New Delhi, May 26: Concerns that cellphones pose a threat to honeybees, articulated by Shah Rukh Khan’s character in My Name Is Khan, have now been bolstered by Panjab University zoologist Neelima Kumar’s experiments.
Electromagnetic radiation from cellphones appears to alter the behaviour of bees, her experiments suggest and add fresh evidence to observations reported by a team of German researchers seven years ago.
Honeybees exposed to cellphone radiation appear to lose the ability to return to their hives and queen bees produce a lower number of eggs, according to the new findings that appeared yesterday in the journal Current Science from the Indian Academy of Sciences.
“These are still preliminary findings, but they have dire implications,” said Kumar. “Bees are important not just for honey, but for pollination of crops.”
Bees pollinate some 80 per cent of commercial crops —apples, melons, sunflower, mustard, cucumbers and radish, she said. “A massive loss of bees could cause loss of production of such crops,” Kumar added.
Those thoughts appear to echo the words of Rizwan Khan — the character played by Shah Rukh in My Name Is Khan — who cautions that cellphones may be harmful to honeybees and cites Albert Einstein’s warning that if the world’s bees were to disappear, humans would perish in four years.
In 2003, three researchers in Landau, Germany, had produced the first evidence to suggest that electromagnetic exposure may cause a change in the behaviour of bees. Their findings triggered speculation among some scientists that electromagnetic radiation may interfere with bees’ ability to communicate and navigate.
Kumar and her student exposed two colonies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, to electromagnetic radiation, placing two cellphones on side walls of hives in call mode for 15 minutes, twice a day, for up to 12 weeks.
The researchers observed that the number of bees from the colonies returning to their hives after foraging for pollen declined compared with two other colonies of bees not exposed to cellphone activity. A queen bee exposed to the cellphone radiation produced only 144 eggs a day compared with 376 eggs laid by a queen in a colony not exposed to it.
The honey-storing ability of exposed hives dropped significantly. At the end of several months, the hive had neither pollen, nor bees. “The colonies collapsed,” Kumar said.
The team from the Chandigarh-based university had experimentally created a condition that mimicked the strange disappearance of bees reported by beekeepers in North America, France, Germany, and Sweden in recent years.
Entomologists call the phenomenon colony collapse disorder (CCD) — an abrupt and unexplained 50 to 90 per cent of loss of bees. Scientists have speculated fungal infections or pesticides or even global warming as possible causes.
However, many researchers believe there is not enough evidence yet to link either electromagnetic radiation or even rising temperatures to the loss of bees. Three years ago, Jessica Hamzelou from the University College, London, wrote in the medical journal The Lancet that CCD did not appear to be a recent phenomenon, and abandoned hives had been documented as far back as in 1869.
But Kumar said her findings were similar to the results of studies in the 1970s on the influence of high tension transmission lines on bee behaviour. “Bees use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate — it’s reasonable to assume that electromagnetic radiation could interfere with this ability,” Kumar said. But she cautioned that any such effect would need to be authenticated through physiological studies. No such studies have been done yet, she added.