Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's the buzz? Good science + Bad reporting = A hell of a lot of misinformation

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest edition of The Political Bug!

    Politics, as a subject, is rather broad. As a result, some things may not appear to be political in nature, but may ultimately have political ramifications. What started as genuine curiosity can become twisted and warped by individuals expressing an either misguided or ill-informed view of the subject matter, which is what I want to talk about today.

    I had this article sent to me by a non-entomologist friend to get my input. The title read, “Cell phone signals really are killing the bees, study shows,” and my immediate response was, “Hell. No.”

Pictured: Alleged bee poison. Not pictured: It actually killing
    To be clear, I was not immediately disregarding the study’s findings off-hand. However, I felt reasonably sure that the article my friend sent me was not accurately portraying the research that was actually done. I wanted to give the study a good, critical once-over before giving my friend my opinion so I looked up the paper and read it.

    The study in question (link) was conducted by a Dr. Daniel Favre from the Laboratory of Cellular Biotechnology in Switzerland and published in the journal, Apidologie. The study, Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping (2010), sought to address one of the proposed factors of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the recent phenomenon that has led to the sudden death of large numbers of bee colonies worldwide. In CCD, the older worker bees (the ones that forage) will disappear from the hive, leaving the queen and young brood behind. As a result, the colony dies without the workers to feed it. While pesticides, parasites like the varroa mite, and farming practices have all been considered factors in CCD, some individuals suspect that new technology, like cell phones, may be to blame. Favre, in his introduction, discussed how honeybees use magnetoreception to help navigate their environment. When this magnetoreception is interrupted, the bee can become lost and fail to return to the hive.

    Dr. Favre wanted to test to see if the electromagnetic radiation of a cell phone was sufficient to create conditions that may prompt the worker bees to abandon the hive. He used as his response variable worker piping: a particular pattern of sound that usually precedes swarming behavior (when bees move on to a new location). His set-up involved three types of treatments: 1) placing two cell phones inside a hive, but having them turned off, 2) placing two cell phones inside a hive, but in standby mode, and then 3) placing two cell phones inside a hive, continuously sending and receiving a signal between one another or a third source. For this last group, the audio devices were removed, but left connected to pick up and emit sound away from the hive. This is a good precaution, since the sound alone may cause behavioral changes and Dr. Favre wanted to limit the number of variables. It also makes sure that the phones are operating properly throughout the study.

    What Dr. Favre ultimately saw was an increase in the worker piping when active cell phones were placed inside the hive in comparison to the two controls used. That suggests that there is something about the phones that is having an effect on the colonies. This is certainly interesting and deserves to be discussed within the scientific community. But here is where I disagree with Dr. Favre’s findings. Ultimately, he does not conclusively demonstrate that it is electromagnetic radiation from the cell phones that is inducing the worker piping. The piping does increase in relation to the controls, but Favre does not provide statistical data in the paper to support that it is a significant difference. Additionally, he fails to show the mechanism for how the phones are inducing the piping. There may be some sort of sensitive vibration that the bees are picking up on that they may be agitating them or it may be another interaction. It does not have to be electromagnetic radiation impacting the bees’ magnetoreception. If he wanted to conclusively show electromagnetic radiation’s impact, he could have used a fourth set up using an electrical devise that was not a cell phone, but whose purpose was to emit electromagnetic waves and compare the results of the trial. Finally, there is no examination of how close a cell phone must be in order to have an effect. Favre acknowledges this point, expressing a need for further studies to determine a cell phone’s effect over increasing distances. Until this is examined, we can’t really say if the cell phone network in place is having any meaningful impact on natural and domestic bee communities.

    Ultimately, the real problem is not with Dr. Favre’s work. It is a worthwhile trail of investigation and I’m interested to see where further research leads. If he can more conclusively show that it is the radiation of the phones that is having an effect, I’d be willing to change my position. The true problem was how Dr. Favre’s study was reported in the media. Standard reporting on science is typically bad in most respects, but the way that the article my friend sent me misrepresented Dr. Favre’s findings was almost criminal. At no point in the study did any of Favre’s colonies collapse due to his cell phone treatments, yet the article claimed that he conclusively showed that cell phones were killing bees. Favre had these phones running for 20 hours at some points and the worst effect he saw was a prolonged period of time before the piping subsided.

    Favre was making a legitimate inquiry in one aspect of a very complex phenomenon. Yet, it is inevitable that his work will now be used by individuals and groups as evidence that cell phones are dangerous or technology is evil or whatever their particular agenda is. This is all thanks to lazy reporting and an audience that does not possess the tools to critically analyze the science stories they read. Without being able to separate the truth from the bullshit, false ideas about our world take root. And that, to me, is very dangerous.

    Well, that’s all for now. Before I go, I'd like to follow up on last week's, "What's That Bug?" While no one guessed the correct answer exactly, Sven was the closest with the guess of a camel cricket. The correct answer is a weta, a New Zealand species of cricket that is in the same family as the camel cricket. For this week's challenge, I would like the name of the family of this predaceous arthropod and a bonus if you can correctly identify where in the world it is located.

 Thank you for listening to my little rant and I hope you enjoyed reading The Political Bug! Catch you next time.


What's That Bug?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Bureaucracy of Bugs: The Endangered Species Listing Process

Comal Springs Drypoid Beetle- nbii.gov

Hello and welcome to a new edition of The Political Bug! I’d like to begin by apologizing for the unexpected hiatus. A combination of sudden work responsibilities and end-of-the-semester craziness conspired to disrupt my schedule. On top of that, I actually did have this article prepared some time ago, but I misplaced the flash drive it was on and therefore had to start from scratch. Finally, I would like to express my delighted surprise at the comments I have received from the readers. I will get back to you all as soon as I can. Well, with that out of the way, back to where I left off!

                The process of getting a species registered on the Endangered Species list is a two-step process that is handled by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The first step in this process is called the Petition. Any private person can submit a petition to have a species listed as endangered and the FWS is obligated to acknowledge a petition within thirty days of submission. The purpose of the petition is to determine if the is enough merit to consider further action. This is based on whatever scientific or commercial data that the petitioner submits with the petition document, which must include the species’ scientific and common name, descriptions of past and present population dynamics, and information on the species’ status throughout its range. Note that there is no requirement to actually prove that the species is threatened or endangered at this point. The petition merely has to build a credible case that such action may be warranted.

Pomace Fly- discoverlife.org
                If, after ninety days, the FWS confirms that the petition warrants further investigation, it moves on to the Review stage of the process. During this step, the FWS must determine if the petitioned species meets the listing criteria. A species will be considered endangered or threatened if its habitat is subject to destruction, overutilization, disease, predation, or some other similar circumstance. If a species is considered to have met the definitions of either endangered or threatened, the FWS moves on to determine its priority in listing. Due to limited funding, not all petitioned species get placed on the list and priority is given to some over others. The FWS ranks petitioned species by the immediacy of the threat against the species and the genetic distinctiveness of the species. Rankings run from one to twelve, with ranks one through three actually making the list. The rest are considered candidates and do not receive protection.

                So, how does this process impact insects trying to make the list? Well, to begin with, the petition process places a substantial threshold regarding collecting enough data regarding the potential threatened or endangered status of a species. Collecting this data requires the work of dedicated individuals that are few and far between. From personal experience, it seems that the bulk of insect research goes to studies targeting pests or commercially important species, like honeybees. Rare species of insects are hard to find even for experts, so collecting sufficient data on them is a problem. And even then, arguing that there is a commercial or scientific necessity to protect a given species is sometimes difficult to do.

                Even if the petitioned insect species makes it to the Review step, it can still be given a low priority score due to the “genetic distinctiveness” criterion. The FWS emphasizes the protection of monotypic genera or a genus that is represented by only one species. Because insects are the most specious group of animals on the planet, it is rare for a genus to be represented by only one species. Lower classifications, such a distinct genera and subspecies have even lower priority, due to being less unique.
Puritan Tiger Beetle- fws.gov

Insects are able to have many generations over a short time frame, which can lead to genetic separation very quickly. It is likely that budding species occur in insects more frequently than in mammals and birds. However, these species are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the parent species (crypto-species) and would not be genetically distinct enough to receive a higher priority ranking according to the FWS.

Well, that’s all I have time for. Thank you again for reading. Before I go, I have a little competition for you all. Below is a picture of an insect and I would like you all to leave a comment guessing at what it is. The first person to correctly guess it will be recognized in my next post. Take care, everyone!


What's that bug?