Honeybees, particularly in the United States, are in decline.
In 2007-2008, 36 percent of apiaries surveyed by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that some of their colonies had simply…disappeared, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
In the most recent survey, covering September 2008 to April 2009, 26 percent of the apiaries reported that some of their colonies were lost to CCD, a lower number but still alarming: not just to beekeepers, for whom these kinds of losses are economically unsustainable, but for those of us who like to eat, because bees pollinate 80 percent of fruits and vegetables, and a much as a third of the food we consume relies on bees being trucked around the country to provide this service.
Hypotheses as to what might be causing CCD have ranged all over the map, including one that cropped up immediately, got a lot of press, was generally considered debunked, and has now cropped up again: radiation from cell phone towers.
The new round of “cell phones are killing the bees” stories arose from a single short news item out of India claiming that a study by Dr. Sainudeen Pattazhy, an environmentalist and zoology teacher at Sree Narayana College in Kerala, had shown that electromagnetic radiation from mobile towers and cell phones had the potential to kill worker bees. Dr. Pattazhy went so far as to say that “if measures are not taken to check mushrooming of mobile towers, bees could be wiped out from Kerala within a decade.”
How widespread was the story? I heard about it when my eight-year-old daughter announced that she’d been told in class that cell phones are killing the bees.
Naturally, I started Googling.
The best response I found was from Kenneth R. Foster, a Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania whose own research is focused on the biomedical applications and health effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields—the kind of fields produced by cell phone towers.
Professor Foster, not without some difficulty, tracked down Dr. Pattazhy and asked for information about the study, receiving finally via email “a two-page document that consisted almost entirely of editorializing with his views about the hazards of radiofrequency energy.” The only actual experiment mentioned consisted of placing mobile devices hear hives for a few days. Dr. Pattazhy did not respond to Professor Foster’s requests for information on “study design, methods of assessment, what controls he used in the study, hypotheses tested, statistical analysis of data, or other aspects of a valid study,” causing Foster to conclude, “there was NO STUDY.”
Foster himself quotes a 1981 study published in the journal Bioelectromagnetics on the effects of radiofrequency energy on honeybees, conducted as part of an assessment of the potential environmental impact of proposed solar-power satellites that would beam high-intensity microwaves back to earth. That study found no evidence of any negative impact on bees exposed to radiation at frequencies similar to those used by cellphones—and at much higher power densities.
What was particularly interesting about the claim from Dr. Pattazhy is that it seems to have gotten widespread media attention in the same week in which another press release came out with the headline “Genomic Study Yields Plausible Cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.”
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers from the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the study found fragmented ribosomal RNA (genetic material from ribosomes, the factories inside cells in which proteins are made) in the guts of honey bees from hives afflicted by CCD at much higher levels than in bees from healthy hives.
“Picorna-like” viruses are known to attack the ribosomes of bees, hijacking them to produce viruses instead of proteins, and U.S. bees are heavily infected, possibly due in part to the fact that the varroa mite, accidentally introduced to the country in 1986, carries these viruses.
Bees with compromised ribosomal function can’t cope as well with many of the other proposed causes of CCD, including pesticides, fungal and bacterial infection, or inadequate nutrition, or with the stress of being carted around the country to provide pollination.
Maybe it even leaves them vulnerable to cell-phone radiation…but I doubt it.