I’m all for saving bees. Heck they’re some of the most important players in the plant systems I study. No bees means no sex for my plants, so there’s that. And I generally have a soft spot for bees. While I was an undergraduate my first real experience in research was working in Mark Winston’s bee lab. I was one of those all round research assistants who moved between projects as the need arose. It was a great experience and the fact that I’m still doing research speaks to that. Maybe it is why I have gone on to study mainly bee-pollinated plants but that is speculation for another day.
So when a few weeks ago I saw a new campaign at Avaaz.org to save the bees, my first thought was: great! It is nice to see an important ecological question gaining attention and donations. But then I read on.
Although I am aware that many ecological issues are political ones, the Avaaz campaign demonstrates how complex issues can lose out when they are made political. Of course it is easy to sell simple ideas and I’m also all for communicating science in ways that everyone can understand. However, much is lost if you translate things down to easily digested political selling points.
So here is what I find distasteful about this campaign to save the bees. First there is the message that we need to fight ‘big pharma’ to stop the use/over-use of pesticides. Now, although you could argue lots of things about whether it is right or wrong/effective or not to stop pesticide use, as a political message I don’t think there is anything wrong with this idea per se. However, the drive suggests that this action will save the bees. By using bees to sell the fund-raiser, a direct link is made between global bee declines (‘environmental holocaust’ as they put it) and pesticides. Now before anyone jumps at this, I am aware that there are lots of studies out there that do show negative effects of pesticides for bees. Back in that summer working with bees, I helped one grad student maintaining bees for her study that showed sub-lethal behavioural effects of pesticides. I’ll admit that I’m not up on this set of literature but I am fairly certain that most scientists wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that all that we need to do is get rid of pesticides and the world will be buzzing again. What is happening with bee populations world-wide and the domesticated honeybee are complex issues, unlikely to be so simply solved.
The second problem I had reading the Avaaz page was their second mission is to raise funds for a scientific study. As stated on the page: “Avaaz may be the only crowdsourced funding model in the world able to raise enough to fund the world’s first large scale, grass-roots supported, totally independent study of what’s killing our bees, that decisively challenges the junk science of big pharma.” (emphasis theirs). And to top it off: “The need is urgent, and if we can’t do this, it’s not clear who can.”
As a scientist, I find this completely offensive. There is so much wrong with this call, I’m not sure where to start. On the one-hand they suggest that the research being done now is ‘junk science’ funded by big pharma. It almost seems silly to write a counter-argument to this, there are scientists all over the world studying bees and many directly trying to address things like how pesticides affect bees. That grad student I helped out? Funded by ‘big pharma’. Even if we accept the hypothesis that science on bee declines, pesticide effects, etc has been ‘junk’, where are they going to find the apparently reputable scientists that will carry out the research to solve the problem once and for all? Who are these scientists? Maybe it is just me but if I was going to give my money for research, I’d want to know who it was going to, especially if they’re expected to deliver on the promise of this campaign. For me the portrayal of scientists as both the bad guys in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies and the heroes coming in to save the day is both offensive and depressing.
But let’s say the money raised here would be able to solve what is happening to ‘the bees’. Even if that is true, raising money for science is in conflict with the first mission of the campaign. Either you are searching for the answer for what is really happening or you have already concluded that bees are dying due to pesticides. You can’t have it both ways. And beyond the issue of actually understanding why bees may be declining, there are already many scientists addressing these problems from a myriad of angles. For something so complex, it is highly unlikely that any one single study will ever be able to determine what is killing the bees like promised here. Science is generally a collaborative effort and the portrayal of science here suggests a poor grasp of how it is done.
So far I have been intentionally vague about what I mean by ‘bees’ because Avaaz is as well. But I see this as another real problem in distilling down such a broad subject down to a single political issue. For example, the fact the in North America (and elsewhere) honeybees are an introduce farm-animal is often glossed over. Of course, understanding colony collapse and other problems facing honeybees is important; honeybees can be critical domestic animals that provide a huge service in our food production. However, understanding issues with honeybees may or may not provide any answers to our understanding of wild bees. It would be like studying cows to try to understand deer populations or chickens to assess songbirds. Sure there may be links but they are different beasts. So confounding honeybees with bees as a whole is problematic.
So in short, I’d love to see more emphasis on understanding ecological problems and see interest in pollinators as a real positive. So much of our world depends on the interactions between plants and pollinators but reducing complex ecological questions down to single-issue conspiracy theory campaigns may do more harm than good in the long run. It also belittles all the great science that is already going on.
Update (April 23): Jeff Ollerton has added his thoughts over on his blog: http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/these-things-arent-to-study-theyre-to-turn-up-very-loud-and-say-hey-once-upon-a-time-everything-was-just-as-easy-as-this/ and there are a bunch of great comments below. All worth a read!