Bees get a break, finally

There are so many ways to like this story! Especially for a Californian.

First, bees are a really big deal.  Like apples? Nuts? No pollinators, no crop, and fruits, nuts and vegetables are half the value of US agriculture, not to mention good for you and yummy.  Bee colony collapse, along with varroa mites and sundry other troubles, has been a refractory and very costly problem; if this research holds up, we are a big step toward getting on top of it.

Second, interagency collaboration is neither common nor easy, and this is a success story of ‘quantum tunneling’ between distant stovepipes. I like the improvisatory lab technique, too, smashing bees on a desk and putting them through a coffee grinder.

Third, the equally improvisatory collaboration of the virus and the fungus is an interesting scientific finding in itself. What’s in it for each of these species; why does it help them to kill the bees rather than just inhabit them?  Obviously lots more to come now that the door has been opened.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Bees get a break, finally”

  1. Don't get too excited about this. First, PLOS One is a weird journal in that papers undergo peer review only about the soundness of the methodology, not about the overall importance. Second, there have been many claims as to the "cause" of colony collapse disorder that have shown up in big name journals and none of them have panned out to be the ultimate solvable cause.

    I'll try to address your third question when I have time. I'm guessing that the collaboration is not intentional.

  2. James,

    Don't hack on PLOS One for not asking reviewers to evaluate the "importance" of the research. That's an editorial decision, and more journals should adopt that model. Editors can (and do) manipulate the review process by choosing referees. Limiting referees' role forces the editors to take responsibility for their decisions.

  3. I don't want to get in a long discussion of peer review because it is a complicated issue. The old (current) model has problems and academic communities are trying to use new technologies and approaches to improve the way in which results get communicated. My basic issue with PLOS One is more its interaction with the media and how the media is handling new approaches to peer review. While the results of this study appear to be ok (I just read it briefly), it certainly is nowhere close to being a resolution of the cause nor does it present a clear solution. I heard one of the authors interviewed last night and he said the same.

    As far as I can tell the results are: strong correlation between a virus and a fungus and the presence of colony collapse (remember correlation not equal to causation). 2. An inoculation experiment suggests that two diseases are worse than either alone on individual survivorship. They haven't even demonstrated if the effects of the two diseases are additive, subadditive or superadditive, nor have they compared them to other diseases, nor have they demonstrated a colony effect.

    These are not meant to criticize either the authors or PLOS One, but the fact remains that this paper is among a long line of papers that hasn't yet been convincing of the cause of colony collapse. However, somehow, from an intriguing first step paper to the NY Times, the paper is elevated to being the solution to a significant agricultural and economic problem.

    This leaves the question for who is responsible and is the reaction towards PLOS type reviewed papers different than the long history of crappy science reporting. I don't know, but I'm still highly annoyed.

    /rant

  4. Utility of early papers notwithstanding, and disagreements with human constructs such as peer-review aside, the paper appears to have advanced our knowledge and as such should spur additional research to narrow down causation. We can – even now – begin to narrow possible strategies to apply mitigation and adaptation efforts to thwart a looming catastrophe to a large sector of agronomy and thus humanity.

    The interesting thing that Mr O'Hare pulled out is the nature of the collaboration and the interesting methodology. That was the topic of his post, not that this is a be-all, end-all.

    HTH.

  5. James,

    Correlation isn't causation, but a strong correlation is a hunting license to seek cause. You cannot have causation without correlation, after all. I can understand not wanting to get into a discussion of peer-review processes, I don't particularly care to either. But your intial post appeared to be an indictment of the journal for not asking referee's about the paper's "importance." The unspoken implication is that referees should be telling editors how important a piece of work is.

  6. If the story got overblown, it's the NYT's fault. Newspapers screw up science stories all the time. Should the journal refuse to publish anything that's not proven to be of intergalactic importance, out of fear that the NYT might pick it up and misreport it? Maybe they should put a disclaimer at the bottom of every article: ATTENTION MEDIA: THIS FINDING IS NOT AS CONCLUSIVE AS YOU ARE GOING TO SAY IT IS.

  7. Dennis,

    I have no argument with this paper being published and recognizing that it demonstrates an interesting pattern. I'd be happy to go in to more detail as to what I think it demonstrates. I'm not an expert on bees, but I am an ecologist so I do understand the general issues underlying ecological problem solving. From that expertise, I would classify this paper as mildly interesting with some potential.

    I can see why you thought I was criticizing PLOS One and there was a small element of criticism. But as I explained in my second note, my beef is more with the press. However, I think that some of it has to do with the fact that they don't understand that PLOS One articles have not been judged by scientists in the field at this moment to be important.

  8. Oh crap I pressed submit early. Anyway, all I meant to say is that sometimes the press needs a filter to tell them which papers are groundbreaking work and which are valuable pieces of information that simply build on previous work. I think that other high profile journals have a higher proportion of articles that satisfy the relatively ground breaking standard.

    If I were dictator, journalists would never be able to discuss the results of just one study. Maybe they would have to summarize at least three. This would make them actually read the journals where the good results are published and not the splashy, general interest journals. But that won't happen.

    I guess after all this I would agree to take the reference to PLOS One out of all my discussion and just say that this is another overblown media report. The bees are not saved and there is no evidence of any type of interaction between these two disease.

  9. Now THAT is a fun link to CNN Money!

    And James, we have been complaining about the press needing better science journalism for decades. An easier way to solve that in these downsizing times is to have better-written press releases.

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