Off Message June 2007

Bee Afraid

Into the summer news void steps science, with stories of disappearing bees.
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Summer's nearly here, and in the media that means science news, lots and lots of it. When the weather gets hot, the sources of "normal" news—politics, government, business— go on vacation. And into the void steps science, with its bottomless bag of discoveries about our bodies, the Earth, and the cosmos. Goodbye, Scooter Libby. Hello, stunning new findings about the moons of Jupiter.

Scary science news is especially big. Journalists know that the average human being likes nothing better than to lie on a beach and fret about shark attacks, hurricanes, global warming, killer asteroids, and deadly pandemics. Remember the avian flu panic of a couple summers ago? This season's first stab at that kind of terror is Andrew Speaker's tuberculosis.

But the most promising scary-science story of the moment, and in many ways the very model of the genre, is the vanishing bees. By now you know the basics: 1) Honeybees are disappearing from their hives; and 2) no one has figured out why.

It's not just science, it's a detective story, a thriller. What happens when the honeybees die? We all die! Or maybe not. According to some stories, Albert Einstein once noted that if the bees ever go, human beings have four years left. Other stories say there's no evidence whatsoever that Einstein ever said this. But bewildering contradictions are crucial to the summer science experience.

To help you enjoy it to the fullest, here are some handy tips.

1. Get in Early. The best of these stories have a long run-up. The bees made their big-league debut last winter, when The New York Times ran a front-pager reporting: "Now, in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. And nobody knows why." But did the bee news itself take flight? Nah, it was only February.

2. Question Authority. In April, The Independent newspaper of London ran a shocking story headlined, "Are Mobile Phones Wiping Out Our Bees?" Citing a German study, the paper explained: "The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees' navigation systems, preventing the famously home-loving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up." This story, which at one point was the lead item on The Drudge Report, used the Einstein "quotation" about humans having four years. It was the kind of news you immediately start retailing to friends. I did anyway. But all in vain. A few weeks later, the Associated Press reported that the German study was about cordless phones, and that the scientist who wrote it said there was "no link between our tiny little study and the [bee disappearance] phenomenon."

3. Watch for Agendas. Like anyone, scientists want to be rich and famous, and in pursuit of these venal goals some become shameless attention hounds. Science journalists can have agendas, too, such as making the front page, beating the competition, or scoring a book contract. In short, science news can be twisted to serve personal needs and desires, including your own. Writing last week about the lack of conclusive evidence on the vanishing bees, The Washington Post's Joel Garreau noted: "This dearth of data allows us to project our greatest anxieties onto the bees.... Even cellphones have been offered as an explanation. If you're driven crazy by them, then so must be the bees. Isn't it obvious?"

4. Laugh. Jeff Pettis, a scientist at the federal Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., likes to make fun of people's wild explanations. He told Garreau that his "favorite theory" is, "The bees are out there creating their own crop circles, working very hard, physically pushing the crops down with their little legs." He told the same story to the AP in May. The joke's getting a little old, but its lighthearted spirit seems just right. Why panic? It's summertime, and the science is easy.

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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