It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bee Story A, Bee Story B

Yes I still owe you at least one more Beeville story, but this ain't it.

This is about human beings, allegiances and reason.

First of all, I am in total agreement with Watching the Deniers. We must make the reasoned argument, but we must realize that the reaosned argument will not win over many people, unless we make an emotional/allegiance-based argument for reason in the mix.

And the drawback of reason as an allegiance principle is that we offend people who are our allies for reasons of allegiance to principles other than reason. This is the old topic of toxic environmentalism (Whole Earth Review 1985). It's toxic environmentalism I smell in the resistance to the good news in the bee colony collapse disorder breakthrough.

So to review, I recently pointed out Bee Story A. The Times piece was mostly about the social context of the breakthrough, making only a few substantive points. But it was the buried lead that I found most notable by far:
Dr. Bromenshenk’s team at the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman, working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, said in their jointly written paper that the virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone seems able to devastate; together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.
In typical worthless newsprint style, no link to the article was provided, but fortunately the first author is easy to search for, and the actual publication in question is here: Iridovirus and Microsporidian Linked to Honey Bee Colony Decline; here's their conclusion:
We used Mass spectrometry-based proteomics (MSP) to identify and quantify thousands of proteins from healthy and collapsing bee colonies. MSP revealed two unreported RNA viruses in North American honey bees, Varroa destructor-1 virus and Kakugo virus, and identified an invertebrate iridescent virus (IIV) (Iridoviridae) associated with CCD colonies. Prevalence of IIV significantly discriminated among strong, failing, and collapsed colonies. In addition, bees in failing colonies contained not only IIV, but also Nosema. Co-occurrence of these microbes consistently marked CCD in (1) bees from commercial apiaries sampled across the U.S. in 2006–2007, (2) bees sequentially sampled as the disorder progressed in an observation hive colony in 2008, and (3) bees from a recurrence of CCD in Florida in 2009. The pathogen pairing was not observed in samples from colonies with no history of CCD, namely bees from Australia and a large, non-migratory beekeeping business in Montana. Laboratory cage trials with a strain of IIV type 6 and Nosema ceranae confirmed that co-infection with these two pathogens was more lethal to bees than either pathogen alone.
Cause for celebration, I thought. Silly me.

Aaron said:
Fungicides tend to be to most toxic of chemicals. Do we have good human and environmental toxicity data for these chemicals? Do we understand the fate and transport of these chemicals? Or, do we just close our eyes and spray? Even if we feed the chemical directly to the bees, the bees will then touch every blossom within a thousand yards. That is hard to do, even with a good spray program!

CCD was always a problem of colonies being moved from industrial monoculture to industrial monoculture. Sure, Kansas grows alfalfa, but they buy their seed and do not bring in truck loads of bees to pollinate. Our local beekeepers did not have CCD. In short, an alternative solution is to have diversified agriculture and keep the bees on site. Once climate change makes industrial monoculture unprofitable, then we will go back to diversified local agriculture. How many residual chemicals do we want in the environment?

The CCD researchers did not ask, “What is best for the bees?”, they asked, “What makes industrial monoculture profitable?” There are 3 local beekeepers in our area, and they love CCD because now the price of honey is now high enough that they can make a small profit on their “hobby.” The local pear grower is happy, because the local beekeepers now keep enough hives that he does not have to buy pollination services. On the other hand an almond grower 50 miles away is distraught at how much the price of pollination services have gone up. It is the almond industry that has the high powered lobby and PR program.
Mbloudoff followed up with
What a scientist didn't tell the NYT about his study on bee deaths: he works for insecticide manufacturer
And that brings us to Bee Story B:
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.
Sorry but W. T. F.

What does "opposite side? mean? There are sides? I thought there were mysteriously dying bees. Is someone pro-bee-death? Supporters of prior research need to be acknowledged in formal publications? When did that happen?

Bromenshenk's company, Bee Alert Technology, which is developing hand-held acoustic scanners that use sound to detect various bee ailments, will profit more from a finding that disease, and not pesticides, is harming bees. Two years ago Bromenshenk acknowledged as much to me when I was reporting on the possible neonicotinoid/CCD connection for Conde Nast Portfolio magazine, which folded before I completed my reporting.

Bromenshenk defends the study and emphasized that it did not examine the impact of pesticides. "It wasn't on the table because others are funded to do that," he says, noting that no Bayer funds were used on the new study. Bromenshenk vociferously denies that receiving funding from Bayer (to study bee pollination of onions) had anything to do with his decision to withdraw from the plaintiff's side in the litigation against Bayer. "We got no money from Bayer," he says. "We did no work for Bayer; Bayer was sending us warning letters by lawyers."
Why is he reduced to that sort of a protest? Whether he is friends with his previous funder or not is just not relevant.

Look, I don't have a bug in this race. I think agribusiness is problematic until sustainability works into their practices. On the other hand I have seen no sign that small farms on the whole are better stewards of the land than large farms. I am not at all sure about pesticides; I am horrified at the practices of most meat raisers; I think we should all eat lower on the food chain and expect that most of us soon will. So that's what I think; I do think about these things sometimes. But what I think about those things doesn't affect how I respond to new findings. That would be backwards.

First evidence. Then reasoning. Then conclusions. Is that so hard, people?

This attitude toward real progress in understanding colony collapse really doesn't sit well with me. There is no reason that the disease will or won't support your politics about land use. There is no reason to blame the scientist for finding results that don't support your ideology. If the results weigh for more pesticide use, that's what they do. Nature makes no promises to adhere to your fantasies any more than anybody else's. If the facts contradict your beliefs, you change your beliefs, not the facts. If the facts merely have nothing to do with your beliefs, then don;t try to substitute other facts.

The reporter seems to be a smart person, Rhodes scholar and all, but she obviously knows nothing about science. This is inexcusable, and the enthusiasm with which it is being received in some quarters is worse. Even the original Times story was a botch, focusing more on the institutions than on the very important result. I am more and more convinced that science writing, at least primary science writing, needs to be done almost exclusively by trained scientists.

Most of all, let me emphasize in the strongest possible terms. The fact that the principal investigator had some association with a corporation doesn't invalidate his work any more than some association with government funding would.

This argument ad instititionem (sorry for the butchered Latin) is catastrophic. It's against the rules. That way lies disaster.

Corporations and governments are part of modern life. That's the way it goes. For instance, if you can't treat someone as a fair source if they've ever gotten a speck of research money from an oil company, you need to follow some other blog, since I'm disqualified.

This way of thinking backwards from a desired conclusion is no prettier on one side of the aisle than on the other. Please grow up. Please stop.

Update: Many don't take my advice.

Update: Dina Spector steps up a couple of days later with a far more compelling article defending the pesticide connection. Ms Eban could take some pointers from Ms Spector. Thanks to Hank Roberts in comments for the link. Still, it is far from satisfactory. This paragraph, for instance, remains in the realm of innuendo:
Dr. Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology and insect biochemistry researcher at Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, is part of a research team that has done extensive toxicology sampling of bees, wax, and pollen taken from hives that experienced dead-outs associated with symptoms of CCD. On average, the team found anywhere from six to 35 different chemicals compounds in a single hive. "The pesticides bees are bringing in from pollinating represent all different chemicals that we use in agriculture, yards, even inside our homes," said Cox-Foster. In combination, some of these mixtures of chemicals may cause increased toxicity to bees that are not apparent when found individually.
No connection to the topic at hand follows. So although this is closer to the mark, Spector still relies on handwaving.


King of the Road said...


Amen, brother.


Anna Haynes said...

> "The fact that the principal investigator had some association with a corporation doesn't invalidate his work any more than some association with government funding would."

But what about the empirical evidence - in medicine, at least - that commercial funding does correlate with published result?

(MT, are you arguing from theory here, or from evidence? and have you read Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide?)

(sorry to bring this up again - you have to have a good reason for thinking this, other than anecdotes, and I am too dense to remember what it is.)

Nick Barnes said...

An even deeper problem is that someone can get to be a Rhodes scholar (or otherwise consider themselves properly educated) while not knowing anything about science. It should be a simple disqualification. You can't get to be a Rhodes scholar without (say) knowing the author and plot of Romeo and Juliet, or whether Africa is a country, or what the First Amendment is about, or who Rodin was, or why people in South America speak Spanish and Portuguese. Similarly you shouldn't be able to graduate high school (let alone university) without understanding how science works, or being able to reliably multiply 6 and 17.
If we can fix this, anyone with a degree will be able to write about science. If we can't, countries which can will eat our collective lunches.

William T said...

The problem is that there are whole histories of scientists working for chemical companies who have published research exonerating (or in this case ignoring) the effects of the chemical compounds pushed by those companies.

It's very hard to take this story with anything other than a large lump of salt.

skanky said...

To me this more the "headline from one paper issue" that we regularly see in the press. This paper is interesting and gives a good line of enquiry (as does the pesticides line - which this doesn't necessarily destroy).

However (as is normally the case) I'd like to see the follow-up studies (inc. yes obviously independently done ones) before jumping to any conclusions. If it turns out to be correct then excellent, and if it turns out to be wrong, people might then want to look at background info.

If it's correct, then there are more answers needed - why is it a (relatively) recent phenomenon? Why have these two factors not been seen at work in conjunction (much) before or elsewhere? Why mainly in certain areas? Do both need to be treated or can only one, and which one would you wish to treat and how, etc.?

NB my knowledge of CCD is not great, so some of those answers may be known already.

jstults said...

On the whole article: Bravo.

On this part in particular: In typical worthless newsprint style, no link to the article was provided...

That is a huge peeve of mine as well (I'm sure it's widely shared); we need a campaign to get the science journalists to start using real cites or links or something. It's just a good habit they should pick up from the beat they are covering.

Lazar said...

Anna Haynes & William T,

"But what about the empirical evidence - in medicine, at least - that commercial funding does correlate with published result?"

"The problem is that there are whole histories of scientists working for chemical companies"

No one is denying this.

The problem is generalizing from the group (scientists who have received commercial funding AND have let this bias their work) to the individual -- this particular scientist and this particular work. (and the seventeen co-authors?)

First, find problems with the paper, then, see if there are problems with his other work, then, see if those problems tend to support a particular commercial or policy position.,. before speculating on bias related to funding.

Deal with *the science* first is, I think, Michael's point.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


"The fact that the principal investigator had some association with a corporation doesn't invalidate his work"

Yes yes yes, but equally emphatically, if he's found to actively, deliberately hide his association with the corporation, then it's an indication that something fishy's going on. (I'm not sure if that's what happened in this case though.)

"we must realize that the reasoned argument will not win over many people, unless we make an emotional/allegiance-based argument for reason in the mix."

Duh. Why did John Mashey and Deep Climate focus on Edward Wegman's plagiarism, instead of the substantive errors in his 'science'? Surely it's not about 'allegiance': one doesn't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to know that plagiarism isn't cool. No; as Mashey stated, they focused on plagiarism because it's easier to show and explain. (That, and plagiarism is a serious enough offence on its own).

-- frank

Neven said...

I won't be smearing the scientist a priori because of his association with a mostly evil multinational corporation, and if this is the big solution to CCD, fine.

At the same time I can't help but feel cynical. "Buy one tonne of nicotinoids before the end of the months and get a barrel of fungicide for free!"

I guess what I find disappointing is that a possible solution (fungicide) would most probably deal with the symptom, not the underlying cause. A lot of people will not hesitate at the chance of turning sick bees into profit, like they do with human beings. The shareholders demand it, exponential economic growth demands it.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, a good question. Can you back up your claim? Is it in the Lehrer book you cite?

I am sure that people try to keep their customer satisfied. This is why the idea that climate risk is exaggerated is so silly. No elected government wants to deal with this problem. Obviously. Consequently, the social/financial pressure on climate scientists is, in general, not to overstate but to understate risks. Those who choose to be paranoid about government seem incapable of understanding that.

The motivations of corporations are simple. They want to keep their profitable lines viable and to create new ones.

Progress happens despite these pressures, despite the imperfections of science itself and the context in which science finds itself. In the present case clear and falsifiable (in the Popperian sense) evidence is provided explaining an important mystery. This is exactly what science is supposed to do. Victories like this ought to be celebrated. It's bizarre to do otherwise.

There still are many questions about all this: why now, what should we do about it. But people are acting as if new knowledge was a bad thing and casting about for reasons why. That's craziness and that's my main complaint here.

Michael Tobis said...

William, nothing exonerates anything here. All that is going on is that two agents are demonstrably at fault.

There is still a mystery as to why this syndrome should emerge in the present day rather than in the past. I hope and expect that this will continue to be investigated. I would guess that some agricultural practices will indeed be implicated; almost surely something that humans are doing plays a role.

The authors are not obviously motivated to misrepresent their observations. Nobody has provided any basis for questioning the result except their emotional biases.

That is not how the process works. That is not how truth emerges. If what you are doing to the investigators here is substantially different than what the denial squad does to us climate scientists, I don't see how. You are claiming bias and corruption on the basis of no serious evidence whatsoever.

This is so corrosive to civilization that I'm at a loss to how to explain it calmly. I don't like it regardless of where it comes from.

If a real bee specialist finds the result dubious, that's one thing. But if you're just coming at it as someone who doesn't like agribusiness, that's another. You have no standing to be making career-threatening allegations regarding substantive expertise that you don't share. Kindly hold your horses and let normal science do its job, just as you would want people to behave in regards to climate science. If the result is wrong that will eventually emerge, but in this case that seems highly unlikely.

Substantively baseless hostility to scientists is not helping anybody. I don't like it directed at my community and I don't like it directed at others.

Michael Tobis said...

Frank: " if he's found to actively, deliberately hide his association with the corporation, then it's an indication that something fishy's going on. (I'm not sure if that's what happened in this case though.)"

OK, I suppose.

But the actual accusation is only that the paper itself did not reveal the prior support on unrelated prior work. This accusation has the same stench as "climategate"; completely nonstandard practice demanded retroactively by nonparticipants in the field.

There are a dozen coauthors to the paper. Listing all their prior support would double the size of the paper and contribute exactly nothing to its value. If you can show me even a single paper anywhere in the peer-reviewed literature that has such information in it, I will be surprised.

This is how science gets drowned by noise. This is WUWT territory, and it is no prettier in reverse.

Hank Roberts said...

> two agents are demonstrably

present at higher levels, yes.
"At fault" is a leap, I think.

What would an epidemiologist say?

Do those two agents also correlate with levels of, say, nictotinoid pesticides? There's a known promotional interaction, it appears.

The 'Toxic Environmentalists' WER issue:

Hank Roberts said...

One example:

"A number of fungal parasites infect a wide range of insects and cause epizootics from time to time. Beauveria bassiana (Balsamo) Vuillemin and Metarhizium anisopliae (Metschnikoff) Sorokin are two of the major disease-causing fungi in insects.... The combination of insecticides with B. bassiana showed 1.26–35.8 fold increase in toxicity of insecticides over sole treatment, while the increase was 1.05–72.0 fold in case of M. anisopliae."

That's a strong effect.

Epidemiology needed. Map the distribution of the identified factors. Bees are often trucked long distances and concentrated briefly at flowering time in farms and orchards -- this movement is another factor that spreads disease.

Michael Tobis said...

Hank, if you could provide a specific paper rather than a google search, that could indeed advance our understanding of the scientific context. It was not obvious to me at first glance that your search actually yielded fruit.

And if there is such evidence, that indeed amounts to a legitimate criticism of the NYTimes article and of my understanding of it.

It still would provide no defense of the CNN/Fortune piece which raised no legitimate concerns at all, nor of critiques of the Bromenshenk work lacking any such evidence.

None of it justifies ad hominem attacks on Bromenshenk et al., nor attacks on the participation of Homeland Security, nor the dismissal of the value of their results, all of which sits very badly with me as a climatologist.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


"But the actual accusation is only that the paper itself did not reveal the prior support on unrelated prior work."

Yep, as I clarified, it's not clear to me from the news article that Dr. Bromenshank actively tried to hide his associations with corporations in order to promote his work.

Maybe there should be some sort of course for journalists on standards of evidence.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

"Synergistic effect of entomogenous fungi on some insecticides against Bihar hairy caterpillar Spilarctia obliqua (Lepidoptera: Arctiidae)"

"The combination of insecticides with B. bassiana showed 1.26–35.8 fold increase in toxicity of insecticides over sole treatment, while the increase was 1.05–72.0 fold in case of M. anisopliae. Imidacloprid 17.8 SL and oxydemeton methyl 25EC may be used in combination with these fungi for management of S. obliqua."

If I read this right that doesn't help your case. It says "to control caterpillars, add fungus to your insecticide". This is interesting in that it shows another case where two factors nonlinearly combine to increase mortality.

But "to control caterpillars, add fungus to your Imidacloprid" is a long way from "to add fungus to beehives add Imidacloprid" which is what I thought you were claiming. Again I could be missing something. I don't read primary biological literature habitually.

On the other hand, you could be claiming that there is a third agent; if fungus amplifies Imidacloprid as a toxin, presumably Imidacloprid amplifies fungus as a toxin as well, at least in Lepidoptera Arctiidae. But accidental Imidacloprid exposure in bees is presumably much smaller than in the pests to which it was deliberately applied in the result you quote.

It has been my understanding that whatever the pesticide impacts on bees, they were very small compared to the devastation of CCD, and that the implication wasn't working out. Admittedly I have not been following this closely.

But your citation seems something of a stretch.

And so my question remains. Leaving aside the gross unfairness to Dr. Bromenshenk whose work really ought to be celebrated rather than attacked, why all this urgent intent to attribute CCD to pesticides?

It just doesn't look to be the case. I think it puts ideology ahead of science. That's the problem that is at the core of this blog, and a crucial key to the world's problems.

For what it's worth, don't expect me to take any side other than the side of science.

Neven said...

A story I heard the other day to lighten up the comment section, real good news too ;-):

In Bulgaria they have set up beehives every few kilometres. They do this because they have a law that within a radius of a few kilometres of every beehive it is prohibited to plant GMO crops. Neat, eh?

Now, let's verify this story to see if it's true. :-p

Neven said...

The story appears to be correct (for now).

Anna Haynes said...

> "Anna, a good question. Can you back up your claim?"

It's Not the Answers That Are Biased, It's the Questions - David Michaels,
("...known as the funding effect...")
Literature-type references are, for the moment, at

Add my "me too" to Frank's "if he's found to actively, deliberately hide his association with the corporation, then it's an indication that something fishy's going on."

and re "Maybe there should be some sort of course for journalists on standards of evidence." - This sounds like a mighty good suggestion for the Poynter Institute's NewsU Feedback page.

Michael Tobis said...

"if he's found to actively, deliberately hide his association with the corporation, then it's an indication that something fishy's going on."

Sure, but there isn't a shred of evidence of anything like that; it's all innuendo driven.

Hank Roberts said...

MT, that article describes an interaction -- not causation. Not causation in either direction.

I just pointed out that when the article claims that fungus plus virus causes colony collapse, one has to look at what else may be involved, and epidemiology does that.

I looked further since you asked me to, and found that a possible interaction pointed out in 2007 for honeybees:

Parasitic Fungi and Pesticides Act Synergistically to Kill Honeybees?

The epidemiology will sort this out over time, as nicotinoids are being banned in the EU but not in the US:

Aaron said...

There is also an issue of bee nutrition. Until recently, the bees were allowed to winter in orange groves, which in the old days (15 years ago) had ground cover ( flowering plants). As seedless tangerines became more popular, the orange growers became tangerine growers, excluded bees, and even sprayed to prevent local bees (and squatting migratory bees) from pollination resulting in seeds. Thus, recently, migratory beekeeper began wintering their bees on synthetic food.

What makes this story so wonderful is that the large tangerine growers also own large tracts of almonds. And, the almond growers that had pushed beekeepers out their tangerine groves got put at the end of the pollination schedules. With CCD, there were not enough hives to pollinate all the almonds.

Thus, the almond grower’s PR machine tells us about CCD. As part of that public service, they have given us the redacted version, so as not to confuse the public.

In the mean time, beekeepers doing pollination have huge capital investments, take huge risks, work long days, every day, for months at a time, and make a very small net profit. Thus, they tend to leave an absolute minimum of valuable honey/pollen in the hives, and feed cheaper, synthetic bee food.

Can I prove that bee nutrition is the third factor in CCD? No! However, there are no other flowering plants in modern orchards. And,
I do think that the increased use of Roundup and increasing size of modern orchards resulting in a lower diversity of bee forage is a contributing factor to CCD. The time line of events is -- suggestive.

Here at the Tulip Patch, we have one tangerine tree, and we just spit out the seeds.

Hank Roberts said...

Here's an item pertinent to the Toxic Environmentalists file --

"... statements about honey bees serving as environmental indicators8, 15 owing to their ‘extreme susceptibility’,15–20 or honey bees being particularly sensitive to insecticides because they have lower total numbers of cytochrome P450s21 than other insects, are often made with no citations given...."

noting the moral hazard that exists (financial compensation for honeybee loss due to pesticides, under federal law).

guthrie said...

Michael very definitely has a point.

On the neonicotinoids connection, this is the sort of english language stuff I can find online about Italy's suspension of use and the apparent positive effect on bee colonies:

The only problem is that it is so new that I can't find anything using google scholar online, and silly though this sounds, having Italian flatmates for a year has rather made me imagine that the Italian university and research system might not be up to scratch or as fast at processing data as we'd like it to be. So it will take a while to get decent data on this.

William T said...

Micheal, despite the furore in the blogosphere, my comments were directed solely at your commentary. For some reason you seem to have got a "bee in your bonnet" about this story, but I don't think it is at all equivalent to the "climate scientists are corrupt" meme. Indeed, I have no opinion on whether this chap has or has not been "corrupted" by his working for Bayer.

I've nothing against scientists (in fact I am a scientist), but I know that you can't ignore funding induced biases. Just becuase the WUWT crowd uses that as an argument, doesn't mean that you should ignore the red flag.

However, even without that, it is but ONE study.

One study does not seem to be sufficient for you to say "The bee "colony collapse disorder" problem appears to have been solved."

And when the study is funded by the very company that is in dispute with bee keepers about possible effects of its chemicals on the bees. Well, sorry but even if they have "solved" the problem, I think you would need confirmation from another study not funded by that chemical company. As others have pointed out there are a range of possible culprits for the CCD problem, and this study adds another one. But is it strong enough to convince a jury? I'll keep my grains of salt.

Michael Tobis said...

William: "And when the study is funded by the very company that is in dispute with bee keepers about possible effects of its chemicals on the bees."

But it wasn't.

Yes, the whole press bias that the right thing to report on in science is the most recent primary publication is among the many problems revealed here.

Admittedly the work needs confirmation, though on the other hand you have to admit it is a strong and plausible result.

The bee in my bonnet is not that the research is definitive. My bonnet is buzzing because people reject the result based on ideology rather than evidence. That feeds right into the anger and frustration I feel about how the public, the press, and the politicians approach climate science.

The similarity, to me, is absolutely compelling.

Hank Roberts said...

Michael, you asked earlier what "side" meant -- he was an expert witness on the beekeepers' side, for a while, according to this: -- expert witnesses are hired by one side or the other.

It's a job.

Hank Roberts said...

By the way, the text of that WER issue at the link I posted has lost a lot to OCR errors; trust me, it was much better on paper.

Michael Tobis said...

Hank, that DIna Spector piece you link to is much more substantive and coherent than Eban's. If I had seen that piece rather than Eban's I would not have delivered this rant.

I don't know that it's correct, but at least it isn't on its face offensively superficial and prejuudiced.

William T said...

My apologies Michael, I had somehow got the impression that this was funded by Bayer. Too many words to read...

Hank Roberts said...

I'd recommend pointing to the source, at BusinessInsider -- they did a good job. Sorry it took several days to find it. Might be worth promoting:

(the site where I found a copy of it seems to be mostly a wackaloon-trendy site)

Hank Roberts said...

Relevant broadly -- about medical research generally and the exaggerated focus on single explanations for complicated questions. (Substitute herbicide, antifungal, or virus, and benefit or harm; this piece describes human medical studies but research is done much the same in agriculture)

"... even if a study managed to highlight a genuine health connection to some nutrient, you’re unlikely to benefit much from taking more of it, because we consume thousands of nutrients that act together as a sort of network, and changing intake of just one of them is bound to cause ripples throughout the network that are far too complex for these studies to detect, and that may be as likely to harm you as help you...."

Hat tip to JC at

jstults said...

Hank Roberts: ...exaggerated focus on single explanations for complicated questions...
But in this case what the researchers found is an interaction, which is the neat kind of result every empiricist loves to uncover. Yes, everything is connected. That's why we do good experimental design and analysis. The fact that it seems to be an interaction causing CCD is the likely reason previous studies haven't found anything.

Hank Roberts said...

I was with you 'til the word "causing" -- but that's wrong.

The article says in part:

"Importantly, our limited results do not ... clearly define whether the occurrence of IIV and N. ceranae in CCD colonies is a marker, a cause, or a consequence of CCD."

jstults said...

What about the part where they followed the correlation from the observational study and did an actual experiment:

Laboratory cage trials with a strain of IIV type 6 and Nosema ceranae confirmed that co-infection with these two pathogens was more lethal to bees than either pathogen alone.

I understand the difficulty of inferring causation from only observational studies, but these guys did an actual controlled experiment where it is actually proper to infer causation. Maybe your point is that the added lethality of the two factors may not be enough to cause CCD; fair enough. Perhaps there is a third factor that increases lethality even more that's yet to be uncovered and CCD only happens in the presence of these three (or four, or five or...).

Anyway, this work seems like the way a good experimentalist works. Notice a strong correlation in some observational data, and use that insight to guide the design of some controlled trials to establish whether the effect is real.

Hank Roberts said...

Yeah, they're going in the right direction; they need to know what else is present -- Michael in his revision to the main post says the BusinessInsider piece doesn't make clear what this has to do with the question:

"in combination, some of these mixtures of chemicals may cause increased toxicity to bees that are not apparent when found individually."

I'd have thought it went without saying, but that's not a reason for not saying it to the general reading public. Interaction effects are tough to sort out.

The same is true of organisms (which make toxic chemicals as well as causing other damage) -- presence of more than one burden at a time is hard to investigate, but we know it happens -- don't we?

This may really be a battle over the precautionary principle.

Hank Roberts said...

Here's plenty on that subject:

One good piece from the first page of results is from

vol. 175, no. 5 The American Naturalist May 2010, titled
"Mixed Infections and the Evolution of Virulence ...."

"Mixed infections have received most attention for their potential effect on the evolution of parasite virulence (i.e., parasite-induced host mortality), and numerous models have been developed to address this topic. Some of these models are based on game theory..."

jstults said...

Interaction effects are tough to sort out.
Eh, not really. They fall right out of an orthogonal treatment matrix (which is one measure of the optimality of an experimental design, D optimality). This highlights another reason controlled trials are powerful for confirmation of hunches based on initial observational data analysis.

You might be making an argument for another study that screens for three- or four-way interactions between chemicals and pest/viruses, but I fail to see the connection to the precautionary principle. One of the interesting limitations that is high-lighted here is that the "chemical work" got separate funding, so it might be hard to do that sort of broad screening test.

Linking to pages of google results is a bit tedious, isn't it? I don't think the quote you pulled adds anything to the discussion (it would be neat if you could find one on a parasite-virus-chemical three-way though).

jstults said...

Sorry for double posting, but once I told Hank to go look for a three-way, I had to go poking around in that direction too. Didn't find one, but found this interesting tidbit:
There are undoubtedly various causes for recent colony losses. However, CCD and wintering mortalities have been cited as the most frequent reasons. CCD was first reported in HB colonies in the USA. One interesting observation is that at the time of collapse, Varroa mite populations were not at levels known to cause economic injury or population decline (vanEngelsdorp et al., 2009). Three different descriptive case analyses have been conducted on colonies having CCD symptoms. The first used a metagenomic approach to look at candidate pathogens associated with CCD and found only one organism, Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), to be strongly correlated with CCD (Cox-Foster et al., 2007). Another study looked at changes in transcript abundance of bees related to CCD. Sixty-five transcripts were identified as potential markers for CCD, but elevated expression of pesticide response genes was not observed, and genes involved in immune response showed no clear trend in expression pattern despite the increased prevalence of viruses and other pathogens in CCD colonies (Johnson et al., 2009). A third epizootic study characterized CCD and the risk factors associated with populations exhibiting CCD (vanEngelsdorp et al., 2009). Bees in CCD colonies had higher pathogen loads and were co-infected with a greater number of pathogens compared to control populations, suggesting an interaction between pathogens and other stress factors in CCD and a possible legacy effect of mite parasitism (vanEngelsdorp et al., 2009). An important point is that descriptive case studies only showed the state of the bees when they were collected. Varroa populations could have differed prior to sampling, causing an immuno-suppression response possibly leading to subsequent pathogen and virus development. Like all descriptive studies, definitive statements cannot be made concerning factors causing CCD, and there is no clear evidence to date to suggest that Varroa is or is not involved.
Varroa mites and honey bee health: can Varroa explain part of the colony losses?

Perhaps the result of the Johnson 2009 study is the reason the researchers aren't pursuing a pest-virus-chemical three-way very hard.

jstults said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Roberts said...

> the connection with the
> precautionary principle

Precautionary Defaults—A New Strategy for Chemical Risk Management

> three or four-way
thousands, at least

"The modification of the composition of the biosphere by a myriad of organic pollutants at ultra-trace levels is not yet regarded as another vector of environmental change which is irreversible due to the persistent character of many of these chemicals and due to its global coverage. Here, we claim that the modification of the atmosphere, water, sediments, and biota composition is a factor to be taken into account in coastal ecosystems, and that its pressure on the environment has been exponentially increasing during the last six decades of the anthropocene."

That's where the precautionary principle is at odds with the chemical industry market.

Relating it back to honeybees -- yes, you're right:

> the "chemical work" got
> separate funding, so it
> might be hard to do that
> sort of broad screening test.

There's always a new chemical available to treat newly described symptoms.

Colony collapse research will indicate the need for new fungicides and antivirals.

"She swallowed the cow to catch the dog.
She swallowed the dog, to catch the cat.
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider ...."

Alternatively -- study bees collected in areas where the pesticides have been banned. In a study already probing for specific segments of DDT, it would be reasonable to also test for known persistent organic chemicals, to have a baseline about what the bees are like.

Hank Roberts said...

Well, the work is all being done already; the oddity is that it isn't talked about more.
Here's one recent example:

PLoS One. 2010 Mar 19;5(3):e9754.
High levels of miticides and agrochemicals in North American apiaries: implications for honey bee health.
"...A broad survey of pesticide residues was conducted on samples from migratory and other beekeepers across 23 states, one Canadian province and several agricultural cropping systems during the 2007-08 growing seasons....."

Point is, it's easy to look. The people talking about fungus and virus didn't look at other known factors.

Selective funding for particular isolated questions is a way to steer what science looks for and what can be found.

Hank Roberts said...

Just to save the trouble of clicking, here:

"CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: The 98 pesticides and metabolites detected in mixtures up to 214 ppm in bee pollen alone represents a remarkably high level for toxicants in the brood and adult food of this primary pollinator. This represents over half of the maximum individual pesticide incidences ever reported for apiaries. While exposure to many of these neurotoxicants elicits acute and sublethal reductions in honey bee fitness, the effects of these materials in combinations and their direct association with CCD or declining bee health remains to be determined."

Hank Roberts said...