Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Coloney Collapse Disorder: still inspiring anti-science tirades


This response to a recently published study on the causes of CCD is flat-out asinine.

The scientific study itself is pretty cool. They basically threw bees in a blender and then used a super-cool military analyzer-thingy to find out what all the viruses and microorganisms were mixed in with the bees. They had intriguing results: 100% of the CCD-affected bees they studied were infected by a specific virus-fungus combo.

Some ignorant snot, from Fortune magazine of all places, (which might make me forgive his ignorance about science and biology, but not about his lack of journalistic integrity), doesn't like these findings, however.

In his op-ed article-thingy, titled, "What a scientist didn't tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths", he complains that the NYT article that first reported about the new study didn't report that one of the authors of the study once got funding (for a different project) from a pesticide manufacturer. He claims this is cause for bias that effected the outcome of the study and that the study is therefore worthless, and also pesticides are evil and there's a giant conspiricy SOMEWHERE AAAAAGH PESTICIDES R SCCCERRRY!!!1!

OK, that last part was my interpretation.

So much mis-information it hurts. HURTS.

a) Scientists receive funding from industry. There I said it. The best-kept non-secret in science today! It doesn't mean the work they do with that funding is bad or biased. It's certainly something to keep a close eye on. Which is why there are safeguards in place, like GLP's and journals requiring some kind of statement of conflict of interest, university review boards, and, yanno, other scientists). An automatic assumption of crippling bias when the data is solid is ridiculous.

b) There were eighteen authors involved in this paper from multiple disciplines and funding sources, including the military, universities, and other corporations (all of which are clearly stated in the paper itself). One of the authors receiving a grant from Bayer once for a different project doesn't somehow taint everything he touches.

c) Mr. Op-Ed, like a few scientists and a whole lot more non-scientists, wants to blame CCD on pesticides with little evidence but the gut feeling that PESTICIDES R SCCEEERY.

NEWS FLASH: insecticides harm insects. Honey bees are very sensitive to them. It says so right on the label of the products that Bayer makes. This isn't a hidden fact. If you plop your bee hive in the middle of a tomato field after the farmer sprayed (which is unfortunately what many bee keeper do), then yes, your bees will probably get sick. However, there is very little evidence that chemicals are causing CCD. There is plenty of sound speculation that chemical exposure contributes to weakening a hive and making it more vulnerable to disease or other stressors. However, considering that there have been CCD-like die-offs reported before modern chemical pesticides were invented, blaming them now without any other evidence is poor science.

Implicit in these sorts of, dare I say, BIASED accusations, is that there is some kind of conspiracy to keep a dangerous chemical on the market. Imidicloprid (which, from what I could find, is the only neonicitinoid used in the US) has about the same LD50 as aspirin. It also doesn't take a lot to affect target insects, so application rates on crops tend to be low. By the time the food reaches our mouths, the residues are tiny or undetectable. A few European countries banned neonicitinoids because the people wanted them to, not because there's been some new, exciting finding about their safety. That's politics, not science.

d) Mr. Fortune Magazine complains that this current paper didn't study the effects of pesticides on bees. No shit Sherlock: they set out to study diseases. Scientific studies of this sort are supposed to be narrow in scope; too many variables and you don't get reliable results. Not to mention, the whole reason this study is so cool is because they methods they used are uniquely suited to finding viruses and microorganisms. Which, you may notice, are very different from pesticide chemicals, which would require a different process (actually, many different processes) to detect. Just because pesticides are your hobby horse, doesn't mean it is for everyone. You want to study pesticides? Get yer own funding (just not from Bayer, then your results would be ignored).

e) Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out to the anti-pesticide folks out there: honey bees aren't healthy, and they aren't treated very well by most bee-keepers. They're more inbred than an AKC bulldog, very disease-prone, and as stated above, there have been periodic die-offs reported as early as 1869.

CCD is scary, but bad press about good science, and emotional knee-jerk reactions, won't solve it.


Retrieverman said...

I haven't seen a single emotional knee-jerk reaction this week.

Jess said...

I tried to read the op-ed. When the hand-waving got really frantic I gave it up.

Some people are just incapable of actually READING things. They just pick out keywords and make the rest up.

CyborgSuzy said...

Even science people I otherwise respect lose their shit over CCD. I think it has to do with the romanticism that surrounds hoeny bees. Romance and logic don't mix.

K9Trainer said...

I was of the impression the imidicloprid is IN the plant, so it doesn't need to be applied and it doesn't wash off in the rain. Or at your sink.

K9Trainer said...

Yes, they don't spray with imidicloprid. It's in the seed, before the plant ever starts to grow, and just like on a dog, where you put it on one spot and it spreads to the entire dog, it spreads to every part of the plant.

It's called "seed-dressing."

CyborgSuzy said...

I'm sorry, but you're a bit misinformed. Imidicloprid is sometimes sprayed on crops. It is used most often as a soil treatment (usually granular) as it is taken up most efficiently by the roots. Yes, it's systemic, which also means plants will metabolize it. Not well, but it's one of many ways to break down a chemical. (Hence, the low-to-zero detection rates in our food.)

It is also a seed treatment for some crops, like you say, but it's not like it can multiply as the seed grows. You start off with a tiny drop on a tiny seed. (Although tests have shown there can still be detectable levels in leaves of some adult plants).

Also, the way it spreads systemically in a plant is not at all how it works in dog flea treatments (which don't absorb through the skin but spread out in the oil layer near the hair follicles).

K9Trainer said...

Does it use the water in the plant to spread?

CyborgSuzy said...

I don't know the exact mechanism. It's absorbed through the roots and travels through all the cells of the plant. It's only moderately soluble in water, but that's probably part of it.