The New York Times made a long-awaited (and much emailed) announcement on its front page last week: The mystery of the ongoing and agriculturally devastating bee die-off (aka Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD) has been cracked!
I’m not trying to hype the news. Here’s the headline and lede:
Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery
It has been one of the great murder mysteries of the garden: what is killing off the honeybees?
Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States alone have suffered “colony collapse.” Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food.
Now, a unique partnership — of military scientists and entomologists — appears to have achieved a major breakthrough: identifying a new suspect, or two.
A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One.
It’s easy to miss, but in that last sentence, reporter Kirk Johnson takes a wrong turn. In essence, he confuses proximate and efficient causes (i.e. what bees ultimately succumb to vs. what makes hives susceptible to collapse) and from that logical error, a whole series of cascading failures ensue. But don’t take my word for it. Go read Katherine Eban’s crack piece of reporting for Fortune that dissects the problematic nature of the Times article; the underlying study; its lead author, Jerry Bromenshenk; and the role in the whole debate of the pesticide company Bayer CropScience.