Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study

I’m angry.  Really, really angry.  And it’s all Kenny’s fault.

Kenny S., one of our long-time blog followers, alerted me to a blog posting dismissing a new study on colony collapse disorder (CCD). The post was devoid of any evidence of bogusness, other than a link to “great reporting” by New York Magazine. Aside from the general snarkiness of this article, we’re breathlessly informed that Fortune magazine (a hotbed of scientific inquiry) uncovered an unholy connection between the lead author (Dr. Bromenshenk) and Bayer.  That article recounts Dr. Bromenshenk’s sins, which include (1) accepting research money from Bayer, (2) not serving as an expert witness in a legal case against Bayer and (3) not studying every single possible cause of CCD.

Next I looked at the contested study, which is in an online journal.  Apparently none of the reporters/bloggers have bothered reading this, because they could easily discover the following:

1) there are 18 authors from many institutions, not just Dr. Bromenshenk and “Army scientists”;

2) the methodology was specific for protein analysis (not for pesticides nor any other nonliving factor);

3) funding was not provided by Bayer or any other corporation;

4) competing interests, such as Dr. Bromenshenk’s company, are openly acknowledged;

5) the article does not suggest anywhere that pesticides are blameless in CCD.

The body of the article is pretty technical and I’m not an entomologist. Still, this is in a peer-reviewed journal (albeit online rather than print).  You can see the review process and the list of academic reviewers if you were so inclined (as anyone who writes about science should be). Thus, qualified scientists (in addition to the 18 authors) find this to be a legitimate study.

Let’s look at Dr. Bromenshenk’s research history.  (For the record, I don’t know him and had never heard of him until yesterday.)  He’s published at least 26 scientific articles (in journals including Science) on various aspects of bee biology for the last 27 years.  To do these studies, he needs funding.  Guess what?  Universities don’t provide funding.  Magazines don’t provide funding.  Bloggers don’t provide funding.  Other than a handful of relevant government agencies (like NSF or USDA), most big grants come from corporations.  Like Bayer.

Now this is why I’m mad. There’s widespread perception among nonacademic types that corporate grant money “buys” results. That’s insulting. Most scientists do what they do because they love the thrill of discovery. There’s no thrill if you’ve rigged the results. Moreover, if you rig the results you’re going to be found out…eventually. A scientist with 27 years of credible, scientifically reviewed research is hardly a data rigger. And he’d have to convince 17 coauthors to go along with the scam.

Near the end of the Fortune article (and ignored by subsequent articles and blogging) was Dr. Bromenshenk’s efforts to get Bayer and the beekeepers to talk to each other. Though he was able to get Bayer to appoint a beekeeper advisory board (to assist with experimental design) in an effort to increase “trust and transparency” with the public, it hasn’t been terribly successful.

So here we have a man who’s devoted more than a quarter of a century to studying bees, who has published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature, who is trying to shed light on why bee colonies are dying, and who has tried to bring the pesticide industry and environmentalists to the same table.  You tell me why he’s being pilloried.

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

16 thoughts on “Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study”

  1. Great Post Linda! The public, in general, doesn’t understand that receiving funding from a corporation for a study doesn’t (except in rare cases with what are usually poorly regarded researchers) affect the outcome of that study, or any other studies.

  2. I fear that one of the ways of modern advocacy is that if you can’t prove disingenuousness, go ahead and intimate it anyway. Right or wrong, defend your own point of view to the death! I was a bit bothered by the alledged statements of the Penn State entomologist who seems to maybe be protecting his own source of research funding? I could have given him more credence if the article had provided access to his published findings. At this point, I shall assume that the reporter, maybe wasn’t as forth coming as he/she might have been. I have been quoted out of context myself.

    Actually my own understanding of the CCD is that no one still has a difinitive understanding of whats happening, even with the Bromenshenk study. Heck, at one point I think they were even looking into cell phones as a possible cause…. ahhh but no one wanted to give up their precious cell phones so we looked else where. I fear I am a terrible skeptic and grouch old guy.

  3. I appreciate your blog Linda. Your revelation is enlightening.

    I’m concerned about a different slant to the NYMagazine article. Many people read this great news without thinking through the next step. Now that we’ve named the problem, can we solve it?

    In discussion with the ARS bee lab; virus are extremely tough to solve. Consider IAPV and others. My concern is that people will assume “all is well” and place attention elsewhere.

    True crisis, like the pollination crisis, should have multiple solutions running in tandem. The Gulf Oil well crisis had 1 primary and 2 secondary capping efforts. The Chilean mine rescue had 1 primary tunnel and 2 secondary.

    We should also be spending funds and high efforts to find, understand, manage, raise, and use native pollinators in our local crops.

    There is a group of scientist, pollinators, and farmers meeting in Modesto this December to focus efforts on raising native pollinators. I’ll be there with them.

    Educating gardeners and farmers on alternate pollinators should be a focus as well. I’m committed to doing this for the next ten years.

    Dave, crownbees.com

  4. Well-put, Linda. If the public is so eager to detach research from private funding, but still wants to learn new things, then the public needs to pony up for research.

  5. My problem with this whole affair wasn’t with Dr. Bromenshenk’s research or his paper. Rather I was disturbed with the media reports about his paper. The earliest mass media report, I think, was in the New York Times (certanly a reputable paper) with the headline – Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery – and a sub-line – A fungus and a virus apparently caused the honeybee “colony collapse.” That conclusion is nowhere in the original journal paper, but I know that’s what a lot of lay people will now conclude. And that piece has been repeated in many other papers including our local paper in southern Oregon. Readers of the Garden Professors have learned to check the source; most others don’t.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Bob, the accuracy issue swings both ways. If nothing else, these journalists should run their draft story past the researchers! Like Wes, I’ve been misquoted and I don’t think it’s been malicious. The few times that journalists have actually sent their draft to me for fact checking have been beneficial for both parties.

  6. I’m hanging my head in shame this morning, as I was one of the bloggers who jumped on this bandwagon/story. When I read the NYT article this past weekend I was shocked and upset to see that pesticides were in no way implicated, not understanding that this was not what they were looking for. That coupled with my general distrust of the big chemical companies made the second set of articles seem more credible. I stand corrected.

    1. @shira, it’s understandable how otherwise well-meaning people are hoodwinked by well-regarded newspapers and magazines who publish shoddily-researched or deliberately misleading articles. Professional reporters do exhaustive research on both sides of an issue before publishing, and professional editors ensure that they do.

  7. The real point that needs to be made is that no one yet knows what the colony collapse disorder devolves from. The virus’fungal connection, insecticides, cell phone towers, global warming, Dick Cheney, Ozone holes, bovine flatuance, high deer populations, Obama, sunpot activity, the gulf oil spill may all have been implicated at one time or another, but none of the above suspects or any combuination there of have as yet been implicated as a definitive cause of CCD cause. I think this research may offer a clue or these organisms may well end up being opportunistic johnny-come-latelies. I think this research is a valuable piece of the puzzle. We need to find more pieces or connect the ones we have.

  8. I’m sure it does feels insulting when people insinuate that corporate money buys results – and certainly some people suggest this in a slanderous manner. On the other hand, we’ve seen recent studies showing that doctors do, in fact, prescribe more medication from companies that have lavished them with gifts. We see how much political influence is purchased by large corporations and their lobbyists. It is understandable – and perhaps even crucial to our society – that we cast a somewhat skeptical eye on how funding might exert influence. Certainly corporate funding does not negate good science, but might it not influence the types of studies being done? I can’t imagine a study into potential links between pesticides and CCD being funded by any corporation, for example. (On a tangent – the Garden Professors were mentioned in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an article about brix farming. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10287/1094885-34.stm)

    1. Karen, “funding” is different for university scientists that for doctors. University employees get a salary; in general, they get no salary from grants (unless they are on 9 month, academic appointments, in which case they can fund 2-2.5 months of summer salary using these grants. All this means is that they continue to get their usual paycheck during the summer). And no one goes into academia with dreams of getting rich! On the other hand, gifts to doctors are outside their normal salaries (which, by the way, are much greater than that of your typical professor).
      You’re right in suggesting that corporations – and government agencies – can set the parameters about the research they sponsor. That’s why there are so many projects on food and fiber plants, rather than, say, landscape trees and shrubs.

      Thanks for the tip about the Pittsburgh article! Will check it out.

  9. My problem with this study and others like it is not the results, it’s that it doesn’t ask the right questions. The questions we ask and the methodology we use reveal our biases. Some background– let’s review just a few of the practices of modern beekeeping:

    1. Truck bees thousands of miles.
    2. Place them in monocultures.
    3. Expose them to pesticides.
    4. Don’t let them form their own comb.
    5. Limit the number of drones.
    6. Treat them with chemicals.
    7. Use artificially inseminated queens.
    8. Import bees from all around the world.
    9. Limit the size of their brood nest.

    Then we stand around and wonder why there is a problem while a few scientists get some funding to tackle very narrowly defined questions. This is a problem that calls out for a whole systems approach. Yes, to suggest that the results were rigged is naive. But I think the problem here is that the funding paradigm supports the status quo which is hopelessly broken. It’s the same with other livestock. We can research ways to keep 50,000 chickens in a closed shed or we can ask if it’s a good idea in the first place.

    1. Erik, who’s to say what the “right questions” are? Shouldn’t researchers have the freedom to explore questions that interest them? And I’m sure you realize that scientific studies must, for practical reasons, limit the number of variables tested. Otherwise, the number of replicates would be unmanageable.
      You should also know that there have been dozens of scientific studies on CCD published in the last decade or so. Each one contributes to the knowledge base, and, one step at a time, becomes the basis for the next set of studies. When enough data points have been accumulated, scientists can then try to connect the dots. Many times this type of scholarly work is published as a literature review, in which the author reads hundreds of articles on a topic and looks for logical connections, especially in terms of cause and effect. (I’ve written some of these myself, specifically on foliar anthocyanins and landscape mulches). I think this is the “system” approach you are looking for, but apparently the CCD literature isn’t yet deep enough for this type of analysis.

  10. Linda, thanks for your thoughts. But you’ll have to assure me:

    A) That the literature reviews you speak of are cognizant of the emergent properties of complex systems. I’ll take your word for this.

    B) That research funding sources and relationships have minimal influence (conscious or unconscious) on the type of questions asked. This you’ll have a harder time convincing me of. Perhaps, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    What we both agree on is that the press does a very poor job of science reporting, even though we’ve reached different conclusions in the case of CCD.

    1. Erik, thanks for continuing a thoughtful discussion. I’m not an entomologist, but in reading the recent literature on the CCD issue it does seem that the researchers are aware of the many variables that affect bee health and are attempting to draw evidence-based conclusions on what we have so far. That’s generally the way that scientific solutions emerge to complex questions. I’m also not a scientific historian, but having taken classes in this area I know this is how new paradigms have historically emerged in all areas of science.

      Your second point requires more trust in the system than evidence (at least evidence I can personally supply). I think it’s correct to say that university researchers, in general, make less than their equally qualified counterparts in industry. They’re in academia because they value academic freedom – the ability to research and teach what they want without undue influence or threat from administrators, government or corporate interests.

      And yes, the media in general seem more interested in sensationalism and gossip mongering than accurate reporting. That’s where we should look for undue influence from “funding sources and relationships.”

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