Mobiles a threat to bees and humans

TWO RECENT studies, totally unconnected with each other, suggest mobile phones may be having a negative effect on wildlife. At first sight the notion seems a bit bizarre, or even paranoid, but the findings are interesting.

The first study was carried out in England by the British Trust for Ornithology, a much respected organisation. They were trying to find a reason for a decline in the numbers of house sparrows, particularly in urban areas. At the end of the survey they noticed a precise correlation between the absence of house sparrows and the presence of mobile phone transmission masts.

Nobody is quite sure why this should be. But it is known that the brains of birds are sensitive to electro-magnetic radiation, in a way that human brains are not, and that some species use this sensitivity to help them navigate, particularly on long distance migrations.

House sparrows don’t migrate long distances, but it’s possible that they have this electro-magnetic ‘sense’, and that the radiation from mobile phone masts causes them some pain or discomfort.

The second study is an international one, and relates to something far more serious. It involves bees and the cause of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, or CCD. When this occurs all the active bees in a colony or hive suddenly disappear, leaving only the queen, the eggs and a few immature workers.

What’s really strange, sinister even, is that if a hive is abandoned for natural reasons, as occasionally happens, it’s immediately invaded by parasites, wildlife of various kinds, and other bees that eat the remaining honey and pollen. In the case of CCD it appears that nothing will go near the abandoned colony.

CCD was first reported in the United States last autumn. It has affected about half the country and already there has been a 70% loss of colonies on the east coast and a 60% loss in the west. It has since been reported from several European countries and the first reports from Britain came in about three weeks ago. I have not heard of any Irish incidents.

This is obviously very serious, and doesn’t just affect bee-keepers. Bees pollinate many of the world’s important food crops. Albert Einstein once said that if bees disappeared ‘man would have only four years or life left’. This may be an exaggeration, maize is wind pollinated and grows perfectly well without bees. But there is no doubt that the disappearance of bees would have enormous ecological and economic consequences.

Because of this there is a lot of research going on all over the world into the possible causes of CCD. All of this has been inconclusive with one small exception. A Dr Jochen Kuhn working at Landau University in Germany carried out a simple experiment. He switched on a mobile phone hand-set and left it beside a bee hive. Something apparently identical to Colony Collapse Disorder occurred immediately.

It was known that the behaviour of bees changes when they’re around high voltage power lines. It’s theoretically possible that mobile phone radiation affects their navigational ability, in much the same way as the BTO suggested the sparrows were affected. The theory is that the colony collapses because the foraging bees just can’t find their way home.

CCD is a fact. The connection with radiation from mobile phones and other electronic gadgets is only an unproven theory. But the link does seem significant, and the implications are so serious that more research needs to be done urgently.

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that if it’s eventually shown that mobile phone networks have an adverse effect on wildlife there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about it. Would people give up their mobiles for the sake of the birds and the bees?

dick.warner@examiner.ie

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