May 13, 2011 -- As if cellphones aren't already blamed for enough of the world's evils -- brain cancer, driving accidents and teen tragedies, to name a few -- a new study suggests they could also be harming honeybees.
According to a Swiss researcher who recently published a paper on the subject, the electromagnetic waves from mobile phones have a significant impact on the behavior of honeybees and could potentially be harming honeybees around the world.
"Among other factors, such as the varroa mite and pesticides, signals from mobile phones and masts could be contributing to the decline of honeybees around the world," Daniel Favre, a Swiss biologist and bee expert, said in a statement. "I am calling the international scientific community for more research in this field."
To test the relationship between honeybees and buzzing cellphones, he placed phones inside bee hives and then monitored the bees' reaction. He found that in the presence of actively communicating cellphones (those not in standby mode), bees produced the sounds known as "worker piping," which tends to indicate disturbance in a bee colony.
"Worker piping in a bee colony is not frequent, and when it occurs in a colony, that is not in a swarming process, no more than two bees are simultaneously active...The induction of honeybeeworker piping by the electromagnetic fields of mobile phones might have dramatic consequences in terms of colony losses due to unexpected swarming," the study says.
Cellphones Not Major Force Behind Worldwide Decline in Bees, Expert Says
Over the past few years, beekeepers across the country have reported unusually large numbers of dying bees, igniting worldwide interest in the much-hyped mystery. Though this recent study has produced a spate of news headlines suggesting that cellphones could be the culprit, experts emphasize that this is likely not the case.
In an email, Favre himself said his research does not conclusively prove that cellphones are killing honeybees, but shows evidence that they impact bees' behavior and, he hopes that will lead to more research on the connection.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp of Penn State University's College of Agricultural Sciences said that while the study may show that a cellphone placed artificially close to bees could harm the colony, he said it does not mean that cellphones are responsible for the unusually large losses of bees documented in recent years.
"If cellphones were so responsible and so widespread, I think we'd see more consistent losses," he said.
Over the past few years, he said, national studies have found that beekeepers in the U.S. are losing 30 percent of their bee colonies over the winter, which is about double what they consider to be normal. (The USDA will release data from last winter later this month, he said.) In Europe, beekeepers report winter losses of about 20 percent, he said.
Much of the recent interest in dying bees was sparked by reports of what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) -- bees suddenly disappearing from the hive -- which partly contributes to the widespread decline of bees. But vanEngelsdorp said scientists now have a clearer sense of what is causing the widespread collapse of bee colonies -- and it's not cellphones.
Pesticides, Disease, Poor Nutrition Weaken Bees' Immune Systems
"It's a whole bunch of causes combined together weakening the bees' immune systems, so they're not able to fight off infection," vanEngelsdorp said, adding that a few known factors are pesticide exposure, mice and fungal disease and poor nutrition. But scientists are still investigating why bees seem so vulnerable to these factors now.