Archive for: May, 2012

Spread the love - of science!

May 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I am one of those people who absolutely love science. It took me a little time to realize it, but when I fell, I fell hard. I feel tingly when I see a really cool paper. I get excited when an idea alights in my brain. I “squee” over beautiful data. I have chosen a lifelong career in science. I am fortunate to be paid to do something I love.

Oddly, though, I have sometimes found it difficult to share that excitement with people who are close to me, but I’m trying to change that.

Not too long ago, I had an impromptu "Take Your Parent to Work" day. One of the "hazards" of working in a bio lab is that sometimes your work just won't wait. Such was the case while family was visiting recently. I decided to drag my dad along so he could see where I work and meet some of the people I talk about in conversation on a regular basis.

Gadget wise, our lab isn't the most exciting. I showed my dad our fancy microscope, our data analysis area, our office. The idea wasn't to impress him but rather to give him a snapshot of the place that's a backdrop for much of my life.

Then it was time for work - cell culture work. For readers who hail from other disciplines, cell culture - and especially mammalian cell culture - can be a rather tedious task. It basically involves aspirating liquids, adding other liquids, repeating the process, and then transferring solutions from one plastic dish to another. For most mammalian cell work, the liquids are varying shades of red to magenta, occasionally moving into the yellow range if you've let your cells get too crowded or they've picked up bacterial contamination. To keep from contaminating your cells (or potentially yourself), you do all this in a hood, not unlike a chemical fume hood but for the much more limited sash height that means, in practice, all your work is done behind a plexiglass sheet.  At times, the monotony can be almost relaxing, the routine meditative, allowing your brain to disengage a bit or perhaps wander contemplative paths.

The biosafety cabinet: A sanctuary for science?

This day, my dad waited patiently nearby. I was scaling up clones from 96-well plates, aspirating and pipetting into wells only about 6.5 mm in diameter. This was going to take a bit of time, so I started chatting.

Me: You know, this is really about as colorful as my work gets. It's always funny to see cylinders and bottles filled with bright colored liquids in labs on TV shows. Most of those things have no color in real life. The best I usually get are varying shades of pink.

Him: What are you adding now?

Me: This is trypsin. The cells I work with like to stick to plastic. Trypsin breaks their connections to dish.

Him: Ah, and that let's you take them out and do whatever you need to with them.

Me: Exactly. Today I'm just scaling these up to larger plates. Last week, I added a virus to the cells so they will make a specific protein, but different cells will produce different amounts. To get a more homogeneous population, I did a limiting dilution. I put some cells in the first well, made dilutions down the column, then made dilutions of those wells across the plate. The idea is that some of the last wells in the plate should end up with only a single cell that I can gradually expand until I have enough for experiments.

Him: So all those individual wells have the same stuff in them?

Me: Yep.

Him: (noting the gradient of color across the wells) Then why are some of them yellow and others pink?

Me: That's because the media we use has phenol red. It's a pH indicator that turns yellow when the solution becomes acidic. Those yellow well have lots of cells, which churn out stuff that changes the pH.

That's a [paraphrased] snippet of the conversation we had over cell culture, which sparked other discussions during the course of his visit. In some way, I was surprised by the extent of engagement. This is not a reflection on intelligence; I happen to think my dad is pretty smart guy. Rather I was uncertain about the level of interest in the seemingly mundane details of research.

There’s a running joke about PhD students explaining their work and being met only with glazed eyes and awkward silences. I think the implication is meant to be that the things we study are often so far removed from what people encounter in every day life to be of interest to anyone but other scientists in our field. However, the real problem tends to be how we frame and build the conversation. When talking with non-scientists, I think we tend toward extremes: being overly specific and technical, as if we’re chatting with a colleague; or being so vague and abstract that it becomes difficult for anyone to understand just what we’re doing. Either way, we can make it nigh impossible for other people to engage in the conversation. We may perceive this as boredom on their part, but it may have less to with the topic than with the presentation.

Over the past couple of years, I have tried to talk more (and more specifically) with my family about what I do, what other scientists are doing, and how stuff gets done (and funded). My dad worked in a textile factory for two decades and has been a mechanic for the last 10 or 12 years. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about my work or will not engage in a conversation about what I do. On the contrary, he shows interest and asks about things from news stories or TV shows that caught his attention. Sharing the culture, the conduct, and the outcomes of science with the people in our circles should be a privilege and a pleasure*. We just have to learn how to make it so.

Most of the time it can be fun. Sometimes you have to crush people’s dreams – like when I told my dad that Mr. Mass Spec could not possibly do all that Abby claims.


What do you do to share science with family and friends?

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biochembelle (briefly) invades Scientopia

May 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Hiya! I'm Biochembelle, and I'll be taking over the guest blogge for a short while.

For those who don't know me (and maybe for those who do), here are few random tidbits about the new master of this domain:

  • I am a former disgruntledoc but, after returning to a field I adore, on the path to recovery in a lab home where I am a happydoc more days than not. (Yes, indeed, it can happen.)
  • I married soon after undergrad and am still married to the same guy (9 years this week!). So, Snooty Professor who sarcastically wished me luck with staying married through grad school, shove it. (We'll soon embark on the experiment of whether our marriage will survive two PhDs, but I think the odds are pretty good.)
  • I was raised on a healthy regimen of James Bond and Star Trek. I can relate most anything back to the latter. (Oh, just wait.)
  • I count myself as a biochemist most days, but my research over the years has called on a range of tools from synthetic chemistry to animal models.
  • Though a bit sporadic of late, I've been blogging about life in science for about two years. You can my usual postings on WordPress.

Thanks to the Scientopia crew for letting me crash the party. I'm pumped about my brief stint here - and maybe it will be the kick-in-the-ass to get back to posting regularly at my usual digs 🙂

9 responses so far

Dragonfly Citizen Science: Migration Watch

May 25 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Most people know about monarch butterfly migration, but there are actually other insects in the US that migrate. That includes 16 species of American dragonflies!

Some researchers actually attached tiny radio transmitters to some Green Darners and followed their migration. The average distance migrated was 58 km (about 36 miles), but some dragonflies traveled twice that distance.

paper from 1998 described mass autumn migrations of dragonflies (Odonata) in Illinois, New Jersey, and Florida.  The description of the Chicago migration event is delightful–one of the authors was working in his office at the Field Museum and noticed a giant swarm of dragonflies passing by:

“The flux of migrants was estimated from the museum rooftop by counting dragonflies as they passed through a 400-M2 (40 m long X 10 m deep) vertical window to the E. …At the point where migrants were passing the museum, the dragonfly stream was estimated to be 850 m wide. Assuming that passage rates were constant throughout the 5-h period during which the migration was in progress, ca. 1.2 million dragonflies were estimated to have been involved in the flight.”

green darnerWould you like to help document more dragonfly migration?

The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) has started a citizen science project to investigate the movements of two migratory dragonflies: the Common Green Darner (Anax junius) and Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata).

You agree to visit the same wetland or pond site on a regular basis, and then report the arrival of migrant dragonflies moving south in the fall or north in the spring.  They also would like to know when the first resident adults of these species emerge in the spring. Sign up at Dragonfly Pond Watch

More info about migratory dragonflies:

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Bees and Pesticides (again)

May 23 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

The same day that I published my piece about bees and pesticides, the Pesticide Action Network released a report titled Honey Bees and Pesticides: State of the Science. It's basically an annotated bibliography of some of the major papers over the last 9 years.

Their introduction was... well:

"Two increasingly intractable sides have emerged in this controversy:
beekeepers and environmental health advocates vs. pesticide companies and the scientists supported by them."

That Us vs. Them language is really disturbing.  I happen to be a scientist, and a beekeeper, and an environmental health advocate. I don't always agree with everything PAN does, but I agree much more than I disagree.  (It's also a little odd that they would begin with this sort of divisive language, and then....turn to the products of scientists to prove their point.)

It didn't take long before I was accused of being a "pesticide shill" after my last post cautioning that neonicotinoids are not the sole cause of colony collapse disorder.  Trust me, I am sooooo not raking in the big chemical daddy bucks.

I've never said that pesticides are safe, or that they don't harm bees--just that the story is complex.

Nuance: I Haz It.  

shades of grey kitten

Personally? I think the biggest threats to honey bees are a combination of many factors--and to focus on one exclusively will not help us solve the problem. I WISH that the issue really was just the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, because that would give us an easy "off" switch for the problem.  Ban the pesticides, bees come back.  Solved.

But even if we did ban these pesticides--and dealt with the giant economic upheaval in agriculture that would accompany that, BTW--honey bees aren't going to recover, because they still are besieged by mites, and viruses, and fungal disease, and the pesticides we apply to the bees directly to control those problems. That also doesn't begin to cover the issues with bee nutrition and forage diversity.

There is clearly a pesticide problem with bees–even if we can’t fully quantify it right now. I want to steer you away from the PAN report to another, less well known and excellent summary of this class of pesticides on bees.  The Xerces Society white paper, A Review of Research into the Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Bees, with Recommendations for Action, had this to say about CCD:

“There is no direct link demonstrated between neonicotinoids and the honeybee bee syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder. However, recent research suggests that nenonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens….which has been implicated as one causitive factor for CCD.”

The Xerces paper is probably the best review of the recent research that you are going to find.  Not only is it written by Xerces scientists, who are folks what really know their bees, it also was reviewed by several other bee researchers I have a great deal of respect for.

Xerces thoroughly documents what we know about these pesticides and bees–and, unfortunately, we don’t know nearly enough. Most of the published research focuses on honey bees, rather than the native bee species in the US.  (Honey bees are an introduced species in North America).  That means we don’t have much data to work with to figure out how different bee species will be affected.  When you look at this chart of pesticide effects on native bees...we have no freakin' clue how they are affected.

Personally, I found the most disturbing piece of the Xerces report to be their discovery of how many of these neonicotinoid insecticides are available over the counter to homeowners.  Calculating pesticide application rates is one of the toughest parts of farming (or pesticide applicator exams), and Xerces does the math to uncover some startling facts:

  • “Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops. 
  • Many neonicotinoid pesticides that are sold to homeowners for use on lawns and gardens do not have any mention of the risks of these products to bees, and the label guidance for products used in agriculture is not always clear or consistent.
  • Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.”

That is really scary.

Xerces raises some very important questions about what this means for our native bees that are already struggling with habitat loss and a spill-over of parasites and pathogens from introduced bee species. Butterflies, beetles, and flies also drink nectar and feed on pollen–pretty much any of our pollinators, including hummingbirds, could be affected if they feed on trees and plants treated with these insecticides.

I would like to see new labeling so consumers know that these products have the potential to kill bees and other pollinators, as well as a review of application rates for over-the-counter formulations.

bee photo

Unfortunately, because neonicotinoid pesticides are so very useful in agriculture, there are no easy answers. The things that make these compounds so very well suited for so many purposes–their ability to remain stable for a long time and spread through plant tissues–are also why they pose dangers for pollinating insects.

Additional Reading: 

(Thanks to Artologica for the LOLcats!)

2 responses so far

Bees, CCD, and Pesticides

May 21 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

In the last few months, there's been a steady stream of new publications about honey bees and pesticides.  One news item ran with the headline: Mystery of the Disappearing Bees: Solved!"

Um. NO.  Not even close.

I have gotten a bajillion emails about this paper from a Harvard researcher:

In Situ Replication of Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder,” Chensheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, Richard A. Callahan. Bulletin of Insectology. June 2012.

This paper claims two things we're already conditioned to think are evil are the cause of CCD:  high fructose corn syrup and pesticides.   It's from a big name, widely respected university.  It is also, sadly, a flawed paper. (The fact that it's in the "Journal of Insectology" should be a tip-off.  Is that even a word?)

A fair amount of bashing is going on in the bugosphere:

"My reading of the paper suggests that the author knows little about bees, little about pesticides, nothing about HFCS, and had no understanding of the distribution of systemic pesticides in plants. "

Ouch! And that was from one of the nicer reviews.  What immediately jumped out at me when I read the paper was that the control hives failed.

One consistent criticism is that the levels of pesticide were increased in the middle of the trial when they didn't immediately see bee deaths. That isn't how you do science--especially when you increase the levels of pesticide to well over 40 times what is normally seen in the field. Oddly enough, that still didn't kill all the bees.  Randy points this out:

" appears that the data from this study actually support an alternative hypothesis–that field realistic doses of imidacloprid had no measurable adverse effects upon the colonies.  And even patently toxic doses had little immediate effect."  [emphasis original author]

This paper is a good example of the problem I mentioned in an earlier post, of some research being given more weight simply because it fits within a narrative of what we believe ought to happen--even if the evidence doesn't support it.

Do pesticides kill bees? Oh Hell Yes. Pesticides are bad for bees, and there is no doubt about that.  That is not the same question, though, as "do pesticides cause Colony Collapse Disorder?", which is a distinct syndrome with clear signs.  And it's also a different question from "Which pesticides harm bees most?" and "How do pesticides harm bees?"

The answers to all of these questions based on the scientific literature from the last few years is incredibly mixed. Lab trials don't match field trials. Very wide dose ranges and modes of delivery are used, and results are inconsistent from study to study.  Something is going on, certainly, but if pesticides--in particular the neonicotinoid class of pesticides--were the primary factor in bee deaths, I would expect more coherence in the literature.

This is why I think the paper that should really be getting all the press is this one:

Dietary traces of neonicotinoid pesticides as a cause of population declines in honey bees: an evaluation by Hill's epidemiological criteria. James Cresswell, Nicolas Desneux, and Dennis vanEngelsdorp.  Pest Management Science. 2012.  DOI: 10.1002/ps.3290

Science already has a lot of tools for picking apart complex causes of diseases and environmental changes. In this paper, three leading bee scientists from the three countries most involved in CCD research--USA, UK, and France--evaluate CCD using one of those tools.  From the paper:

"Normally, the results of manipulative experiments are the hard currency of decisions about causality in natural science. In situations involving public concern over environmental change, however, decisions about causes sometimes must be made under political pressure, in spite of scientific uncertainties, which may include the lack of experimental evidence. In such circumstances, a scientific evaluation is nevertheless possible, but it uses a different process to manage uncertainty and to validate its conclusions."

They evaluate if there is enough evidence to implicate neonicotiniod pesticides in bee deaths using a standard epidemiological method developed by Hill.  It looks at nine different criteria, and assigns a weight to each one (1-Slight, 2-Reasonable, 3-Substantial, 4-Clear and 5-Certain) with regard to the cause-effect hypothesis.  The value (+/-) of each score relates to the nature of the effect; positive if it causes a population decline, and negative if it has little effect on the population.

Results table

Because it's a complex paper, I've reproduced their analysis table here, and will only discuss some of the criteria they used.  The first criteria is experimental evidence--they assigned this a value of -1, since there isn't a consistent pattern to support the hypothesis that neonicotinoid pesticides cause CCD.

The second criteria is coherence, which evaluates whether identifying a factor as the cause of a particular phenomenon conflicts with established knowledge.  It's certainly a reasonable assumption that these pesticides harm bees, so the value of the score is positive (+3, Substantially supports the hypothesis). However, it does not receive a higher score because despite lots of research, we still don't have a numeric value or dose that is a meaningful (or consistent!) threshold of harm.

pesticide use graphThe temporality criterion asks whether "the cause precedes the consequence."  As you can see from the graph I've reproduced here, bees were already starting to decline before the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides.  And despite pesticide use increasing steadily, the bee declines are far slower.

Since trace dietary neonicotinoids neither preceded nor intensified honey bee decline, this factor had a score of -4; Clearly lacking evidence to support the hypothesis.

The next factor, consistency, asks whether the association between the hypothesized cause and consequence is repeated in space and time. It isn't, within the US or worldwide.  From the paper:

"Worldwide, honey bee declines are not ubiquitous, and, according to figures produced by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global stock of managed colonies has increased by 45% in the last 50 years, in spite of the declines in North America and Europe. Even in Europe, stocks of colonies have increased in some countries, such as Spain, where the numbers have risen by over 50%"

The specificity criterion asks whether the consequence is uniquely associated with the hypothesized cause. As I have detailed before, pretty much everything wants to kill your bees.  A whole bunch of other factors clearly cause declines in bees, including:

  • increased losses due to Varroa mite;
  • diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema;
  • pesticide poisoning through exposure to pesticides for in-hive fungal or mite control (NOT neonicotinoid pestides; these are different)
  • habitat loss for foraging; inadequate forage/poor nutrition;
  • poor nutrition and migratory stress brought about by the increased need to move bee colonies long distances to provide pollination services.

When you add this all together, you come up with the conclusion that neonicotinoid pesticides are not the cause of honey bee declines.  Because non-entomologists mostly see just a few papers that are covered by the media, it creates the illusion that there is far more evidence for pesticide causes of CCD than actually exists.

Is it possible that neonicotinoid pesticides in the environment harm bees? It's not only possible, it's likely.  But we can't just assume that pesticides did it ("I knew it! Those bastards had it in for bees from the beginning.").  By focusing on just one of the many threats that harm bees, we are missing the real story.

An incredibly complex host of factors makes it hard out there for bees of all sorts--and not just honey bees.  We have to evaluate all of them, and how they might interact, to try to help bees make a comeback.

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Bees and STDs

May 17 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I talked about Varroa Mites yesterday, and I wanted to point out that solitary bees also have parasites that can be deadly.  Osmia, or Mason bees, occur in all shapes and sizes, but nearly all 300 species are fuzzy, mild-mannered, and adorable.  They're called mason bees because they create nest chambers out of mud.  Each individual female does all the work herself, unlike social bumble bees and honey bees.

Sadly, just as lots of things like to kill honey bees, there is also an extensive list of predators, parasitoids, and parasites that specialize on just this one type of bee.

Solitary bees pose a unique challenge for a parasite. How are you supposed to build up a population when your host doesn't live in a group or a herd?  Somehow you have to spread and move between both individuals and generations.

One time when even solitary animals have to hook up is.... when they hook up.  Parasitic mites on bees hop off one host and onto another just like changing taxis. The bees are too otherwise occupied with gettin' it on to notice.

I posted some footage of varroa mites on honeybees yesterday, but that pales in comparison to the horror I'm about to show you.   Indeed, I hope it will shock you, make you quite itchy, and put you off sex for a while.  (I'm not getting any, so might as well make it a universal condition.)

From the video author:

"These Red Mason Bees are heavily (probably fatally) infested with mites. Mites will often move from the male bee (who picks them up whilst visiting flowers), to the female during copulation. The female will then carry them to her nest where they will feed on the provisions and breed. Mites often will suck the blood of bees, sometimes leading to death. Heavily infested bees are unable to fly."

The mites are probably Chaetodactylus, but that's a guess.

You should be ready for Friday Weird Science now.

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It's hard out there for a bee

May 16 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I spent my first post lamenting confusion over CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), honey bees, and native bee species. One key problem is that CCD as described by entomologists is not the same as "disappearing bees" as described by media or Hollywood. (Although, to be fair, "vanishing bees" is a pretty cool idea, suggesting that perhaps aliens have decided to abduct bees rather than rednecks in pickup trucks, just to mix things up a little.)

CCD is a syndrome. By definition, a syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms known to appear together but that have no known cause.  Unfortunately, we can't use Koch's postulates to clearly link a causal pathogen to a disease.

The CCD Working Group issued this definition in 2009 for a diagnosis of CCD:

  1. "the apparent rapid loss of adult worker bees from affected colonies as evidenced by weak or dead colonies with excess brood populations relative to adult bee populations;
  2. the noticeable lack of dead worker bees both within and surrounding the hive; and
  3. the delayed invasion of hive pests (e.g., small hive beetles and wax moths) and kleptoparasitism [honey stealing] from neighboring honey bee colonies."

To diagnose a hive that is in the process of failing:

"In those CCD colonies where some adult bees remained, there were insufficient numbers of bees to cover the brood [brood = baby bees], the remaining worker bees appeared young (i.e., adult bees that are unable to fly), and the queen was present.

Notably, both dead and weak colonies in CCD apiaries were neither being robbed by bees (despite the lack of available forage in the area as evidenced by the lack of nectar in the comb of strong colonies in the area and by conversations with managing beekeepers) nor were they being attacked by secondary pests (despite the presence of ample honey and beebread in the vacated equipment)."

"Bees gone" is not sufficient for a diagnosis of Death by CCD, if you are a CSI Apiarist.  The status of the brood is important. A lot of hive health is assessed by how well the queen and her minions are producing and caring for the young.

Another major complication is that beekeeping is an endeavor with an incredibly high rate of failure.  It boggles my mind that 15% hive loss yearly is NORMAL.  I don't mean hive losses from CCD--that's the rate of hive failure before CCD arrived on the scene. It's just the cost of doing business--a lot of hives don't make it through the winter.

In the last decade, that loss rate has crept up to 30%, on average, for the US.  This increase in bee deaths has been primarily driven by two bee parasites--Varroa Mites and Tracheal Mites.  Varroa mites are pretty big, compared to a bee. It's probably like having a tiny vampiric chihuahua stuck to your body.  Here, have a look:

(Also, I just SERIOUSLY creeped myself out imagining vampire chihuahuas.)

Tracheal mites live in the breathing tubes of insects, and as you might expect, severely inhibit the ability of bees to thrive.  And I'm just getting started on things that kill bees independently of CCD.  I can think of at least 20 different fungal infections, viruses, and additional parasites.  Foulbrood. Nosema.  Chronic Paralysis Virus.  I'll spare you the full list, but a LOT of things like to kill bees.

This is part of what makes teasing out the cause of CCD so difficult. It's not that there are no smoking guns; there are hundreds of smoking guns, all of which plausibly contribute to the decline of bees.  Here is the short list of contributors to CCD, ordered roughly in order of importance, based on the most recent literature:

  • increased losses due to varroa mite;
  • diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema;
  • pesticide poisoning through exposure to pesticides for in-hive insect or mite control
  • habitat loss for foraging; inadequate forage/poor nutrition;
  • Exposure to pesticides in the environment (including neonicotinoids)
  • poor nutrition and migratory stress brought about by the increased need to move bee colonies long distances to provide pollination services.

Note that the pesticides on this list that are of most concern, and most common in hives, are the ones that we apply to the bees on purpose.  Miticides and fungicides to control parasites and diseases of bees are the ones of most concern for sub-lethal effects on the bees we are trying to protect.

Bees encounter pesticides in their environment as they look for nectar and pollen, and those get all the press.  That story fits a narrative for humans--we fear pesticides in our environment too--and gets privileged over other factors in news coverage.

What pesticides really seem to do is make everything else worse for bees. For example, three different studies this year found that exposure to pesticides increased  Nosema infections.  It's these synergistic effects that make pesticides of concern, not their ability to kill a bee outright.

One other factor that entomologists know is that a Beepocalypse is actually not new, if you look at the history of beekeeping.historic colony losses

Many of these historic collapses pre-date the introduction of pesticides or other modern bee culture practices that are being blamed for bee losses today.  The extent of some of those historic losses are staggering--up to 90% colony collapse in some cases.

Hopefully, this gives you a sense of just how difficult and tangled the problem of CCD is, and how very far we are from a simple linear cause --> effect relationship for this problem.  It IS hard out there for a bee.  And it's frustrating that when researchers find a new potential contributor, it's reported as "the cause" of CCD, even when the scientists involve explicitly say it isn't a cause.

We aren't kidding. It is complicated.

its complicated

Next up: a brand new literature review published this month that tries to untangle the issue of pesticides and bees.


6 responses so far

The Coming Beepocalypse

May 15 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Right now, even people who aren't bug dorks like me are really interested in bees.  This is a mixed blessing for an entomologist.

The Good:

As the American population becomes more distant from their food production (only 1% of the population works on farms), a bee crisis reminds everyone that a significant part of their diet depends on these little Angels of Agriculture.  We rely on bees to serve as pollen couriers for fruits, vegetables, and animal food crops. The value of pollination services is estimated between 30 and 15 Billion dollars per year in the US.

It's good to remind people that their food depends on these little animals, and to generate some positive buzz about bees and agriculture. People are interested in planting native plants, and creating habitat for bees and other pollinating insects. Win!

The Bad:

Most Americans, and lots of the media, don't seem to realize that "The Bees" are actually thousands of different species, with very different habitat needs and life histories.  Honeybees are domesticated animals. Like cows and chickens, they came to America with Europeans as introduced species in the 1600’s. They rapidly displaced native bee species, and habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanization further weakened our native pollinators.

Honeybees live in artificial hives we build for them, and work to pollinate crops that grow in huge monocultures of single plant species. It is the honeybees that are dying from CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder.  Or, maybe not.  It's complex.

its complicated

There are also declines in native solitary bee populations, in wild bumble bees, and in bumble bees that are reared commercially like honeybees.  Confused yet?  The press certainly is. Sometimes they can't even figure out what insects are actually bees, much less what is killing them.

Because the media is Beedazzled, bee stories are covered heavily.  This results in some not-good science getting a LOT of exposure that it would not otherwise. Papers that would have quietly been published in an obscure periodical, and perhaps used as a "don't do this" example in Journal Club, are suddenly big news. Press releases about grant funding to study a bee issue are presented with the same weight as  finished research.  Mainstream media seems to need to create a false sense of urgency about the stories. OMG NOT THE BEEZ!!! (obligatory photo of Nicholas Cage inserted here).

Cage in a cage

The Ugly:

A whole bunch of conspiracy theories about bees and what's killing them have surfaced:
GMO Plants.
Cell phones.
Sun Spots.
Power lines and electromagnetic smog.
Rapture. (No, seriously. The bees are being raptured. Via a psychic they issued a “so long and thanks for all the pollen” statement, and revealed they were going to a higher astral plane.)

Claims of catastrophic consequences ("OMG All humans will die without bees!!1!") and complex, murky science make space for some pretty wild claims.  A whole mythology of what Einstein might have said about bees has sprung up.   Monsanto bought a bee genomics company and it's part of their grand plan to poison us all.  At this point, the only claim I haven't seen yet is that very, very small black helicopters are abducting the bees.

 So what the F is up with the bees, anyway?

As you can see, there are a lot of different things going on with honeybee disappearance and loss of native species.  It doesn't help that the honeybee problem is usually framed as a cause/effect relationship between bee declines and some toxic thing. Our modern news cycle isn't really built to deal with nuance and complexity.

This “toxic thing” narrative results in some stories being given far more weight than others.  For some reason, a lot of people really want to believe cell phones and GMO crops kill bees, even when there is no evidence for it.  Some of the evidence that does exist is discounted, as is the "expert" status of a lot of entomologists.  The story has been shaped as much by what people already think about "those corporate bastards" than actual bees.

This has been a bit of an existential crisis for me, since while I know from my work in science education that just telling people facts won't change their minds...I still do it. It's the default position for an academic.

Commenter: Cell phones are killing bees!
Me: Well, actually, not so much [facts]
Commenter: Well what about this story?
Me: [more facts]
Commenter: You are a tool of the industrio-telecommunications complex.

I occasionally find myself in the problematic position of not wanting entomology to be covered widely as news because people aren’t listening or thinking carefully. (Which, frankly, could cover a lot of the daily news cycle, not just stories about insects.)

This is all a long way of saying that "The Bee Problem" is a really complex issue, involving many species, and the research isn't finished.  It's a biological system with thousands of moving and living parts.

When trying to explain this, I find myself returning to Carl Zimmer's excellent New York Times summary of recent research on bees and pesticides:  Bees’ decline linked to pesticides.  Carl (I shook his hand once, so I can call him Carl, right?) does a great job of showing how the scientific community is still resolving how all this research adds up.  In a post on his blog providing supplimental information to the NYTimes story above, Carl discusses the difficulty of making sense of all this information:

"I found this story to be especially challenging to sum up in a single nut graph. To begin with, these experiments came after many years of previous experiments and surveys, which often provide conflicting pictures of what’s going on.... The experiments themselves were not–could not–be perfect replicas of reality, and so I needed to talk to other scientists about how narrow that margin was. As they should, the scientists probed deep, pointing out flaws and ambiguity–in many cases even as they praised the research.
At the same time, these two papers 
did not appear in a vacuum. Other scientists have recently published studies (or have papers in review at other journals) that offer clues of their own to other factors that may be at work. And, biology being the godawful mess that it is, it seems that these factors work together, rather than in isolation."

Exactly! It's a body of research, not hundreds of isolated individual papers.  If Carl Zimmer–an exceptional science journalist with access to the actual scientists that are doing the research–struggles trying to assemble a coherent picture of the information, I KNOW that the rest of us regular schmoes are too.

What I hope to do in my time at the Guest Blogge is cover some of the research that I think is important to understanding bees and the ecosystem services they provide, within the context of a field of rapidly evolving research.

10 responses so far

Who is this Bug Girl person and why is she on the Blogge?

May 14 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Howdy! I am excited to be here at Scientopia!  For those who have never heard of me, I thought a brief introduction might be useful.

I am a bug pundit.  In much the same way that Stephen Colbert is a conservative talk host, I am a blue insect overlord  goddess spreading the gospel of entomology online.  I have a PhD in entomology, and a Masters in Whup Ass.

In addition to being blue, I sometimes work blue.  If you went to ScienceOnline2012, you KNOW that statement is true. You can listen to the Scio12 story that brought the house down here.  It's....probably not safe for work. But you will learn that:

  1. Pubic lice are like sea monkeys. IN YOUR PANTS.
  2. The internet is a very, very strange place.

That monologue should tell you most of what you need to know about me, really. If you want to know more:

Since Scientopia has given me a bully pulpit, I will probably spend a lot of my allotted posts talking about bees.  The most common questions I get are about the Beepocalypse--is it real? And why are they dying?

If you have any burning insect questions you would like me to address, let me know in the comments!
(But please--don't attach any photos, ok?)

9 responses so far

The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 10

May 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today, I’m winding down my stint here at the Scientopia Guest Blog with the last of the Moscow Rules for scientists, and some incomparable spy music.

Moscow Rules, number 10.

Keep your options open.

Are you letting an eight year old run your life?

I was listening to an interview (I think it was someone connected with space research on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks). The interviewee said he started pursuing his career since the age of eight. He joked that essentially was letting an eight-year old dictate his life.

We place a high premium on following childhood dreams. In my writing course, I ask my students to write a personal statement for some program that they want to apply to. Because I’m in biology, we have a lot of students who want to go to medical school, or into health professions. I’ve been struck by how often people justify their decision as a “childhood dream.”

When someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about answering that question with, “Astrophysicist!” from a very young age, there’s a tendency to hold those people up high as somehow possessing some sort of extra nobility because they “followed their dreams.”

The Avengers: I bet when Scarlett Johansson was a kid, she watched Diana Rigg on TV.

Sometimes we place too high a premium on childhood dreams. Seriously, what did you know about the world when you were 8? If we did the job we said we wanted when we were 8, there would be nothing but astronauts, firefighters, and ballerinas in the world. (And maybe a few spies.)

When a kid answers the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question from adults, we forget how our adult response affects kids and young adults. What kind of response a kid gets when they answer, “I want to be a doctor” compared to “I want to be a mechanic”? Some adult occupations are better for a kid to want than others.

The road to a scientific career is a long and lengthy one. If you’re looking at a scientific career now, it’s worth asking how much of that desire is what the “right now” you wants, and how much of it is what the 8 year old you (or 16 year old you, or 20 year old you) wanted, perhaps helped along by adults who view “educated professional” as a very good answer to the “What do you want to be...?” question?

This is particularly important to ask this question early in your career, because it does get trickier to keep those options open as you go along. It gets harder to jump different research fields as you go.

If what you thought you wanted is not what you want, I have good news for you. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s you didn’t know about when you were 8 that is awesome.

I sometimes joke about my own research by saying, “Nobody gets into this business to become a crustacean neuroethologist.” Before you get into university, never mind how you get trained for that kind of career, who even knows that is a an actual job that you can get paid to do?

Now, a lot of cool stuff is protected by a force field of tediousness (as Ben Goldacre says). You often have to do a bit of slogging before it starts to get awesome. But if you are willing to keep those options open, you can often find stuff that you didn’t know about that is challenging and rewarding and something that you can do.

And even as you go along further in your career, pay attention to the signals you’re getting. You can create new opportunities for yourself by habitually putting yourself in new situations, which creates little chance opportunities to seize (Wiseman, 2003). This is why you should look for chances to switch up the kind research that you want to do, and look for new challenges you want to take on. (See also Moscow Rules #6.)

In other words, luck is a skill. It can be learned, and improved, by following this last Moscow Rule.

Follow the Moscow Rules, and like the best spies, you too will be be capable of death-defying feats... of science!


Coda: If you have enjoyed these Guest Blog posts, please visit my current #SciFund project, Beach of the Goliath Crabs. If you can chip in a little contribution, great. If not, you could help me out by sharing it on Twitter and clicking the Facebook "Like" button. Thanks!

And just a reminder that I blog about science regularly at NeuroDojo, Better Posters, and Marmorkrebs, and about movies at Sunday Matinee!



Wiseman R. 2003. The luck factor. The Skeptical Enquirer May/June 2003: 26-30.

External links

David Kroll on career changes. Excellent stuff, from a man who gave up tenure twice.

This post talks about how open grad students are to different kinds of careers besides becoming becoming professors at major research universities.


6 responses so far

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