Image: bamyers4az via Flickr
The New York Times reported recently that scientists figured out the cause of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been killing off precious honeybees in droves. The story said that a team of military scientists and entomologists determined a fungus "tag-teaming with a virus" appeared to be the likely cause.
CNN, however, has some bones to pick with the reporting, and scientists in the bee community have even more concerns about the research as it was reported. CNN explains how a key piece of information about Bayer, a pesticide manufacturer, was left out of the Times story:
What the Times article did not explore -- nor did the study disclose -- was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.
I wrote Leonard Foster, bee expert and chief apiarist at the University of British Columbia, to ask his thoughts on the matter. For Foster, the main concern isn't the Bayer funding, he said in an email, "in part because the preponderance of evidence from other groups as well indicates that at least one, if not two or more infectious diseases are responsible for CCD. That's not to say, though, that pesticides might not play a role."
Of more concern to him is that the researchers have not released some of the "most essential data supporting their conclusions." From what Foster can tell, the authors may have "made some rather serious (honest) mistakes when interpreting their data."
Those errors could include the researchers having mistaken "bee proteins for something else, such as IIV proteins," as well as the "method they used to quantify the level of virus between the CCD and no-CCD colonies—its accuracy is very low and so this could also lead to erroneous conclusions."
How the study was funded is still grounds for caution, because of the potential bias against pesticides as a cause of CCD but also because, as CNN explains, the lead author "has a conflict of interest as CEO of a company developing scanners to diagnose bee diseases. 'He could benefit financially from that if this thing gets popularized,' Frazier [entomology professor at Penn State University] says, "so it's a difficult situation to deal with."
But either way, these are all big questions to keep in mind when reading a headline claiming that an international, multi-year mystery, upon which the country's food supply depends, is "solved."
As another bee expert, Dennis vanEngelsdorp, said, the study "simply confirms our other findings—sick bees are really sick—and they are not all sick from the same thing. So why? That remains the question."
More about honeybees and CCD
The Uncertain Future of Bees with National Bee Expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp
Bees in Crisis: the National Wildlife Federation Has Tips to Help
A Bad Winter and Pesticides Spell More Trouble for Honeybees
More "Save the Bees" Success: What Can Other Environmental Campaigners Learn?