Queen Bees, Cellphones, and Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom

By guest blogger Annie Spiegelman (a.k.a the Dirt Diva)

A recent study, conducted this spring in India, found a link between the disappearance of honeybees and cellphones. If only it were that simple. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) was found in the United States and various other countries in 2006. Beekeepers started noticing queen bees—normally very maternal—and their fellow worker bees weren’t returning to their ‘hoods and their hungry brood. Many scientists believe CCD is triggered by a combination of factors that includes mites, pathogenic bacteria and fungi, as well as the ubiquitous overuse of many pesticides. And now, possibly, my treasured iPhone?

In this most recent study, researchers placed two working 900-MHz mobile phones in two beehives, and put two nonfunctioning, dummy phones in two other hives. They watched the hives for three months in the early spring. The working phones were put in call mode twice a week for 15 minutes a day. The hives with the working phones were found to produce less honey, and the queen bees laid fewer eggs. The researchers concluded “the present study therefore suggests that colony collapse does occur as a result of exposure to radiation.”

Many scientists and beekeepers disagree, saying that the study was too small to have any true value. “Indeed, I have read the study and found it very surprising that it passed peer review, ” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist for Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture. He adds: “It is statistically not possible to compare two populations with a sample size of two. This is especially true for bees, as there is so much natural variation. Typically, I would not give much credence to a honeybee study that has a sample size of less than five per treatment group; at a minimum you need three per treatment to perform stats.” Apparently, size matters after all.

Scientists studying CCD say that many of the most severe cases of colony collapse disorder have occurred in rural areas of the United States, where mobile phone coverage is poor. “There are many beekeepers I know who have apiaries where you don’t get cellphone coverage, and they have had losses,” says bee crusader vanEngelsdorp. Other researchers counter that, in fact, the countries where the most CCD has been reported is America and southern Europe, both in the developed world, where technology is widespread.

“A couple of myths are big on the Internet,” says Kim Kaplan, chief of public affairs projects of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff. “A small German scientific study looking at a specific type of cordless phones and homing systems of bees exploded over the Internet a few years ago. It morphed into blaming cellphones for the honeybee die-off. The scientist who wrote that paper, Stefan Kimmel, later sent an email saying ‘no link between our tiny little study and the CCD-phenomenon…anything else said or written is a lie.’ ”

Kaplan explains that this latest study does not demonstrate an incident of CCD, which is characterized by the disappearance of adult bees while honey and brood are left in the hive. The study showed a drop in the amount of brood, a smaller amount of honey, and a drop in the number of bees leaving the hive. “There was no immediate exodus of bees as a result of this interference; instead the bees became quiet and still, or confused as if unable to decide what to do. It would seem the authors got more exercise jumping to conclusions than doing good science,” says Kaplan.”

Ouch! That’s gotta hurt.

Whatever the true answer, I think the ‘elephant in the hive’ is the fact that we continue to pollute Mother Earth and expect no serious consequences. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mother Earth has no sympathy left, like a woman spurned (think Kathy Bates in Misery). She’s fed up with our ignorance, and we’re going to hear about it, whether it’s an apocalyptic storm, a decade of drought, or the mounting loss of beneficial insects necessary for pollinating our fruit trees and vegetables. Saying we’re sorry won’t make a dent. We’re a dollar short and about 70 years too late. We should have listened up when Rachael Carson first sounded the warnings. We should have been adding compost to naturally nourish our yards, instead of using chemicals; and appreciating our precious soil, not over-fertilizing it and drenching it in atrazine (and its chemical cohorts). Everyone should’ve been paying more attention in sixth-grade earth science class.

Better luck next time, suckers!

“Pollinators are canaries in the coal mine, and their disappearance is a referendum on the state of our environment—a reminder of the brilliant and frightening interdependence of our ecosystem,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp. “Part of the problem is NDD: Nature Deficit Disorder. Let’s reconnect to nature again. 11 percent of all U.S. pesticide use is in lawns. Lawns are sterile, useless bio-systems. The cure is making meadows, not lawns.”

Below are some tips for creating a bee-friendly garden:

1. Go organic. Avoid the use of pesticides. If absolutely necessary to purchase a gardening product, shop at a local plant nursery, not a garden center in a mega store. Your local nursery staff will be more familiar with plant/pest problems and trained in smart and sustainable gardening practices, such as IPM (integrated pest management). Always choose the least-toxic product and apply at night to plants that are not flowering. (Recommendations on environmentally friendly gardening products are available at www.ourwaterourworld.org.)

2. Leave some areas of soil mulch-free as habitat for ground-nesting native bees.

3. Install bee-nesting blocks,
available at garden nurseries.

4. Plant smaller lawns. Lawns are water guzzlers. Fertilize them with compost or an organic fertilizer just twice a year, and leave the grass clippings on the lawn when you mow (free nitrogen). If you live in the drought-prone Southwest, consider removing a front lawn and planting a victory garden or a native, drought-tolerant landscape instead. (Whoever came up with the idea of growing lawns in deserts is so fired!)

5. Aim for continuous bloom. For spring bloomers, plant: borage, forget-me-not, wild lilac, coreopsis, clarkia, Echium, foxglove, poppy, lavender, catnip, penstemon, Phacelia, red clover, tansy, and numerous salvias.

For summer bloomers, try: Agastache, bee balm, bergamot, black-eyed susan, catmint, cosmos, coneflower, buckwheat, gaillardia, lavender, lobelia, sunflower, rosemary, Scabiosa, yarrow, and verbena.

6. Support local beekeepers by buying local honey at farmer’s markets.

7. Become a bee detective by joining The Great Sunflower Project at www.greatsunflower.org.

8. To learn more about the mystery of the honeybee, order the extraordinary PBS documentary, Silence of the Bees, produced by Partisan Pictures and WNET, New York.


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2 Responses to Queen Bees, Cellphones, and Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom

  1. Laura B. June 15, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    I remember as a child, any field of white clover was buzzing with honeybees. Now I have to strain, and stare a long time to see a few….sometimes none at all!
    In fact we had a little contest/game. In Trout Creek park in the south side Allentown, a field of grass & white clover, about 500 yards, separated us from the beloved creek. We’d race to the creek, barefoot, to see who’d make it to the creek w/out stopping to tend their bee stings! We’d pull out the pulsing stingers & then soak our sore feet in the cool mud. A big difference in bee populations compared to today.

  2. Peter B. June 22, 2010 at 4:15 am #

    To me the cell phone is the red herring in this. What really grabs my attention are cell phone towers. They’re everywhere, and they use microwave radiation to transmit.

    So how come no one does a study on microwave radiation on the pesticides in bees bodies? Maybe it’s the microwave alone that is enough to fry bees and other insects.

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