees are crucial to the rest of agriculture because they pollinate other crops. "Bumblebees are important pollinators of wild plants and agricultural crops around the world including tomatoes and berries thanks to their large body size, long tongues, and high-frequency buzzing, which helps release pollen from flowers," reports Britain's The Guardian:

"Bees in general pollinate some 90 percent of the world's commercial plants, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to increase yields." In fact, The Guardian notes, "It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon pollination by bees."

Great Green Gadgets puts it rather plainly: "Bees are significant pollinators, pollinating over 60 different types of crops up to a third of all our food crops. Without pollinators, fruit trees wouldn't give us their yummy harvests, and many other plants such as cucumbers, squash, watermelons and pumpkins would exist only in the history books - provided there would still be those too."

So yes, bees are important. Let's keep them. And it's okay to pick up your cell phone and call someone about it.


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