Do you enjoy eating? Then you may not be too happy if bee populations plunge. That's because out of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees—and according to the UN, local drops in the bee population are being reported by beekeepers all over the planet. And the whole thing may be our fault: A new paper (PDF) from Swiss researcher Daniel Favre claims that part of the problem is our obsession with cell phones.
According to Favre, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, phone signals may confuse honeybees so much that they become fatally disoriented. Favre and his team performed 83 experiments that recorded honeybees' reaction to nearby cell phones in off, standby, and call-making mode. The result: Honeybee noise increases by 10 times when a phone call is made or received. Normally, an increase in noise, or "worker piping," is used as a signal for bees to leave their hives. But in this case, it just makes them confused. Favre explains:
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 (Pratt et al. 1996). The induction of honeybee worker piping by the electromagnetic fields of mobile phones might have dramatic consequences in terms of colony losses due to unexpected swarming.
A similar report in 2007 showed that bees won't come back to their hives when cell phones are placed nearby—another hint that handsets disrupt bee orientation. There isn't too much we can do about this without dismantling our cell phone culture, and that's never going to happen. In any case, neither of these studies conclusively prove that cell phones are behind all the recent bee deaths.
Bayer's clothiandin, a pesticide used to pre-treat corn seeds, is also thought to be killing honeybees. And the UN suspects that several other factors are all working together to kill bees, including air pollution (this can disorient bees), virulent fungal pathogens that are spread via trade, and climate change (altered rainfall patterns can change plants' flowering times, which in turn affects nectar supplies). It's possible, in other words, that modern society in general is to blame for the death of the bees. So unless we shut down all of our factories and power plants, nix international trade, stop using pesticides, and turn off our cell phones, we may need to find some other pollination solution—or some more cell-phone and climate change-friendly bees.
Update: Daniel Favre emailed us the following statement regarding his study:
"Active mobile phone handsets have a dramatic impact on the behavior of the bees, namely by inducing the worker piping signal.In natural conditions, worker piping either announces the swarming process of the bee colony or is a signal of a disturbed bee colony. For future experiments, in complement to the present original study and in order to reach more 'natural' conditions, mobile phone apparatuses should be placed at various increasing distances away from the hives. We should ask ourselves, whether the plethora of mobile phone masts also have an impact on the behaviour of the honeybees. 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. I am calling the international scientific community for more research in this field."
[Image by Flickr user Cignus]