Asian Hornet spotted in the UK?

The list of parasites, predators and diseases trying to kill my bees gets depressingly longer every year. So the following email I received from the National Bee Unit today wasn’t welcome:


Following a credible report of an Asian Hornet sighting in the South East area close to Maidstone, Kent; last week a local Bee Inspector was dispatched to carry out further field investigation.

Following this investigation, we have not been able to verify the report but we would encourage beekeepers particularly in this area to familiarise themselves with the Asian Hornet and remain vigilant when visiting their apiaries and inspecting their colonies.

The Asian Hornet sneaked into France in a shipment of Chinese pottery in 2004 and has been making its way towards our fair shores ever since. The Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris predicted that it would be in Britain by 2014 – it seems they may have been pretty close.

It isn’t all bad news, reports from France indicate that hornet traps are an excellent method of keeping the population under control and hopefully other methods will be developed as we learn to live with this pest in Europe.


The first bee

The first bee ever found in the fossil record was melittosphex burmensis which lived 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.

the first bee .

There are reported to be 20,000 species of bee known to science. Therefore it seems appropriate that for my first ever bee of the week I choose  Melittosphex burmensis, the first bee.

Discovered in 2006 by Burmese amber miners it is the earliest specimen of the transition from wasps to what we would recognise as the modern bee. Scientists even found prehistoric pollen trapped in the bee’s hairs.

The discovery was described by the two scientists who found it, George Poinar and Bryan Danforth:

It’s exciting to see something that seems so different from what we think of as modern bees. It’s not an ancestor of honeybees, but probably was a species on an early branch of the evolutionary tree of bees that went extinct.

Measuring only 3mm (1/8 of a inch) this tiny bee gives the first glimpse of the modern bees we know and love. It then disappears not to resurface in the fossil record for almost another 40,000,000 years.

Melittosphex burmensis, the first bee.


Bad science hurts the environmental debate

In the 1990s Mark Lynas led the anti-Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) movement in the UK, he’s an equally vociferous climate campaigner. In the past he has suggested that the manufacturers of GMO corps were liable to increase global starvation by withholding seeds from farmers that couldn’t afford to buy them. Direct action was also in Mark’s bag of tricks, he’s admitted to destroying GMO trial crops. However, over the past decade he’s reversed his position. In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference a few weeks ago he described this journey.

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If you don’t have a spare 30 minutes (with 20 further minutes of questions afterwards) to watch this speech Mark has provided a transcript.

I’ve always had an interest in science and technology in particular what one of my favourite science writers Dr Ben Goldacre calls bad science; the wilful misrepresentation of science. There are countless examples of this, from intelligent design to 9/11 conspiracy theories. Many of them harmless but quite often bad science is used by campaign groups, the best example of this I can think of was the campaign against the MMR vaccine in the United Kingdom.

In 1998 Mark Wakefield a former doctor and medical researcher published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet linking the Measles Mumbles and Rubella vaccine (MMR) to autism. Wakefield suggested that the combination of three vaccines into one treatment explained a causal link. This paper was then used by a highly vocal campaign groups to demand MMR was replaced with three separate treatments, despite countless follow up studies never being able to replicate Wakefeild’s findings. Even with the medical consensus that MMR was safe parents stopped vaccinating their children as the campaign waged by groups using bad science planted the seed of doubt in their minds. Vaccination rates in the UK fell markedly, in some areas to around 85% - far below the WHO recommendation of 95%. In 2012 an investigation by the General Medical Council found that Wakefeild had falsified his findings and struck him off; vaccination rates are now rising.

Beekeepers are also subject to bad science in debates around controversial topics such as neonicotinoids and we to must be on our guard against overeager lobby groups or commercial interests misrepresenting the evidence to further their political or commercial interests. Only today I was watching a debate about bee health and a Harvard study was used as proof that neonicotinoids impacted bee health. This the same study that Randy Oliver so skilfully critiques on his wonderful blog

Bad science is used by pro and anti lobbies and we, the unfortunate, targets of their lobbying often don’t know what to believe. But, the facts are available if we just look. If a study is referenced try to download it and read it, science papers are surprisingly easy to understand once you’ve read a few. If someone tells you something is a fact ask them to prove it. A little critical thinking goes a long way, I’ll leave you with this clip of Dr Ben Goldacre explaining why.