Posted by: hematophage | May 17, 2011

Bees, cell phones and sensationalist media

Study Shows Bee-pocalypse Caused by Cell Phones

Are you paying attention now?

That was headline today on a short article on Laptop a couple days ago.  Some more of my favorite definitive ledes: “Cell Phones are killing the bees” (Fast Company), “Why answering your cell phone might be killing bees” (Toronto Star), “Cell phones signals really are killing the bees, study shows‎” (, “More Scientific Studies Indicate That Cell Phones are Harming Bees” (inhabitat).

j/k, order online like a normal person

So clearly, the next time you order pizza, you’re killing a bee or fifty, right?

Well…no. I, unlike the authors of most of the news articles, actually read the study (you too can find the PDF here). So I thought I’d go ahead and help out a few of these ridiculous articles with their so-called facts:

Article statement: “Researcher Daniel Favre of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has found that wireless signals cause honeybees to become so disoriented that they finally just die.”

Reality: No honeybees died in the experiment. In fact, in trials with short (2-3 minutes), medium (45 minutes) and long (20 hours) exposure to actively communicating cell phones, all the bees eventually returned to normal after a few seconds, minutes or hours, respectively.

Article statement: “Favre’s team conducted 83 separate experiments that tested bees’ reactions to a nearby cellphone.”

Reality: Favre conducted 80 individual recordings from 5 hives. That is HARDLY 80 experiments. In fact, it’s ONE experiment, with a total sample size of 80, spread among different conditions (no phone, off phone, standby phone, active phone) and five hives. There wasn’t even enough power for statistical analysis, this was a qualitative study.

Article statement: “A new study claims to have found the shocking answer [to why bees have been dying off]: cell phones.”

Reality: “(1) honeybees are sensitive to  pulsed  electromagnetic  fields  generated  by the  mobile  telephones  and  (2)  under  these circumstances,  observable  changes  in  the  behavior of the bees are not artificial, but can be proven to occur reproducibly.”  Note that in this quotation from the paper there is no mention of: 3) this is why bees die.  And that’s because such a conclusion can not be reached from the results of this paper, and Favre, its author, does not try to reach it.

Article statement: “[cell phones] confuse them to a point they cannot return to their hives”

Reality: This comes from a different study altogether, one published in India in 2009.  It is not available online, and Favre actually cited a news article about the real article, and we’re seeing here just how accurate those can be.

Article statement: “And now that 4G technology is being built-out by the big wireless companies, Favre sees the problem as only getting worse.”

Reality: Favre does not say that.

Article statement: “The study consisted of monitoring bees in France while cell phone activity took place nearby.”

Note that France and Switzerland are separate entities

Reality: First of all, clearly there was no actual reading of the article was done, because the bee monitoring was in Switzerland, which is near, but not, France.  Also, take note that “nearby” in this case means “directly on/in the hive”. About this Favre says “mobile phones are not present in the close vicinity of honeybees in real life”.

Article statement: “The results showed that the bees were possibly confused by the signals and were unable to return to a normal state for several hours afterward.”

Reality: Actually, that was only when they were exposed to a twenty-hour phone call. When the call was 45 minutes, the bees returned to normal in a couple of minutes. Also, we should again be clear that Favre was making a specific observation about the bees, i.e., how much noise they were making. That does not correlate necessarily with the bees being “confused”.

Article statement: ” The theory posits that the wavelengths used are so similar to a bee’s natural communication method they are being directed in an unnatural way, causing them to die off in droves.”

Reality: No bees died in the experiment. Therefore a direct link cannot be made between bees making more noise and bees dying.

Basically, this is an interesting pilot study, and neither the results nor the author himself makes an attempt to overshoot the results. He suggests further research with range as well as enclosing the hives in Faraday cages. What you should take away is that not only are the articles you may see about this paper not accurate, but you should be skeptical about broad generalizations in any news article about a new scientific development without first reading the actual research.

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  1. Point taken. I didn’t read the primary article right away before I FB shared one of these. It was definitely cause for concern when I did, but the sensational stuff means that if and when it turns out to be completely true, nobody will believe it. And because I have some FB friends who won’t read the primary, I’ve contributed to that.

    On to details: It wouldn’t be the cell-phones themselves I’d be concerned about as far as bees. Antennae that produce a continuous, higher intensity microwave are springing up in farmland all over the place, and the more distance they have to cover, the stronger the signal. They have a 1000 foot decay radius, not a foot like a handset. I find it shocking that if they were going to extrapolate at all from the piping they observed, that they didn’t bring this up, which would be much more of a problem than people walking past hives talking on the phone.

  2. Thanks for shedding light on this. Any insight into the background of the researcher or who funded the study?

    • As far as I can tell, it was just one guy, and a funding source is not mentioned in the acknowledgements of the paper.

  3. [...] field potentials are killing bees. Not only that, the cell phone in bee hive experiments are often badly controlled, not replicated, and generally not good papers. Even when I, personally, was slightly convinced, I thought we [...]

  4. Regardless of the accuracy of this particular set of news, see this 2010 CNN story-

  5. Stay tuned, I’m actually writing about that one too :)

  6. Studies should be done in the right way – over the long term, just as more studies are needed of the effects of growing, chronic rf on humans. Here is a good start on that:

    • But the point of this post was not “does RF have an effect on people”, it was “is cell phone use contributing to colony collapse disorder in bees”.

      The evidence is still unclear on the latter, and I’m not going to stray so far off topic as to address the former in this post.

  7. [...] Last post, I talked about the knee-jerk misrepresentation in the media of a new study on cell phones and bees. One of the articles cited in the study and in many of the news blurbs was a paper from Current Science in 2010 by Ved Parkash Sharma and Neelima R. Kumar from Panjab University. I couldn’t find that paper online at the time, but have since gotten a copy (and a link to it!). I didn’t have much issue with the Favre paper itself, if you recall, but that is not the case with Sharma and Kumar’s study.  So, a critique! [...]

  8. [...] Cobb’s first blog post is “Bees, cellphones and sensationalist media” [...]

  9. you’re right, everythings great, there’s nothing to worry about, la di da

    • That was hardly the conclusion drawn here.

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