Is it too early to dismiss a link between mobile phones and bee disappearances?
By Adam Smith
Science and communications officer, ANH-Intl
Pesticides are a major contributor to bee colony collapse disorder (CCD), according to governments and the scientific community. But are they too quick to dismiss a link between CCD and electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from mobile phones and other sources?
CCD and the threat to our food supply
Bee populations worldwide face an ongoing threat from CCD. Because human agriculture relies so heavily on bees for pollination, the world’s food supply looks increasingly insecure. Finding the cause and remedy for CCD is, therefore, an urgent priority.
Prime suspect: Neonicotinoids
Prime among the current suspects are the neonicotinoid class of pesticides. After three papers were recently published in the journals PLOS One and Science, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was asked for its opinion. EFSA rather sat on the fence, but promised a full review of several neonicotinoids that is due for publication in December 2012.
A comprehensive report by the US-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found that, “There is no direct link demonstrated between neonicotinoids and the honeybee bee syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder. However, recent research suggests that nenonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens…which has been implicated as one causitive [sic] factor for CCD”. With a reference list of well over 150 papers, it’s clear that a large research effort is directed toward teasing out the connection between bees, neonicotinoids and pesticides – even if the results aren’t clear-cut.
The mystery of the vanishing bees
By pointing to a multifactorial cause for CCD, the Xerces report is surely correct. According to the United Nations (UN), other factors implicated include invasive species, such as the Varroa mite, pollution and weakened bee immune systems, courtesy of poor nutrient availability.
All of which is very logical and plausible. However, one curious feature of CCD that none of these mechanisms explain is that adult bees simply disappear from the colonies, never to be found: “Beekeepers report that colonies with CCD do not contain any dead bees, neither are there dead bees on the ground outside of the colonies. The adult bees simply vanish”.
EMR off the radar
The UN report contains an interesting sentence: “Electric and magnetic fields may also influence bee behaviour, as bees are sensitive to these fields through small abdominal crystals that contain lead. However, currently there is insufficient data and research to establish a causal link between the impact of these fields and bee mortality.” Not so long ago, EMR was touted by the media as a leading cause of CCD, but since then it has quietly slipped off the radar.
Link demonstrated in 1970s
This is very strange, since good quality research indicates that EMR has a powerful effect on the navigational ability of bees. Dr Ulrich Warnke of the University of Saarland, Germany, has spent much of his career examining the effects of EMRs on nature. In Bees, birds and mankind: Destroying nature by ‘electrosmog’, Dr Warnke recounts the dramatic effects upon bee colonies of EMR fields of different frequencies. At a frequency of 10–20 kHz, for example, “The aggressiveness was increased and the homing ability much reduced even though the natural meteorological and electromagnetic environment was intact in the flight space”. A 50 Hz frequency eventually led to the colony burning itself out. Elsewhere in the document, Dr Warnke provides evidence that – in line with the UN report – bees use the iron compound magnetite and free radicals to navigate, utilising the Earth’s magnetic field.
Why no follow-up?
These are startling results. What’s most startling is that the experiments were conducted in the mid-1970s, but very little follow-up research has been performed – or at least published. It’s true that modern mobile telephony systems use much higher frequencies than those studied by Dr Warnke, but surely that’s a reason to pursue further research? A more recent study of cordless, rather than mobile, telephone systems was performed by researchers at Koblenz-Landau University, Germany, in 2007. Even though the researchers hedged their bets and made cautious conclusions, they found that 63% of non-irradiated bees returned to the hive, compared with only 49% of irradiated ones.
A study by Swiss researcher Daniel Favre showed that a behaviour that is used by bees to signal alarm or swarming can be induced by mobile phones. Even from the limited evidence available, it would take a brave, or foolish, person to conclude that telephony-induced radiation has no effect on bees.
Commerce vs. crops
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised, however. It took the World Health Organization (WHO) many years to respond to overwhelming research and classify radiofrequency EMRs as a possible human carcinogen. Maybe it’s just easier for governments and official bodies everywhere to pander to the powerful mobile phone lobbies, by directing research funds away from potentially embarrassing avenues? We can only imagine the political upheaval if EMRs are shown not only to be carcinogenic, but also partly responsible for CCD and an enormous threat to our food supply...
Call to action
Write to your MEPs and urge them to table questions in the European Parliament, asking why no research is being funded into links between EMRs and CCD. Point out that the foundational research has already been carried out by people like Dr Ulrich Warnke
Support Neal’s Yard’s campaign, and their petition for a UK ban on neonicotinoids. Neal’s Yard Remedies Bee Lovely Petition, open until 30th November 2012, is attempting to put pressure on the British government to bring in restrictions on neonicotinoids. If you’re a UK resident, please sign this petition!
For those with a back garden, ensure you have a good sequence of flowering plants attractive to bees throughout the growing season
Become a hobby beekeeper! You can set up a simple top-bar beehive in your backgarden, either by making one yourself or buying one as a kit. There are ample resources readily available on the Internet to help you on your way if you decide to set up your own hive