Of Dead Bees and Gravestones

By now you will likely have heard that scientists have figured out what’s causing the honeybee crisis, formally known as Colony Collapse Disorder, in which these crucial pollinators have been dying off in droves. The stories—all over radio, online news sites and newspapers—may say more about journalism than about dead bees.

Some background. Since 2004, something has been killing worker bees that go out to gather nectar and, by the by, pollinate crops by carrying pollen from one plant to another. About one-quarter of commercial honeybee colonies in the U.S. have been affected, and the death toll is something on the order of tens of billions of bees. Commercial beekeepers are panicking and farmers are worried that their crops are at risk (or that they’ll have to pay more to beekeepers for pollination service). In the U.S., some $14.6 billion worth of crops—one-third of the nation’s food crops—is pollinated by honeybees. But no one knows what’s killing the bees. So: Big Problem. Big Mystery. Guaranteed headlines.

When the high-profile and well-respected journal Science therefore alerted reporters to its imminent online publication of a paper identifying a virus as a possible cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, and organized a teleconference on Wednesday, and every university and company involved in the research sent out hyperventilating press releases, you could almost hear scepticism falling by the wayside. No matter how solid the study, it was going to get a lot of ink. It did.

But during the press conference, the scientists practically tripped over themselves cautioning that they had not come close to proving that their suspect—a virus called the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus—was guilty in the massive bee die-off. Yes, the scientists had found the virus in CCD-infected hives but not in healthy ones. But, they write, “We have not proven a causal relationship between any infectious agent and CCD.” All they can say is that the presence of IAPV in hives afflicted by CCD “indicate that IAPV is a significant marker for CCD.”

Note the use of the word “marker.” That means something is lying around with something else—like, say, gravestones are markers for corpses. But gravestones don’t cause corpses, and IAPV might not cause Colony Collapse Disorder. If it’s involved in a causal sense, it is almost surely not the only cause.

To be sure, many reports of the study emphasized this uncertainty. The question is whether the study deserved the attention it got. But the combination of a mystery that has intrigued the public, and the drumbeat of PR in advance of the study’s release, probably made that inevitable. And who knows—maybe IAPV will turn out to be guilty as suspected. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times dug up this factlet: “researchers from the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland cautioned that they had unpublished results in which the Israeli virus had been found in colonies without the disorder.” And Science itself, in a news story accompanying the study, quoted one scientist this way: "This paper only adds further to the confusion surrounding CCD."