What's gone wrong with the flight of the bumblebee?



THE WIRELESS ANTENNAE on our western gable gesture across the sea towards Inishbofin, an island quite lost, as I write, in the pearly haze of a day far too luxurious for spring. The array makes us a node for broadband reception, letting us share with our neighbours an enterprise nurtured on the island and fanned out, node by node, right across Connemara.

Broadband is my passport to the exploding knowledge of the world, an unsurpassed tonic for the little grey cells as they drift towards senescence. It can also test their elasticity, sometimes, in following the arguments when scientists fall out. Take, as it seems we must, electromagnetic radiation, the stuff of both wireless broadband and the mobile-phone signals from the mast that punctures a mountain across the bay.

I have a correspondent who likes to keep me posted on fresh intimations of apocalypse. We have agreed not to pursue the possibility that “chemtrails” in the sky, spread by airliners, are serving some sinister military purpose. But he has got me going, rather, with the possible impacts on wildlife of man-made “electrosmog”, born of the proliferating webs of wireless communication.

Below our broadband aerial array a new springful of bumblebees forage in a pink-flowered bed of cranesbill geranium. Some also, to my pleasure, have sought out the blossoms of broad beans overwintered in the polytunnel. Bumblebees are in decline, in Ireland as almost everywhere else, mostly from loss of habitat. Honeybees are just as vital to pollination of human food crops – in some cases much more so – and their comings and goings and navigation systems are responsive to the planet’s natural magnetic fields.

The notion that cell-phone radiation might interfere with honeybee behaviour dates from 2003 and a small study from the University of Koblenz-Landau, in Germany. In exploring possible effects of the radiation on neurological mechanisms controlling learning and memory, handsets were placed near hives. Their radiation caused the bees to avoid them, perhaps through resonant disruption of the “waggle dance” on the honeycomb by which returning foragers communicate the whereabouts of pollen.

The global decline of honeybees has since become an ecological crisis, with the spread, starting in America and now widespread in Europe (but not Ireland), of colony collapse disorder, in which apparently healthy colonies suddenly disappear from their hives. Viruses, pesticides, parasitic mites (varroa), GM crops and climate change have all been blamed.

In India, however, two scientists, Ved Parkash Sharma and Neelima Kumar, at Panjab University exposed hive bees to cell-phone radiation for 15 minutes twice a day, twice a week, from February to April. Compared with bees with no ringing cell phones or only dummies in their hives, their colony strength and the egg-laying rate of the queen declined and “there was neither honey nor pollen in the colony at the end of the experiment”.

Their paper ( Current Science, 98:10, May 2010) has come sharply under fire for the scale of the experiment (a mere four hives) and paucity of controls, but the authors felt able to claim that “increase in the usage of electronic gadgets has led to electropollution of the environment. Honeybee behaviour and biology has been affected by electrosmog since these insects have magnetite in their bodies which helps them in navigation.”

This theme is developed at length in an online brochure, Bees, Birds and Mankind: Destroying Nature by ‘Electrosmog’, prepared by a group of German scientists for the Competence Initiative for the Protection of Humanity, Environment and Democracy (which may sound more persuasive in German). You can download it at http://url.ie/av3.

Naturally magnetic, biologically-produced magnetite crystals (an iron oxide) are found not only in bees and the bills of birds but in bacteria, many insects, sharks and whales. This enables them to respond to the direction, intensity and oscillation of the natural magnetic fields of Earth and its atmosphere. Just how artificial oscillations of radio frequencies could disrupt this capacity gets a bit technical and might be better asked of Prof Brian Cox next time he’s back from the universe.

There are, of course, negative findings on bees and cell phones: try TA Mixson et al in Bee Culture, 137:2, May 2009. But even that paper urges further research. And electromagnetic fields as possible “new drivers of decline” appear among a host of future research questions listed in a recent Journal of Pollination Ecology. For that, go to the new Pollinator Initiative website at pollinators.biodiversityireland.ie. This is a project recruiting observers to monitor bumblebee species across Ireland, but it’s also a source of much sound information about the pollination crisis.

We kept four hives of honeybees here in Thallabawn until Ethna, as beekeeper, grew allergic to the occasional sting. They came after me, too, when I played Lyric FM beneath their flight path. But I think they just didn’t like Bach.

Eye on nature

Help! I’m driven mad by magpies going into my kennel and stealing dried food from my bowl while I lie sunning myself in the garden – I mean, protecting my family’s house from intruders. To add insult to injury one magpie not only takes a piece of my dried food but drops it into my water bowl and leaves it for a few seconds to soften before taking it out and hammering it with its beak on the ground, then eating the broken bits.

Stan, Orchardstown Avenue, Dublin 14

My parents have noticed that crows gather on their neighbour’s smoking chimney, as if breathing in the smoke, sometimes just sitting perched with their wings spread out.

Eileen McKenna, Monaghan

They are getting rid of parasites.

A blackbird hatched four chicks in my daughter’s dead escallonia hedge on April 11th. The nest was very exposed, but the bird serenely allowed my granddaughters to have close-up views of her, her eggs and her chicks. They seemed to be thriving, but a week later all were gone, without a trace.

Pádraic Breathnach, Limerick

Probably a magpie or sparrowhawk attack.

We’ve had redwings resident in our garden since last year.

Marion McDonald and Stephen McCormick, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or e-mail viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address