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 regionspolar 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.


Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    Yes, this co-option of even the most trivial areas of science is interesting, or at least Richard Lindzen’s (2012) “Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions?” has a fascinating essay that puts the ‘canaries’ and many other otherwise difficult to understand aspects of the climate debate into perspective: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0809.3762v4.pdf

    I’m thinking of starting the Introduction (and repeating in the Abstract) of any future papers with this sentence “Climate change caused by anthropogenic emissions of CO2 is a scientific fact and imperils every species on this planet.” I think this will show my creds, pile a mountain of ‘significance’ onto my results, and be a fair warning to the reviewers that they criticize my paper at their peril.

    Then I can prattle on in my usual way, perhaps pausing to mention in the Discussion that ‘it is worse than we thought’ (because Climate Change may drive whatever species I’m dealing with to extinction). If any reviewer suggests rejecting the paper or modifying it in ways I don’t like, then I will call them a climate denier and demand that the editor ignore them (unless he/she is also a climate denier, but I think they have been mostly eliminated).

  • dlb says:

    The disturbing feature of such speculative research is that once they have got through peer review they are now seen by many as scientific fact. This is the peer review gospel that sites like SkS thrive on.

    “could” & “may” remind me why I don’t subscribe to the magazine “New
    Scientist”, its full of them.

  • PeterE says:

    It seems we need to remain in a state of high anxiety – so many canaries in the coal mine might be in danger. Don’t panic!

  • Gus says:

    It’s all Orwellian Newspeak and Goebbels propaganda tactics. We’ve seen it all before: in the Soviet Union, in Maoist China, in Nazi Germany. This is why this whole business is so revolting.

  • David says:


    Thanks for posting a link to the article. I do feel you quote quite selectively from this article.

    “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.”

    Anyway the NEXT sentence is

    “Associate Professor Mike Schwarz, who supervised the research, said the ability to reconstruct bee populations into the past gives new insights into climate change, demonstrating the bees’ near extinction and their ABUNDANT RESURGENCE”

    And if you were moderately curious and followed this link to another summary of their work here


    you can read the following conclusion

    “It’s for this reason that the team suggests that more research be conducted on bee populations that adapted after the LGM to better understand what might be done to encourage such adaptability in modern species, especially in light of dramatic population die-offs due to colony collapse disorder.”

    And Wiki has this post on Colony collapse disorder which include the sorts of issues you mention, bee mite etc here


    So to summarise, they have collected some historical genetic data on bees, which have been affected by past variations in climate, to better understand and manage fluctuations in contemporary bee populations.
    Its hardly a tub thumping piece of research in support of AGW. I would have thought the adaption rather than mitigation message would have appealed to you. At least they are not proposing a carbon tax. 🙂

    • DaveW says:

      Hi David,

      You are right that this paper has nothing to say about global warming, but you seem to have missed what caused all the brouhaha – the lead author gave an interview to our ever unreliable ABC that was then picked up and repeat and further hyped around the world (you give one such link [phys.org] with the garbled message). In the ABC article they confounded honey bees with Mr Groom’s bees (solitary sweat bees – no relation to the honey bee and no relation to colony collapse disorder*). Mr Groom was unable to correct them and added to the confusion with his ‘canary in a coal mine’ statement and attempt to predict the future.

      The link you provide to phys.org is a good example of what caused the uproar: “A trio of researchers working at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, has found that bee populations in tropical climates may hold the key to assuring food for humans as the population grows in the future.” This is total rubbish and the plea for more money that you quote is very depressing.

      I’m not sure how to make the silliness of this claim clear to you, but suppose I published a study on how mountain goats on islands survived the last glacial epoch and then claimed my results were relevant to how cattle could adapt to future climate change (and help control bovine spongiform encephalitis at the same time). That would be similar (except goats and cows are much more closely related to each other than Groom et al.’s bees and honey bees).

      As well as having absolutely no relevance to managing honey bee populations, Groom et al. don’t have any historical data per se – they used a segment of a single mitochondrial gene to attempt to infer past population trends. It is very much a house of cards, but interesting enough since they claim the same pattern on three different island groups (although these may be pseudorepilcates – it seems unlikely they are actually independent).

      *Re bees:
      There are an estimated 25,000 living species of bees in the world – the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is only one of them and one of the very few (about 7 or so) that have characteristics that allow us to use them in crop pollination. The others are ‘wild bees’ and may be helpful (in general, the more bees the better) or even critical in some agricultural systems (e.g. bumble bees in blueberry and cranberry), but most are not able to service our crops like the honey bee. Wild bees are critical for wild plants though.

      • David says:


        Thanks for your thorough response. You are right I did miss the original brouhaha. So I am probably missing some of the context.

        Your analogy seems reasonable. But you would still need to judge each piece of research on its own merits. It is hard for me to comment in any detail without reading the original research. And entomology is way outside my comfort zone, anyway.

        It is flattering for Mr Groom’s that the ABC,and now you, have critiqued his research. And so the scientific process continues…

        As an aside I thought your comment about free access to publically funded research an interesting one.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Don I like your comment “memo to the Abbott Government: end paywalls for publicly funded research”. Hiding of data and method has become a feature of “climate science”.

    The latest example being http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/queensland-university-tries-to-block-climate-research/story-e6frgcjx-1226920713818

  • […] essay about the language of the warming scare drew an audience larger than usual, and coincided with other examples of the use of language by […]

  • […] Like so much in ‘climate science’, measurements so often come with errors that are larger than the differences reported, and those are the errors that we know about. How sure can we be that Antarctic is losing ice? Satellites tell us that a lot of ice is going every year. What exactly is it that the GRACE system is measuring? It is, after all, well below freezing pretty well all the time in most of Antarctic. I wrote about the ‘collapse’ of an aspect of the Antarctic ice shelf the other day. […]

Leave a Reply