Of Honeybees and Cell Phones

Jacob Schor

April 28, 2007


Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) was long gone when I attended Cornell University over a quarter of a century ago. Yet he wasn't forgotten and more than one professor described memories of him sitting in the Ag Commons watching his beehive. Von Frisch was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 for decoding the waggle dance used by scout bees to communicate the location of rich nectar supplies to other members of their hive. Von Frisch figured out the meaning of these dance messages through observation alone. Well almost alone. He marked the bees with dabs of fingernail polish to tell them apart and used a magnifying glass to aid his eyesight.


Roger Morse, professor of entomology, international bee expert and the best lecturer in my entire student career, often held up von Frisch's work as an example that Nobels could still be had through shear intelligence and perseverance; one didn't need multimillion dollar research facilities. In hindsight, I wonder whether he was speaking not so much to us undergraduates but to the graduate students sitting in on the lecture, who may have felt under resourced compared to their peers in more affluent departments. Morse, would sometimes pause his lectures to point out scientific mysteries, “Figure this one out and the Nobel is yours.” In hindsight, I wonder whether he was talking to himself.


One such mystery was the breeding zones of the honeybee. Each spring, male honeybees, called drones, congregate in a specific location to await the arrival of maiden queens from all of the beehives in surrounding territories. This breeding zone is high above the ground and remains in the exact same location year after year. The drones hangout there waiting to ‘get lucky'. Lucky is probably the wrong term because as an anonymous author in Wikipedia puts it, “each drone will die immediately after mating; the process of insemination requires a lethally convulsive effort.” [i] Aside from mating with a queen, drone bees contribute little to a hive's welfare. They do not forage, build or protect the hive. After the short breeding season is over, they appear utterly useless. Each fall, as winter approaches and food becomes scarce, worker bees evict any remaining drones from the hive to quickly perish in the cold. New drones are born each spring. The question posed by Dr. Morse was how do the young drones know where the breeding zone is?


The zone remains the same year after year. No drones remain alive from the previous season's mating period to pass on directions to the location. Drones that mated obviously do not return to the hive to brag of their success. The Queen bee once mated rarely leaves the hive again. Honeybees communicate many things through pheromones but it is inconceivable that these faint odors could linger twelve months several hundred feet above the ground. What sort of signal could bees detect in the geophysical world that leads all the bees in an area time and again to the same location?


These old memories have come back to tickle my fancy in light of a recent series of articles on bees. There is a new mystery to do with honeybees, one that is more serious. Last fall beekeepers from 24 states plus several Canadian provinces reported losses of up to 90% of their hives from a mystery ailment, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This phenomenon first became apparent among commercial migratory beekeepers along the East Coast during the last few months of 2006, and has since been reported nationwide. The West Coast is thought to have lost 60%of its commercial bee population, with 70% missing on the East Coast. CCD has since spread to Germany , Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece . As the summer season approaches, the potential financial impact of these loses is drawing attention. [ii] Estimates put the financial value of honeybees as pollinators of our nation's agricultural crops at about $15 billion. [iii]

The honeybees are apparently leaving their hives and never returning. Leaving the hive to die is not uncommon for honeybees but with CCD, pollen and honey are abundant in the hives and yet other bees are staying far away, suggesting something else is at work. Possible explanations have ranged from atypical weather which doesn't account for how widespread the phenomena appears, or infestations from the small hive beetle, to new pesticides.

The most intriguing theory though has to do with cell phones. A German study conducted by Professor Jochen Kuhn of Landau University and reported in mid April offers another culprit: radiation from cell phones and cell phone towers.

To conduct the study, Kuhn placed cell phone handsets near hives and found the bees avoided their homes when the phones were radiating frequencies in a range from 900 to 1800 megahertz, the standard range for most cell phones. [iv] As intriguing as this may seem, it has been pointed out that cell phones and their towers are not new.  What is new are the HDTV transmitters.

Even when I was at Cornell, scientists already knew that bees were acutely sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. They were the only animal that exhibited behavioral changes when placed near high voltage power lines, drastically increasing the amount of propolis they generated in their hives.

Past warnings that cell phones might increase incidence of brain tumors, lower sperm counts or hasten senility have not put a damper on their use. This current connection will likely do even less.

In theory, other insects can be bred and used to pollinate crops. At this time however, most of the world's crops depend on honeybees for pollination. None of these alternate pollinators will provide us with honey. [Although multiple news reports attribute Albert Einstein as once saying that, "if bees disappeared, "man would have only four years of life left," apparently this quote is an urban myth as there is no record of this in any of his writings at least according to a posting on www.Snopes.com

We live in a world in which we understand only a few of the myriad forces that act on living beings. Let us hope that the fate of the honeybee hasn't tipped the wrong way.

Our regular readers know the regard in which I hold honey as a medicine and as a food. It would be a great loss if this commodity were to disappear from our common experience. Even more so if the cause was simply our ubiquitous need to talk on cell phones. This whole worry may blow over innocently in the coming months and my concerns may have been for naught. Nevertheless, I plan buy several gallons of extra honey to stockpile. As I taste this honey over the coming years, the thought of how sweet and of how transitory the pleasures of our world are will be close to mind.






[i] wikipedia
Science 16 March 2007 :
Vol. 315. no. 5818, p. 1473
DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5818.1473a
Open CRS: Congressional Research Reports Recent Honey Bee Colony Declines
March 26, 2007
The Independent. Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?
Scientists claim radiation from handsets are to blame for mysterious 'colony collapse' of bees
By Geoffrey Lean and Harriet Shawcross
Published: 15 April 2007