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?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Politics of Biodiversity

Hello everyone and welcome back to another installment of “The Political Bug!” As a brief note, I’d like to say that this page has hit a milestone since the last entry. As of this post, “The Political Bug” has passed 50 hits! It’s modest, I know, but it means that people are at least taking a look, which is encouraging. Also, the blog has been read now in three countries: The USA, Canada, and Russia. So to my readers in all three nations, I say, “Thanks.”

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    As an entomologist, one of the aspects of Class Insecta that simply fascinates me is the tremendous breadth of biodiversity. You have a group of organisms that has conquered almost every imaginable habitat and the adaptations that they have developed along the way have resulted in novel and intriguing body shapes and life cycles. So as a result of this love for biodiversity, I am beginning a mult-part series on biodiversity as it pertains to politics and policy.
   Perhaps one of the most important legislations in the United States as it regards biodiversity is the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). Passed during the Nixon administration, the ESA “provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found.” It further requires “federal agencies, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the NOAA Fisheries Service, to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species” (www.epa.gov/regulations/laws/esa.html). So, in essence, the act creates a framework under which federal authority can direct the management and protection of endangered species. This mission has been upheld in the Supreme Court, recognizing that its goal is to “halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost” (Lugo, 2007).
Karner Blue Butterfly (grahamenvironmental.com)

     The ESA is enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Agency and has served as a cornerstone of the conservation movement since its inception. However, conservation of endangered species is thorny subject in certain circles. To begin with, one line of debate is whether humans should be doing anything to protecting endangered species. While protecting economically important groups is seen as a good thing, devoting time and effort into species and habitats that don’t directly influence human activity is a much more difficult position to defend. And while most people see the protection of endangered plants and animals as a good thing, not everyone agrees in how to do so. There are many individuals that see the ESA as an impediment to economic progress and an infringement of rights. Because of the need to conserve threatened habitat under the ESA, economic development of 

resources and discretionary use of private land are superseded, legitimately angering those inconvenienced. I’ll go to greater depth on the issue of ESA regulation in the future, but for now I would like to touch upon how the ESA impacts insects specifically.
Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (pge.com)

American Burying Beetle (southdakotafieldoffice.fws.gov)
   I was quite surprised to discover that only 60 insect species are identified as threatened or endangered (http:/?ecos.fws.gov/tess_public /SpeciesReport.do?groups=I&listingType= L&mapstatus=1). While at first glance, this may sound like a good thing, in truth it reveals a lack of effort on the part of endangered species activists to work towards getting insects on the list. This is due to many factors, including a lack of skilled entomologists working with these groups (Lugo, 2007). Among the more notable insect species on the list are the American burying beetle, the Karner Blue butterfly, Hine’s emerald dragonfly, and 4 species of tiger beetle. In addition to the small number of insects on the list in total, the breakdown by order is not reflective of the biodiversity of insect in general. The list is heavy on butterflies and moths (35%), even though their percentage of total insect species is much lower (12%). Additionally, few of the listed species are from groups that are identified as economically important for conservation (with the possible exception of the American Burying beetle). So to begin to understand the reasons behind the seeming misrepresentation of insects on the Endangered Species list, we’ll first need to understand how species are defined on the list as “endangered” and “threatened.”

      According to Lugo (2007), the EPA defines an endangered species as, “[a] species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a species of the Class Insecta determined by the Secretary [of the Interior] to constitute a pest,” and a threatened species is “[a] species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Now, there are debates over what constitutes a species and under what conditions does a species become endangered, but it should be clear that habitat plays an important role in the identification of an endangered species. In most policy-related cases, the habitat becomes the focus of conservation in order to protect an endangered species, and it is this aspect that often becomes an issue when people are prohibited from using their land because sensitive habitat is found on their property.

    But something stands out about the EPA’s definition of an endangered species, and I’m sure you noted it, as well. The ESA protects all those organism’s that may be going extinct except those that are classified as pests from Class Insecta. This is a huge statement because it builds into the framework of the ESA a loophole to allow for the eradication of insects deemed harmful to economic activity of human health. Could you imagine if someone petitioned to protect a pest like screw worm in the middle of an eradication program? Sure it might ultimately be thrown out, but the delay in the program and waste of taxpayer dollars would be draining. So by having this provision, the Secretary of the Interior is able to identify those insects that need to be suppressed or eradicated and remove them from consideration.

   Well, that’s all I have time for. I hope you all enjoyed reading. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or contact me at thepoliticalbug@gmail.com and I’ll try to answer them as quickly as I can. Thanks and have a good weekend, everyone.


Further reading...

Lugo, Ezquiel. 2007. Insect conservation under the endangered species act. Journal of Environmental Law and Policy.

Interesting sites

Friends of The Political Bug

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

DST and Entomology

Welcome back, everyone! I hope you all are enjoying the recent flowering of Spring and the emergence of all the wonderful insects breaking out of diapause. Stoneflies in particular are plentiful around where I am and I’m planning on catching a few when I have some free time.

Now, I know that I said that I would write about my recent trip to the North Central Branch meeting for the Entomological Society of America, but that article is still in the works, so I’ll probably have it ready for the next post. In the meantime, I have something else to talk about.

Now, how many of you woke up disoriented two Sunday’s ago, realizing that time seemed to slip you by? If you did, well then congratulations! Daylight savings time snuck up on you once again!

Daylight savings time (DST) is practiced on and off across the globe and its existence is often subject to contentious political debate. The general principle of DST is to provide more daylight hours in the afternoon during the summer and more daylight hours in the morning during the winter. For retailers and other industries that depend on the day-lit hours for their businesses, this is a blessing. But for farmers, early-birds like me, and evening entertainment industries, it robs us of our early starts. This has led to many attempts to both install and repeal DST, with supporters on both sides of the debate arguing strongly.

Now, DST has an interesting history, with a connection to entomology, no less. The ancient Romans used a variable-hour clock during the time of the empire, so summer day-lit hours were longer than summer night hours. Widespread adoption of DST occurred during World War I, to help promote energy conservation, with Germany being the first to adopt it. However, the start of the modern DST movement began with a New Zealander named George Vernon Hudson.

Hudson had humble origins (ahh, alliteration): He was the son of a stained-glass artist in Victorian England and ultimately spent most of his life working for the postal service in New Zealand. But at an early age, Hudson was an avid amateur entomologist, writing his first published paper in The Entomologist at age 14.

After moving to New Zealand, he kept active as and wrote a total of thirty-six papers over his life-time. Not bad for a non-professional with a day job. His papers really show how in-touch with the greater entomological community he was. In his “On the Senses of Insects (Hudson, 1901), he talks about prominent entomologists of his day and their endeavors to understand insect sensory behavior. It is really interesting to listen to him discuss the function of the butterfly antennae. Hudson’s personal observations demonstrated that they have no auditory function, which one might infer from their location. So, he instead duplicated experiments done by John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, and concluded that it was involved with the sense of smell, yet one different than we are used to. Today we understand this sense to be an insect’s response to complex pheromone signals, which serves as one of the primary means of communication in the insect world.

So how does George Vernon Hudson fit in with Daylights savings time? Well, as I had mentioned earlier, Hudson was not a professional entomologist and so he pursued his passion after-hours in his free time. Much to his annoyance, though, he found that the majority of daylight was wasted early in the day during the summer months, leaving him with less light after work, comparatively. To give himself more time, he submitted a proposal to shift 2 hours forward in the summer (to even out the day) to the New Zealand parliament in 1895. This makes it one of the earliest, if not the earliest, attempts to institute Daylight savings time in the modern world. Understandably, it was not widely regarded, but following World War I and the implementation of DST in many of the warring nations, the idea gain general acceptance in New Zealand. In the end, DST was adopted in 1927.

Whether you love or hate Daylight Savings Time, you cannot deny that it has a significant effect on our lives, at least twice a year. So when you are next debating with your friends or loved ones the relevance of its existence in our daily lives, remember that it all started because a man wanted more time to catch butterflies.

To learn more about George Vernon Hudson and to read his published papers, please visit The National Library of New Zealand website at:

Credit goes to them for the above entry.


Hudson, George V. 1901. On the senses of insects. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Monday, March 7, 2011

War and Pestilence

Hello and welcome to the first edition of The Political Bug!

My name is TC and before I get into the heart of what I want to talk about, I would like to say a few words about this blog: To begin with, I want to state that I am currently an entomology grad student at a mid-size university located somewhere in the Midwest (have fun figuring that out, ha, ha). I’m not naming it because I want to make sure that nothing I say in this blog, whether fair or unfair, comes back to negatively reflect on the department I work for. Secondly, I should admit that this is my first attempt at blogging. I got the idea to set it up from a discussion I was having with my department’s IT committee. I decided that this would be a great platform to practice writing on subject material that I am passionate about and to develop skills that will serve me well in my later career.
            The purpose of this blog is to locate an intersection between current events and how entomology impacts or is affected by these events. As an avid news reader, I keep abreast of what’s going on in the world. By reviewing news outlets, the scientific literature and adding my own insights, I hope to provide my readers a glimpse at the interconnectedness of the world, while providing objective and informed commentary.

            So, for the first entry of The Political Bug I chose to focus on what is currently going on in Libya and the general region of North Africa and the Middle East. While most people are already familiar with the situation, to make sure everyone is on the same page, here is a summary of events: On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian man named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the loss of his vegetable cart to the police. His self-immolation and eventual death on January 4, 2011 sparked protests throughout Tunisia against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, eventually forcing him to flee the country and establishing an interim government. From then, protests flared across the Middle East and North Africa as popular uprisings began to demand reform in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries. On February 11, Egypt’s long-time president, Hosni Mubarak ceded power in the face of overwhelming opposition. Now, international attention has shifted to Libya, which began experiencing its own popular uprising on February 15, 2011. Since then, what started out as a popular uprising has devolved into a bitter conflict between loyalists of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and populist rebels based in the eastern half of the country.
            The outcome of this conflict has been the sudden flood of refugees pouring over the boarders to Tunisia, and Egypt. Though early estimates had fleeing Libyans and foreign workers crossing the boarder at a rate of thousands a day, more recently this number has dropped, prompting concern that Libyan forces are preventing refugees from leaving the country. Like many other refugee cases, while the many evacuated men, women and children wait for the opportunity to be evacuated to a safe location, they are obligated to live in crowded camps where proper hygiene and sanitation is difficult to maintain. In these conditions, disease-borne illness can become a huge concern, especially those transmitted by insects.

            In an article publish in the Annual Review of Entomology, Dr. Philippe Brouqui (2011) gives a general discussion of the inter-related dynamics of poverty, political disorder, and arthropod disease vectors. While he covers a broad range of pests, Brouqui spends the majority of his time discussing lice and the diseases they vector. It was pretty eye-opening article and I would recommend reading for yourself. Among the more interesting facts was the proposed evolution of body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus) from the head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) three separate times. This theory is backed up by the presence of three separate mitochondrial lineages for body lice, suggesting that branching occurred three separate times.
Now, what make body lice a particular concern is that they thrive in conditions where the sanitation is poor and humans are forced into close proximity to one another… like in refugee camps. With populations able to increase up to 11% per day, the body louse can become a serious pest in just a matter of weeks. The only factors working in the favor of the host are its aversion to extreme temperatures (they will die at 50°C) and that they are quick to dehydrate as blood is their only water source and they can only take in small quantities at a time.
            Of the three louse-borne diseases Dr. Brouqui discusses, the one that stood out as the most likely to cause sudden and widespread problems is typhus. Caused by the bacterium R. prowazekii, this disease can be highly lethal if untreated (up to 60% mortality), though mortality is widely dependent on the age of the infected person. The troubling aspect of the disease is that even after recovery, the patient may retain the R. prowazekii bacterium in his or her system for life. This can lead to a mild recurring disease called Brill-Zinsser disease, which is triggered by stress.
Few things can be considered more stressful than the sudden mass of humanity that exists in a refugee camp. If body lice are present, it could lead to the transmission of typhus to large swaths of the refugee population. The push by the international community to evacuate the refugees to their countries of origin or other accepting nations is probably the best tactic to prevent this from happening. It relieves the crowding and hopefully prevents previously infected individuals from being exposed long enough to the general population for body lice to pick up the R. prowazekii bacterium and spread it. With a combination of informed and well-managed quarantine policies and luck, disease outbreaks stemming from the Libyan conflict should be minimal. However, and I write this admitting that I am no epidemiologist, it does not seem like too far a stretch to say that the possibility of a international spike in reported cases of typhus or some other disease in the countries receiving refugees is probably pretty good.

Well, that concludes this installment of The Political Bug. I hope that you all enjoyed what I had to share and that it made you think just a bit more about how the drama of human geopolitical events and the menagerie of the insect world intersect on a daily basis. If you enjoyed this post or have a suggestion on how it can be improved, please leave a comment. This is an evolving project, so any bit of constructive criticism is helpful.
I am not certain of what schedule I can reasonably keep at the moment, but I am setting a goal of at least two entries a month and hoping to increase it to once a week once I work out the kinks. I will, however, be attending the North Central Branch of the Entomological Society of America meeting this coming week, so I hope to have my next entry relate to what I learn there. I thought that I would close this installment with a little trivia question for you all. No special reward for being first, sadly, other than the pride and satisfaction of guessing first. But here’s the question anyway:

“In a recent film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, this character is portrayed as an amateur entomologist who wishes that he could put relatives into jars like bugs.”

Thanks again!


Sources of information

Paper cited in post:
Brouqui, Philippe. 2011. Arthropod-borne diseases associated with political and social disorder. Annual Review of Entomology. 56: 357-374.

Timelines for Middle East and North African revolts: