Monday, October 17, 2016

Misusing definitions is not the way to counter misinformation: Colony collapse disorder

European honeybee, Apis mellifera. Image via Wikipedia.


Anyone who has followed my page for awhile knows that one of my big pet peeves is bad science reporting. One of the ways that bad science reporting happens is when non-experts misuse definitions to draw incorrect conclusions. The best example of this is the reporting on colony collapse disorder (CCD). 

To give an example of some of the bad reporting around CCD, last year, Christopher Ingraham wrote an article for the Washington Post where he declared that the "beepocalypse" was over as the total number of hives has not gone down since CCD was first seen. To be fair, he's not the only one who has used this incorrect definition; Matt Miller used the same figures for his article in Slate. Their argument boils down to this: "Because the total number of hives haven't dropped means that the bees are doing just fine and any concerns about CCD are just overblown." This sounds like a fine conclusion until one realizes that they are not actually using a measurement that deals with CCD. When it comes to CCD, the total number of colonies does not matter. 

CCD is defined by the percentage of the adult bees that abandon the colony without leaving dead bodies in the hive while leaving brood and honey intact with the delayed invasion of the usual hive invaders (small hive beetle, wax moth, etc.). Typical losses in the winter range from 15-20%, so anything above 20% is classified as CCD. In 2014/15 the winter losses were 23.1%. However, the summer losses were much higher making the average losses for the year 42.1%. It's atypical to have high summer losses and it is very concerning. In 2015/16, the high summer losses continued with an average loss of 44% for the year. The losses the last two years are certainly above the threshold for CCD, so CCD is clearly still a problem. The article tried to gloss over it by using the wrong statistic and oversimplifying the problem. I find this distasteful as a science communicator as it misleads the public despite the issues with the authors argument being plain for those who are familiar with CCD.

In the comments on his article last year, Mr. Ingraham was taken to task by several beekeepers for his lack of understanding of CCD. However, rather than fact check his hypothesis by asking any entomologists or experts about it, he has doubled down with yet another article touting that the bees are just fine as the hive numbers are still high. He is facing yet more backlash in the comments. Some of them are incorrect and are lacking in any scientific basis. But not all of the comments were wrong. Several pointed out that the definition of CCD was being used incorrectly and that was leading to incorrect conclusions. One simply cannot try and disprove bad science by using bad science themselves. In science, definitions matter, especially if it is a disease or disorder that is being discussed. This is the same faulty understanding of science that leads people to question the effectiveness of vaccines or doubt that humans are contributing to the increasing global temperatures.   


But the problems with the article doesn't stop at misusing the definition of CCD. The author gives some solutions that are meant to negate the effect of CCD; however, neither solution is actually a long-term solution for CCD. From the article:

"So beekeepers have devised two main ways to replenish their stock. The first method involves splitting one healthy colony into two separate colonies: put half the bees into a new beehive, order them a new queen online (retail price: $25 or so), and voila: two healthy hives. The other method involves simply buying a bunch of bees to replace the ones you lost. You can buy 3 pounds of "packaged" bees, plus a queen, for about $100 or so."
There are several issues with the two solutions proposed. Splitting a sick or weak hive results in two sick/weak hives. It'll take time for each hive to build back up with a healthy hive that is split. Splitting weak hives is not a good solution. Buying more bees is just a temporary measure at best as eventually the hive will develop CCD if it's a commercial hive. Neither of these options really addresses what CCD is (remember, it's the loss of bees from a hive without dead bodies being near the hive), so these are akin to trying to put a band-aid on a serious wound. The author did get called out on this by several beekeepers, but their concerns weren't addressed and in fact he repeated these solutions in his second article.
An example of one of the comments from the article.

But what does it matter if one uses the wrong definition for CCD to discuss it or offers a solution that doesn't address the problem? CCD is still a major problem and is causing significant losses. What's worse is that if people truly believe what he is trying to say about CCD, funding for studying and ultimately finding a treatment for CCD could be in jeopardy. The solution of splitting hives or buying new bees isn't anything more than a temporary attempt at a solution. 
I get that this was an attempt to try and dispel the misinformation that surrounds CCD, but you cannot counter misinformation with more misinformation. 

But that doesn't mean that the bee situation is nearly as dire as some would have you believe. The reporting on the other side of the issue is equally atrocious. If we lost honeybees, there are other pollinators that are less efficient. Even if we lost pollinators altogether, we wouldn't starve. Almost all staple crops (wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, etc.) are either wind or self pollinated, so we wouldn't lose access to these food sources. We would lose many fruits and vegetables, such as apples, stone fruits and cucurbits, but we wouldn't starve. But this doesn't mean that losing the bees is something we should be okay with either. Bees play a huge role in agriculture and have for thousands of years. It would be a tremendous loss if they weren't around, even if it doesn't mean that we would starve.

I'll have a blog post soon discussing what some of the current research suggests is involved in causing CCD is. I'll give you a hint, viruses might be involved. But until then, there are some great places to get information on bees and CCD without having to wonder if the science is shaky. Scientific beekeeping is arguably one of the best resources for learning about the science of beekeeping and CCD. CCD is incredibly complex and there isn't a single definitive cause or easy solution for dealing with it. 

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