Biology in the News Explained

Cell phone use and bees

Recent concern about apparent die-offs in bees apparently has now led to speculation that cellphone radiation is the cause for bee disappearance. Instapundit has weighed in, questioning with well deserved skepticism the validity of this claim.

Because I am a scientist, I do not try to establish validity of such reports via Google, but via Web of Science, the search engine that encompasses academic literature, both peer-reviewed and not. As far as I am concerned, until data have been published in peer-reviewed literature, any fantastic “scientific” claims are just clamors for attention.

There is no information yet in the scientific literature regarding possible causes of CCD or “colony collapse disorder” as some have tagged the syndrome of the disappearing bees. This is not too surprising, because it appears to be a fairly recent phenomenon, but I guarantee you that because the USDA supports several Bee Research Laboratories in the western U.S., this problem, if genuine, is being addressed by qualified government scientists as I write (if all the bee lab guys I used to know weren’t long retired from the lab, I would call one now to get his take on it).

The mere fact that the U.S.D.A. has labs of bee scientists confirms that domesticated honey bees are indeed important to the pollination of crops in the U.S. But as I pointed out in my last post on the topic, they are by no means the only species of pollinator out there. So don’t expect any food shortage panics anytime soon.

What of the cell radiation theory then? Cell radiation has been a human health concern for quite some time, and thus the literature on this topic is quite robust. Some studies (but not others) have found increased cell apoptosis (cell death that is orderly – as opposed to sudden and widespread) due to exposure to cell radiation, but even this doesn’t mean we should necessarily be alarmed, because all these studies were performed on cell cultures (in vitro), not on real people using cell phones in a usual manner (in vivo). A recent paper (Valberg, P.A., van Deventer, T.E. & Repacholi, M.H. (2007) Workgroup report: Base stations and wireless networks-radiofrequency (RF) exposures and health consequences. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115, 416-424.) examines evidence that radio-frequency radiation (including cell phones) affects actual human health adversely, and concludes that there is no evidence that it does so. In fact, the authors point out (from the abstract):

The possibility of RF health effects has been investigated in epidemiology studies of cellular telephone users and workers in RT occupations, in experiments with animals exposed to cell-phone RF, and via biophysical consideration of cell-phone RF electric-field intensity and the effect of RF modulation schemes. As summarized here, these separate avenues of scientific investigation provide little support for adverse health effects arising from RF exposure at levels below current international standards. Moreover, radio and television broadcast waves have exposed populations to RF for > 50 years with little evidence of deleterious health consequences. Despite unavoidable uncertainty, current scientific data are consistent with the conclusion that public exposures to permissible RF levels from mobile telephony and base stations are not likely to adversely affect human health.

Here is a table from the paper comparing all the sources of RF we are exposed to (sorry about the low resolution):

So my advice is, chat away until further notice – with the caveat that out of caution, avoid giving cell phones to young kids because developing brains are certainly more sensitive to environmental effects than grown ones, and models suggest that child heads absorb EM radiation more than adult heads (De Salles, A.A., Bulla, G. & Rodriguez, C.E.F. (2006) Electromagnetic absorption in the head of adults and children due to mobile phone operation close to the head. Electromagnetic Biology And Medicine, 25, 349-360.). Obviously, if anyone had found major health effects yet there would have been a massive response to deal with it by some country.

Back to the bees though. Different species will not necessarily be affected the same way as humans, especially such distantly related groups such as insects, but as of yet I, as an entomologist who does not specialize in bees, doubt that cell radiation is causing CCD. The article quotes some one knowledgeable about cell radiation, not insects, in asserting the likelihood that it does. Most important, bees navigate primarily via polarized light, which is in a completely different part of the EM spectrum from radio waves. How radio waves could possibly impact their use of light for navigation (any more than it does humans’ use of light for navigation) is at best nonintuitive, so I would never believe it until I saw the published paper showing me the evidence. I am not holding my breath for that paper to appear.

Check out the latest research update on CCD: Do honeybees have AIDS?

Other references:

Erogul, O., Oztas, E., Yildirim, I., Kir, T., Aydur, E., Komesli, G., Irkilata, H.C., Irmak, M.K. & Peker, A.F. (2006) Effects of electromagnetic radiation from a cellular phone on human sperm motility: An in vitro study. Archives Of Medical Research, 37, 840-843.

Joubert, V., Leveque, P., Cueille, M., Bourthoumieu, S. & Yardin, C. (2007) No apoptosis is induced in rat cortical neurons exposed to GSM phone fields. Bioelectromagnetics, 28, 115-121.

Remondini, D., Nylund, R., Reivinen, J., de Gannes, F.P., Veyret, B., Lagroye, I., Haro, E., Trillo, M.A., Capri, M., Franceschi, C., Schlatterer, K., Gminski, R., Fitzner, R., Tauber, R., Schuderer, J., Kuster, N., Leszczynski, D., Bersani, F. & Maercker, C. (2006) Gene expression changes in human cells after exposure to mobile phone microwaves. Proteomics, 6, 4745-4754.

Thorlin, T., Rouquette, J.M., Hamnerius, Y., Hansson, E., Persson, M., Bjorklund, U., Rosengren, L., Ronnback, L. & Persson, M. (2006) Exposure of cultured astroglial and microglial brain cells to 900 MHz microwave radiation. Radiation Research, 166, 409-421.

Zhao, T.Y., Zou, S.P. & Knapp, P.E. (2007) Exposure to cell phone radiation up-regulates apoptosis genes in primary cultures of neurons and astrocytes. Neuroscience Letters, 412, 34-38.

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22 Responses to “Cell phone use and bees”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Reasonable explanation. Radiation should be the last possibility investigated, not the first and most publicized. However –

    Because I am a scientist, I do not try to establish validity of such reports via Google

    – what if I found your weblog via Google? Search engines are resources, not divining rods. And please, never again start a sentence with the words “because I am a scientist.” If you don’t know why, a layman will tell you. After he stops laughing.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “Most important, bees navigate primarily via polarized light, which is in a completely different part of the EM spectrum from radio waves.”

    Wrong. All EM waves can be polarized, this includes radio waves. I think you mean to say ‘polarized visible light’.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous said…
    Wrong. All EM waves can be polarized, this includes radio waves. I think you mean to say ‘polarized visible light’.

    I think you misread that. All light, polarized or not, visible or not, is in a different part of the spectrum than cell phones. Different by several orders of magnitude.

  4. Jeremy says:

    If it were cell phone use, wouldn’t the problem have shown up in the UK first, which is like the cell phone use capital of the world (in terms of per capita), as opposed to the US, which has cell phones, but is lagging behind other 1st world countries in its use?

  5. andru says:

    I’d say the hypothetical laughing layman doesn’t understand the scientific process. Anything published in a reputable scientific venue is peer-reviewed. This means it has already been through a rigorous process of review by recognized experts in the area. These experts are highly trained, highly skeptical and often even adversarial.

    Occasionally the process fails, and there are a few kinds of results and journals that shouldn’t be blindly trusted, but things you read in the scientific literature are generally very reliable. I think anyone would agree that many things read on random (or even nonrandom) blogs are not reliable.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m wondering the same thing Jeremy is. I live in western Canada and often visit the western U.S. Large areas of both still do not have cellphione coverage. If your driving through the mountain states, you can only use cell phones along interstate highnways or near towns.If the cell-phones-afftecting-honeybees theory was correct, then you would have bee problems in the cell phone coverage areas but not in the others.

    Because I am not a scientist :^) I alsotice that right now, today, my yard is swarming with wasps and bumblebees. A birdhouse I put up last month has a wasp nest in it. Would it do any good to fire up some cell phones?

  7. Brian says:

    All light, polarized or not, visible or not, is in a different part of the spectrum than cell phones.

    No, that’s not correct. Visible light, radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, these are all light. They’re all electromagnetic radiation, quantized as photons. They can all be polarized, or not.

  8. biotunes says:

    Yes, I meant “visible light” although for bees that is just roughly congruent with visible light for humans, because bees see into the UV end of the spectrum. I should have been more precise.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Cell Phone Use Safe in Hospitals

    http://www.betanews.com/article/Study_Cell_Phone_Use_Safe_in_Hospitals/1173713922
    ———————————–
    The poor Bees Save Them
    ———————————-

    Bye
    Neurohacker

  10. Jennifer Forman Orth says:

    Nice summary! Saw this report floating around the ‘nets yesterday…seems like it would not be too hard to verify. Just take a map off all reported CCDs and overlay a map of Verizon cellphone coverage (plus whatever other providers are big these days). Then see if there’s any correlations that merit further testing. I tried to do it myself but unfortunately the only CCD map I could find was state presence/absence – not enough detail.

    By the way, a similar story also floating around puts the blame on GMOs: http://www.nwrage.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1734

    How long before someone suggest bioterrorism? …oops :-)

  11. MkUltra says:

    I think its important to include a few points.

    First, any evidence of cellphone interfernce is only empirical as a few folks reported that bees will not return to a hive with a cell phone near it.

    Second, Honey bees communicate in many ways, one of which being a dance they do inside the hive that points others to food and pollen. This dance is oriented with the correct compass points, which would seem to imply that bees have a sence for direction which could be magnetic in nature.

    Third, many frequencies of EMR can interfere with simply magnetic detection.

    Not conclusive, but to rule out at this point is just stupid.

  12. Anonymous says:

    The RF chart shown at low resolution in the article is available in this PDF:

    http://www.ehponline.org/members/2006/9633/9633.pdf

  13. bullandbearwise says:

    While radio waves have been in abundance for decades without apparent deleterious effect to any life, what IS new about modern cell radiation is their pulse-code nature. While it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest bees may be veering off course as a result of digital coding, it would obviously be trivial to test both digitized and non-digitized signals against a colony of bees for any apparent variation in behavior.

  14. Rough says:

    A number of years back, I was a dedicated metal detector hobbyist. On a few occasions, alone on quiet neighbourhood beaches, I noticed that bees (species unknown) would often make for the detector coil and hover and inch or two from it. Shooing them away did not work: they came back immediately after.

    What did work was turning the machine’s power off. It was like magic – suddenly, the bee would lose all interest in the detector, and fly away. Turn the machine back on again, and it would – if in the immediate vicinty – return.

    I thought the phenomenon significant enough to contact a researcher whose work regarding earthquake prediction by animals had been noted in Scientific American. When I suggested to him that the effect may have been caused by the VLF radiation of my Fisher 1260-X detector (somewhere in the range of 3 kHz to 50 kHz), he he brushed off the idea, suggesting that it was some postulated “mechanical” buzz or vibration of my detector that was attracting the bees.

    A fairly closed mind, I think, resenting (I would guess) a hypothesis that disturbed his own. Of course, this was a number of years ago, and since then, bee research has advanced.

    Might it not be worth looking at, that VLF harmonics generated by cell phones might be the culprit in the “bee disappearance” phenomenon? As mentioned, “my” bees would not desist from hovering around the detector until it was shut off. Perhaps the currently missing bees will be found in large groups, dead, around cell phone masts.

  15. Kirsten says:

    Hi.

    CCD is not necessarily a new problem — just a new name. The same set of “symptoms” was once called (among other things) fall dwindle disease, and has been around since at least the early part of the 20th century.

    http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/pressReleases/FallDwindleDisTalkAustin.pdf

  16. David Edwards says:

    Unlike the author of this blog, my entomological activities are strictly amateur (I’m a volunteer entomological recorder in the UK). However, I’m reminded here of some of the less than delightful stories that arose in the wake of the appearance of the Varroa mite in honey bee colonies. Back in 1992, various apocalyptic predictions were made concerning this creature, and its effects upon the populations of honey bee hives. While the problem was serious, Varroa mites proved to be perfectly comprehensible once studied, and it became possible to devise measures to deal with them (though as a corollary of the research, it was discovered that the mite in question was NOT Varroa jacobsoni (Oudemans,1904) as everyone thought, but a species new to science, now called Varroa destructor (Anderson & Trueman, 2000), which has apparently been coeval with a related bee species, Apis cerana, for some time).

    So far I have seen the following hypotheses presented as possibilities:

    [1] Stress due to transporting bee hives over long distances (a practice that is much more common in the US than here in the UK);

    [2] Exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides (given their neurotoxicity, this one remains plausible);

    [3] Toxins in pollen gathered from genetically modified organisms (I believe there was some controversy over this being cited as the reason for Monarch butterfly population crashes);

    [4] Diseases introduced into honey bee colonies by Varroa destructor that had not been previously present in those colonies (again, fairly plausible);

    [5] Mobile phone radiation (covered at some length here);

    I suspect that all those paid bee researchers will home in on the culprit in due course, publish findings in Nature and other similar places, and the issue will be resolved in a manner that does not require one to engage in too fanciful a degree of speculation. I’m tempted at this stage to run with a combination of [1], [2] and [4] above, but of course I’m always open to some other suggestion, especially if that is backed by solid peer review and experimental work.

  17. Scurmudgeon says:

    Admittedly, I know ver little about this subject. But I’m reminded of a story a few months ago about birds falling out of the scy by the hundreds on two opposite sides of the globe. A theory was presented, however unbelievable that the culprit may be a magnetic polar shift. I wonder if the same theory could be applied to bees as well. Does anyone have a thought about that?

  18. tive says:

    Dear blogger,

    I have translated your article into Spanish and published on my blog about the global warming tale.
    http://elcuentoclimatico.blogspot.com/
    Thanks for your clear contribution.

  19. Anonymous says:

    CONCERNING THE BEE,
    I wonder if there is a connection of not the standard “audio” cell phone but the picture phone. It was only a couple years ago that the “camera cell phone” started to be pushed. The Audio cell towers only require small RF Watt output but the upgrade to send cell photos a thousand plus watt towers were installed everywhere. This could be a connection on the time line of the Bee problem. MRW

  20. HiTekVagabond says:

    I have several fundamental problems with the 2006 University of Landau pilot “study” looking for non-thermal effects of RF on honey bees (Apis mellifera carnica). It suggested that when bee hives have DECT cordless phone base stations embedded in them, the close-range EMF emissions may reduce the ability of bees to return to their hive; they also noticed a slight reduction in honeycomb weight in treated colonies. In the course of their study, one half of their colonies broke down, including some of their controls which did not have DECT base stations embedded in them.

    The team’s 2004 exploratory study on non-thermal effects on learning did not find any change in behavior due to RF exposure from the DECT base station operating at 1.9 GHz.

    Cellular phones were in fact not covered in either study. Also, neither study suggested a link to CCD. Both of these claims were invented by the Independent article “”Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?” (2007-04-15).

    Please read the studies yourself:
    Harst, W., Kuhn, J., Stever, H. (2006) Can Electromagnetic Exposure Cause a Change in Behaviour? Studying Possible Non-Thermal Influences on Honey Bees – An Approach within the Framework of Educational Informatics. Acta Systemica 6(1): 1-6.
    Stever, H. J., Kuhn, (2004). “How Electromagnetic Exposure can influence Learning Process – Modelling Effects of Electromagnetic Exposure on Learning Processes”.

  21. Anonymous says:

    By Neurohacker

    The Titanic was Safe Too.

    About as Safe as putting you Head in a Microwave oven.

    Cell phones “Do” interfere with the Human Brain (Brain Damaged Humans)
    ————————————————-
    FCC Says ‘No’ to Cell Phones on Planes
    http://www.cnn.com/2007/…airplanes.ap/index.html

    The Wings of Atoms in the Human Brain must change from the Cell Phone Base Transmitter(Tower).
    ———————————————-
    OBSERVING THE “WINGS” OF ATOMS
    http://www.hpcwire.com/h…WWW/03/0606/105194.html
    ———————————————-
    Observing The ‘Wings” Of Atoms: Study Indicates It Is Possible To See Electrons’ Orbital Paths Around Atoms http://www.sciencedaily….003/06/030603083525.htm
    ————————————————–

    Researchers measure a fundamental magnetic property of a single atom — the energy required to flip its magnetic orientation

    http://domino.research.i…news.20040909_samm.html
    ————————————————–

    Controlling Brain Waves
    http://www.aip.org/pnu/2005/split/718-3.html
    ————————————————–
    Read this post from guiding_light
    http://lofi.forum.physor…/very-neat…_6583.html

    Re:
    guiding_light5th June 2006 – 03:26 PM
    Oh I get it, use the electric field to modify the neural activity. Aligning/pulling ions, makes sense to me.

    I was aware of a collabortion to build silicon-on-insulator circuits with neurons directly attached. I don’t know what became of it.

    Ironically almost, the big issue at the time was how to align the neurons with the pads.
    ————————————————
    The B.S. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$ can make.

    HOWTO, Cook an Egg With Your Cell Phone
    http://slashdot.org/articles/06/02/06/156236.shtml

    x(),y(),z()=Three-dimensional axis

    ———————————————–
    And just for the HELL of it:

    On the Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets
    http://people.csail.mit.edu/rahimi/helmet/
    ————————————————
    P.S.
    Security

    I have a copy of your card on my Cell phone and i can guess your PIN number.
    ——————————————–
    News
    3.5GHz frequency interfering with Measat-2

    http://www.hackinthebox….amp;order=0&thold=0

    Bye
    Neurohacker

  22. Gianni Comoretto says:

    An important parameter in these considerations is the “exposure level”.

    For what I understand, the article considers possible changes in bee behaviour with a DECT transmitter ON the beehive. I would say this is not a typical situation, and the exposure due to a base station at a legal distance is several orders of magnitude lower. As the effects of RF radiation on biologic systems is strongly dose dependent, one situation does not tell anything about the other.

    Is the same difference between USING a cellphone (unlike to be risky, but worth considering it) and living near a base station (risk so unlikely real that if we are worried about it we must worry about ANYTHING).

    It is not true that RF interfers with magnetic field detection: try ringing a cellphone near a compass. The tiny loudspeaker magnet will likely affect it much more. And if we add the “RF EM fields” among the possible culprits for CCD, we should list many many other possible candidates. Including noise from mechanical agricultural devices, light pollution, contrails from airplanes, and the body deodorant used by the farmer.

    For Roger: Cellphone radiations do not have VLF harmonics.

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