The buzz from cell phones leads to a reduction in colony size

Earlier this month, alarm bells sounded in the United States at a phenomenon considered as dire as climate change: the disappearing honeybee.

If the trend continues, it may spell the doom for agriculture — 80 per cent of which depends upon this humble pollinator — not to mention the environment, scientists have warned.

Amid theories about the possible reasons for the ‘bee colony collapse disorder' (including pesticides, disease, climate change and genetically modified crops), comes a new study that points to another culprit: the ubiquitous cell phone.

Electromagnetic frequency emitted by cell phones reduces bees' colony size and the number of eggs laid by the queen bee and changes their behaviour, says a research paper published in the latest issue of Current Science. The authors are Ved Parkash Sharma and Neelima R. Kumar of the Departments of Environment and Vocational Studies and Zoology at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

The magnetite (a natural magnet) in their bodies that helps bees navigate is sensitive to “electro-smog” that cell phones emit into the atmosphere, the paper says. For their experiment, the scientists selected honeybee colonies at the university's apiary. They exposed one set of colonies to functioning cell phones of a 900 MHz frequency band, for 15 minutes twice a day. They left the other free of the radiation.

The results were unambiguous. In the colony exposed to cell phone radiation, the brood-size (comprising eggs and larvae) was just 760.19 cm2, compared with 1975.44 cm2 in the colony free of radiation. The queen bee exposed to radiation produced far fewer eggs a day (145) than its undisturbed counterpart (376).

And while there was no immediate exodus of bees as a result of cell phone interference, the number of pollen foragers (worker bees with pollen loads) returning to the hive declined. Consequently, the ‘pollen stores' (the portion of the comb containing cells filled with stored pollen) decreased in size from 246.7 cm2 to 154.7 cm2; and there was a dip in the number of cells containing ripe and unripe nectar.

“At the end of the experiment, there were neither honey, nor pollen nor brood and bees in the colony, resulting in the complete loss of the colony,” the paper says. Not too long ago, cell phone radiation was attributed to the inexplicable disappearance of another diminutive creature from Indian cities, the house sparrow.