May Berenbaum: Do cell phones kill honeybees?

Bee expert May Berenbaum explains that there’s no reliable evidence that cell phone activity causes bees to die.

Do cell phones kill honeybees? Though you might have heard media reports that say so, the short answer is no, there’s no reliable evidence that cell phone activity causes bees to die. That’s according to renowned entomologist May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She told EarthSky:

It’s kind of alarming to me how readily the press picks up these stories of studies that are not particularly scientifically robust.

Image Credit: Marj Joly

The widely circulated news story we discussed with Dr. Berenbaum was about a study published in May of 2011, in which researchers put cell phones and audio recorders inside five beehives. The cell phones played music from a French radio station. Worker bees responded by doing what’s called “piping,” which, Berenbaum said, is a sound bees make when they’re about to swarm. She said:

There are a few problems with the paper that just came out in the Journal Apidologie. For example, the cell phones were placed inside the hive, which of course – as the authors freely admit – does not really replicate reality.

Also, there’s no bee death in these papers, nothing at all. Just piping. They made a sound. There was no swarming.

So it’s very hard to go from the data that are presented all the way to cell phones are killing bees. It’s just not a tenable connection.

Image Credit: CarbonNYC

EarthSky asked Berenbaum for an update on the status of bees today. She told us:

You picked a good time for an update, because had you asked over the past couple of years, things were still looking pretty dire, with annual overwintering losses of 30 percent or greater. So the Apiary Inspectors of America began a regular census of beehives. This most recent survey actually revealed an increase in colony numbers, which is the first good news since those disturbing reports began to come in late 2006.

This report is about the U.S., she said, Around the world, there are still problems. But at least in the U.S., she said, some of the actions that beekeepers have taken, even in the absence of a known, single cause for colony collapse disorder, appear to have ameliorated some of the losses.

An EarthSky Twitter follower had this question for Dr. Berenbaum: “What can the average person do to help honeybees?” Berenbaum replied:

Locally, one thing you can do to support bees is to support local beekeepers and buy local honey. Buying from a local beekeeper guarantees that there will be local bees. And in addition, you get the wonderful bonus of having this marvelous sweetener that is infinitely variable and absolutely delicious.

Listen to the 8 minute EarthSky interview with May Berenbaum on honeybees (at top of page.)

Jorge Salazar