Bee studies, blogs, and biases

My original posting last Wednesday (“Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study“) has generated some vigorous discussion, which is exactly what I hoped it would do. At some point, one of our readers posted the link on the original blog site, where it generated the following response:

“The issue on CCD and these studies that point to “causes” other than pesticides comes down to a question: What came first? The pesticides or the problem. Farmers almost always have the gut answer correct. In this case the farmers are the hundreds if not thousands of beekeepers who are certain that neonicotines are root cause of colony collapse disorder. I’m not a PhD, admittedly, but I’ve yet to read anything that points to an answer other than the pesticides.

“And for Linda to suggest that science can’t be “bought” at universities is an incredibly naive statement. I’m not saying Jerry was bought out, not at all. But I do think, overall, there’s a ton of pressure from the chemical industry for scientists to find an answer, any answer, that doesn’t point back directly to pesticides.”

I responded to this posting on the blog this morning, where it sat waiting for approval by the moderator:

“There are dozens of peer-reviewed studies on colony collapse disorder that can be easily accessed by anyone who is really interested in the science. Here’s a quote from a 2009 article:

“Of 61 quantified variables (including adult bee physiology, pathogen loads, and pesticide levels), no single measure emerged as a most-likely cause of CCD.”

From “Colony collapse disorder: a descriptive study.”

Authors: Engelsdorp, D. van; Evans, J. D.; Saegerman, C.; Mullin, C.; Haubruge, E.; Bach Kim Nguyen; Frazier, M.; Frazier, J.; Cox-Foster, D.; Chen, Y. P.; Underwood, R.; Tarpy, D. R.; Pettis, J. S.

Available at:”

Then….it was deleted.

For whatever reason, the moderator of this blog didn’t want to post my response. So I’ve reposted it above, and have a couple of other observations:

1) “Gut answers” aren’t science. Sure, gut feelings can convince researchers to explore some particular question, but they are inspirations – not necessarily answers. As my husband pointed out, people once had “gut feelings” that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited around the earth. Enlightenment happens.

2) Let’s see some specific examples where science has been “bought” at universities. I’m sure there are a few bad apples (especially in pomology – HA!), but to my knowledge none of my colleagues have pandered to chemical companies and falsified data for publication. This is a serious charge – and if it’s true, we all deserve to see hard evidence.

As always, feel free to post YOUR comment. We won’t censor you, even if you don’t agree with us.

Where the Money Comes From

After reading Linda’s excellent post yesterday I got to thinking about all of the discussions I have had over the years with people who didn’t know or understand where we (and by we, I mean my research group) got the money to do the work which we do.  Oh, they thought they knew, but they were usually way, way off.  So here I’m going to give you a terribly over-simplified version of the types of money that a professor can get to conduct the research that they want to conduct.  This rundown will be different from professor to professor and institution to institution of course, but the basics will be about the same. 

#1 An Endowment:  This is gold – the best thing there is in terms of funding.   An endowment is a large sum of money in an account which earns interest, and that interest can be used by the researcher in almost any way they want (as it relates to their research of course).  Few professors have endowments for their research (though quite a number have some percentage of their salary covered by an endowment).  As you might expect, endowments may yield anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars depending on a number of factors.  My position does not currently have an endowment associated with it.

#2 Hard funding from the University (actually state or federal funding, but it feeds through the University system):   This type of funding is great.  It isn’t as flexible as an endowment, but it is still usually quite flexible (as long as the money is used for a project which the professor was hired to do —  an English professor couldn’t use hard funding to study how container growing affects daffodils).  The word “Hard” implies that the funding is available at a more or less constant level year after year, but recently it has been volatile.  If a University is suffering because of cutbacks, hard funding is in danger.   When I came to Minnesota I had quite a bit of hard funding – basically enough for a full time technician.  Now my hard funding covers a fraction of that.

#3 Gifts:  Gifts are one time presents of money.  Gifts are very flexible, and always greatly appreciated, but not recurring.  I have received gifts from various people and organizations ranging from a few hundred dollars up to $15,000 (sounds like a lot, but if you’re using it to pay a salary it doesn’t last long).

#4 Government Grant:  Government grants (I’m going to be liberal in my definition of Government grants – they can be anything from NSF and USDA grants to grants from cities or parks) are great, but they may only be used on research, teaching, or extension that the grant was given for.  This money may or may not be recurring over many years.  These grants can be prestigious and important (think NSF), but they’re also a tremendous amount of work and very competitive.  I have written and been on these grants and they are currently how I fund most of my research on things such as elm selection and preferred boulevard trees (my grants are from local and city entities rather than NSF or USDA, but the idea is the same).

 #5 Industry Grant:  An industry grant is similar to a Government Grant except that it is given by an industry group, such as the Minnesota Turf and Grounds Foundation, or by a particular company, such as Bayer.  Industry groups are a preferred source of income, but money from chemical companies, and other independent companies, does have a little bit of a stigma associated with it – it feels like you’re doing something to benefit one company instead of society as a whole.  Chemical company money is not sneered at, but often you do have to conduct research that may not be at the top of your priority list (though if a professor doesn’t care about the research at all then usually they won’t do it). If I can make ends meet in terms of paying my employees by treating some buckthorn with triclopyr, then yes, I will do it.  I have never taken a large sum from an independent firm, but I have certainly taken money and provided the research agreed upon.   I would go so far as to say that most professors in the agricultural sciences have.  For some it provides the bulk of their research dollars.

I’d like to conclude by saying that, in the case of dollars from chemical companies, I don’t personally know of any researcher who has purposefully falsified, failed to report, skewed, or selectively excluded data to make the chemical company happier with the results.  Doing so would ultimately just make that researcher (and the chemical company) look like an idiot.  I have personally given data to chemical companies which shows that their stuff doesn’t work that well – they don’t like it, but they appreciate it – marketing something that doesn’t work isn’t good for anyone.  I do know of a case where a researcher proposed a study to a large chemical company which would examine unseen dangers of a particular pesticide and was turned down – this was disappointing to me.  I think that many companies feel that they have a duty to seek out obvious dangers and that the government has a responsibility to fund research investigating unseen or unlikely dangers – but that’s just my own opinion.

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.

Deer Finale (and then we move on…maybe)

I believe I may have shared this with you previously…pardon the recycling.

But cogent to the discussion (and still  breathtaking in its absurdity…)


About $1000 worth of 10′ tall Arborvitae that were freshly dug, moved to a commercial job site, and then EATEN ALIVE before they were even planted. The remains (seen here) were shipped back to the wholesaler near Richmond. My guess is that deer evolution may be headed in the direction of longer necks.  In another epoch they’ll be…giraffes. Minus the festive coat pattern.

Oh Deer! Part 2

Last week Holly and I extolled the virtues of our dogs for helping to keep our gardens and landscapes relatively deer-free even though we live in areas with high deer pressure.  Of course, letting dogs roam your property is not an option for everyone.  So what are some other options to keep deer from turning your garden into a salad buffet?

My former grad student, Sara Tanis, shows off deer damage at her parent’s place near Ludington, MI

One of the most popular non-canine deer remedies is applying various deer repellants.  Typically I’ve been pretty skeptical of deer repellants.  Trying to stop hungry deer from chowing down on your garden is like trying to stop a high school football team from devouring an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.  Recently, however, I saw some results from some colleagues at North Carolina State University on the effectiveness of various deer repellents in Christmas tree plantations that looked promising.  Deer damage is a major issue in Christmas trees; deer browse pressure can be very high on conifers since they may be the most palatable thing available to deer in the winter.  Research at NCSU and other studies (Wagner and Nolte 2001, Wildlife Soc. Bull.29:322-330) indicate that repellants that contain putrescent egg solids or animal protein can be effective at reducing deer damage.  Of course, no repellant is 100% effective.  If they’re hungry enough and don’t have an alternative, deer will likely overcome their fear of these scents and still come in for a nibble.  Also repellants need to be re-applied periodically to be effective.  Nevertheless, for gardener’s at their wit’s end and ready to resort to high velocity lead, repellants may be a better alternative.  Although Sara says lead works too!

Pruning perpetrators

Just when I thought I had you all fooled, Judy slipped in at the last minute with the correct answer – the “pruners” in question are deer:

The pruning ends when the deer can’t stretch any further, giving the tree its odd bell-shaped crown:

This is also a great demonstration of how pruning stimulates new growth – you can see the dense healthy growth at the base of the “bell,” even though this part of the crown normally would be much sparser.

Thanks for all the guesses!

When history and good stewardship collide

One of my colleagues emailed me a couple of pictures last week taken in Puyallup, WA.  As you can see, there’s a trellis supporting a massive old trunk…

…and crown…

of an ancient Hedera helix ‘Baltica,’ a cultivar of English ivy.

For those of you not in Washington or Oregon state, English ivy is a designated noxious weed.  Thousands of dollars and hours of labor are spent on removing this species from forested areas in Washington state, where it crowds out native species and increases tree failure simply through the weight of vegetation.  It is not a well-mannered ornamental in our climate.

So why, you may ask, is this particular English ivy prominently displayed and obviously cultivated?  Chris Pfeiffer (my colleague) found out that it had been planted by Mrs. Ezra Meeker, wife of the founder of Puyallup, over 140 years ago at their original homestead.  It is part of Puyallup’s cultural history and is considered a heritage “tree.”

But as you can see in the second photograph, the ivy is in flower and presumably will set seeds, thus contributing to the invasive problem.  I don’t know enough about the City’s management plan for this specimen, but I doubt it includes removal of the flowers before seed set.

So what should communities do in situations like this?  I think the city needs to remove the flowers, though this would be a labor intensive activity.  But it would only take one person a few hours to hand prune the flowers.

I’ll be curious to hear what you all think, and whether you have seen similar collisions between historical significance and appropriate plant choices.

The Deer Thing

Gave a talk last week to the Arlington, Virginia Master Gardeners and friends (howdy!).  What a wonderful group. I was warmly welcomed, they brought awesome goodies, and even laughed at my silly anecdotes.

As is inevitable during any plant presentation, the topic of deer came up. When the question arose of whether a particular perennial that I had enjoyed in my own garden was deer-resistant or not, I responded with  “I’m not sure, I don’t have a deer problem.”  I regretted my words the moment they came out. The audience erupted, and I swear cupcakes were (figuratively)  flung at my head.

1. It was incredibly insensitive of me.

But I didn’t know! I was gently informed that yes, deer were indeed a huge problem. Arlington is tucked deep within the Beltway, right next to D.C. Though they have some nice green spaces and lots of big trees, I wouldn’t describe it as suburban, which is where I’ve heard all the deer problems were in Northern Virginia.  The D.C. metroplex is bumper-to-bumper traffic about 22 hours per day, at least in the experience of this Country Mouse. How they haven’t been wiped out by deer-vehicle collisions, I’m not sure. Maybe the traffic never goes fast enough. I feel just awful for these folks. One lady described afterward how she couldn’t even have pansies in a container on her patio.  She said she gardens “in her dreams.”  I misted up. 

2.  I then had to try to explain why I don’t have a deer problem.

I’m not sure!  What’s worse, I haven’t had too much of a problem at any of my previous residences (just digging the hole deeper, aren’t I). Currently, we live in the Country with a capital “C”, on the side of a mountain, surrounded by forests, pastures, streams, etc. There’s minimal fencing.  The nearest neighbors* are not very near. We should be crawling with deer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty around – picturesque herds roam the hayfields across the valley. Driving home at dusk in the spring and fall is an adventure in deer-dodging. They do occasional visit closer to the house, traipsing through our blueberries, and eating fallen apples, or nibbling the tops out of my okra. They have damaged some of our veg garden, but no worse than our own destruct-o-chickens.  But they rarely mess with the ornamentals. Of which there are LOTS.

* Incidentally, most of those (very nice) neighbors possesses multiple rifles and armloads of 30-06 rounds. I know this because deer season is nigh, and everyone’s adjusting their scopes and blowing out the dust.  Blam, blam, blam.

My best guess as to our relative freedom from deer damage? Neighbors who enjoy deer steaks, plus an active assault-hound program. OUR weapons of choice:

Bebe (B.B.) the Basenji-mix and Bunny the Whippet. Faster than speeding bullets. Joel is asleep so I graciously cropped him out.

Not very fearsome as depicted here, but two sight-hounds can give the deer a run for their money. They love to patrol the grounds. Plus it’s great exercise for the little couch lizards.

The deer explosion has turned many people off from gardening (both novice and experienced). To have something you’ve grown and/or spent a chunk of money on – there one evening and gone the next morning – must be very, very frustrating.  My heart goes out to the kind and hardy gardeners of Arlington and all others for whom deer are an absolute plague.