A week or so ago someone wrote a piece for WUWT about a peer-reviewed article on bees. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what the article was actually saying, but one of the authors, a PhD student at Flinders University in Adelaide, said that bees might be the augury for global warming. It seems that prior to the ice age when temperatures rose, many bee species migrated to cooler areas, with only one hardy species able to adapt to the warmer temperature. They’re almost canaries in the coal mine, you can see that they’re going to be the first sort of species to be impacted by changes in climate, [the author] said.
I was struck by the metaphor, because I’d heard it before somewhere in connection with ‘climate change’. In the Comments section I came across somebody who had not only heard it before, but had collected 78 examples of the use of the same metaphor, and printed them all! It’s instructive just to look at the examples. I’ve grouped them into categories. Let’s start with
fauna: corals, trout, penguins, Emperor penguins, dragonfly, oysters (2), monarch butterfly, crows, lemurs, mayfly, grey wolves, black guillemot (a seabird), plankton, frogs and other amphibians (2), songbirds, bees (again), purple finch, polar bears, butterflies, mountain pine beetles, mussels, walrus, moose, New England lobster, shrimp, lizards, and bats
flora: muted autumn colours, old-growth forests, corn, wine grapes, tundra-covered foothills, coffee plants, and agriculture generally
places and regions: polar regions, glaciers (3), national parks, Perth, Aspen, Great Barrier Reef, Florida village, US South West, US North East, Everglades, Florida Keys, Great Lakes, Hawaiian Islands, River Orme, SE Asia, Eiffel Tower, Africa, Grand canyon, Haiti, Las Vegas, Nebraska, Carteret Islands, Galapagos Islands, Tuvalu, Maldives, Himalayas, developing countries, Appalachian trail, and Amazon River
human activities: global ski industry (2), Norwegian attitudes to air travel, obesity, the words of Al Gore, the SUV, environmental groups, Malcolm Turnbull’s agony, a Californian physician/cyclist, and winter sports in Canada
miscellaneous: fires in 2007
That’s quite a list, which covers the last few years, and it tells you at once that the little phrase that once referred to a precaution that underground coal-miners took when they went to work (the canary would die more quickly from carbon monoxide than a human), has become a terrible cliche. Not only that, when you read the news article in which the metaphor is embedded, the common verb form is ‘might be’, ‘could be’, ‘might need’ and so on. In short, these examples aren’t actually canaries in the coal mine, but if present trends continue, or something like that, then they might be.
As always, I wonder who allowed this kind of stuff to be published. Contingent possibilities are not really all that interesting. After all, almost anything could happen, and if it happened, then something serious might follow. An asteroid might strike the Earth, and a few scientists have had a go at assessing the probability of that event occurring. The probabilities are apparently not high, but what if it happened? So many ‘climate science’ articles are like this. Something might happen, and then corals wouldn’t survive, or finches would die out — and much of this is based, as in the present case, on mathematical modelling.
Let’s look further at the case of the bees in the WUWT article. The article is behind a paywall (memo to the Abbott Government: end paywalls for publicly funded research), but the abstract only mentions ‘climate change’ in the last sentence, and apparently the article doesn’t go on about it either. The story is straightforward: native bees in Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa were greatly reduced in number during the last ice age, but revived and prospered in the current inter-glacial. The WUWT article drew beekeepers and others interested in bees from around the world, including Australia, and they all had a great time putting in their few cents worth.
It was the graduate student who emphasised ‘climate change’ in a news story: as the climate warmed, species of bees that successfully evolved to live in the cold found it necessary to retreat to the contracting reaches of mountain rainforests to survive, while a smaller range of species that showed an ability to adapt to warm conditions thrived. Current diversity, however, remains under threat: “The bad news is that these rare lineages found at higher altitudes will be susceptible to further change,” [he] said. “If it continues to warm, they’ll have nowhere to go.”
As it happens, bees are facing problems, but climate change is not one of them. Beekeepers all know about the problems. The worst is a nasty mite that attacks bees, and both bees and beekeepers have to be careful about ‘hive hygiene’. Then there are many different kinds of honey-producing bees, and the introduction of a new type can imperil these already out and about. The bees in the present case are all native, and not the pollinating kind, on which we depend for a good deal of our fruit and vegetables. And it seems that bees can cope with quite large differences in temperature anyway.
So why did the journal think to publish the article? On the face of it, it’s hardly surprising that the last ice age saw a dramatic decline in the number of these bees, and that they have prospered in warmer times. I have the sinking feeling that it was bringing in ‘climate change’ as a new threat that was the clincher for publication. Perhaps I’m wrong, and someone will show me how I’ve missed the importance of the scientific findings. I’m certainly willing to learn.