What the ‘venomous bees’ story tells us about science communication


Last week, most of the mainstream Australian news media reported on a University of Melbourne press release about a new study from researchers in the Department of Pharmacology. The study analysed data from Australian public hospital admissions and death records from venomous bites and stings over the period 2001-2013.

All the media stories sent the same message, launching off the popular international myth that Australia has the most venomous creatures on Earth. Finally, this study had evidence to prove that Australia’s bees and wasps were more deadly than our snakes or spiders!

Native spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.
Native Australian spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.

Technically, the media stories were accurate, and the data in the study did show such a trend (in simplified terms). But this is another great example of how using the generic term for a whole taxonomic group, e.g. ‘bees’, can be seriously misleading.

In this case, the public health awareness benefits of this study are lessened by the inaccurate message that ALL Australia’s bees and wasps will kill you. In particular, neither the study nor the media stories clarified that introduced species of bees and wasps are more likely to sting you than our native species.

Here are the codes the researchers used to categorise each case for the analysis:

codes

As you can see, the ‘bees’ in question come under the very broad category ‘hornets, wasps and bees’.

Here’s what’s wrong with this general classification:

1. There are no true hornets in Australia. The closest thing we have to a true hornet is the introduced European wasp, which is a nasty stinger and a dangerous pest. Steer clear of them. The large native Australian wasp species that are often mistakenly referred to as hornets fall into two main categories, social wasps (paper wasps) and solitary wasps (mud daubers, potter wasps, spider wasps etc.). All of these have stings, but are unlikely to sting you unless you are directly threatening them, i.e. trying to catch them, or pulling their nest apart (paper wasps can be more aggressive than solitary wasps, but still are not as aggressive as the Euro wasp).


2. The generic term ‘bees’ again, although this time it’s not completely the fault of bad journalism. In the original study, the researchers do not distinguish between groups of bees, nor do they mention the difference between European honey bees and native bees. Using an educated guess, it is likely that the majority of these bee-caused deaths & admissions were from either Asian or European honey bees. Social insects (ones that live together in hives or colonies) are generally more aggressive toward humans because of their nature – they are simply defending their home. However, unlike the Asian & Euro honey bees (Asian HB are a bit more aggressive than Euro ones), Australia’s 11 species of social bee are stingless. Yes, no sting at all. And, as with our wasps, the hundreds of solitary bee species are unlikely to sting you unless you’re trying to crush them in your hands.

Few of the mainstream media stories clarified the bee species in question, although all of them included pictures of the recognisable European honey bees with the story. Australian Geographic was the only media outlet who named the Euro honey bee as the deadly culprit (although, given that the species weren’t named in the original study, this is speculation!).

Last year, research by Toby Smith and I showed that pictures of European honey bees were the most common image accompanying media stories about pollinators, often even when the story was actually referring to native species.

Why does it matter that news stories have an accurate image accompanying them? Because the image is the take-home message for most readers.

The case of the deadly bees story is interesting. Unlike most situations where the image is often inaccurate or misrepresentative, the images in the deadly bees stories accurately depicted the most likely bee culprit for the stinging cases…even though the original study and its researchers never actually named the species! Without further explanation, these journalists missed a valuable opportunity to raise awareness about the differences between native bee species and the introduced honey bees, including the invasiveness of the Asian honey bee.

This study has helpful implications for public health, as the researchers explain. Because the data were analysed by state, it will be useful for hospital admissions and paramedic staff to understand what the greatest venom risks are in different regions.

But as a public awareness tool, it falls somewhat short. All bees are not deadlier than snakes. And this study only compares envenomation cases – it is not comparing all causes of death or hospital admission. As the press release clarifies, far more people died from drowning, burns and being thrown or trampled by a horse across the same period, than from a bee’s sting.

No one is really ‘to blame’ here, but this ball of confusion does highlight a few important issues in reporting scientific issues:

  • Images are powerful storytelling tools, but can be speculation or misinformation if not used accurately. Speculation, as in this case, is less of a problem than misrepresentation, but without clarifying text can confuse public awareness.
  • Non-specialist journalists are less likely to pick up errors or missing information in specialist stories. Scientists can deal with this by taking care to fill in information gaps as much as possible in the original research or in the press release, even if it seems irrelevant to a specialist audience.
  • All scientists aren’t experts in all science. The authors of this study are experts in pharmacology and public health, but are unlikely to know much about biological differences between native and introduced bees. The journalists that covered the press release could have enhanced the public awareness benefits of the story by seeking comment from a bee biologist or ecologist who would have explained those differences.

© Manu Saunders 2017

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2 thoughts on “What the ‘venomous bees’ story tells us about science communication

  1. abackyardobsession January 26, 2017 / 9:07 PM

    I really enjoyed reading your article. The poor reporting on these findings annoyed me too. Unfortunately I can’t find the article now, but one news agency used a photo of a Blue-banded Bee when referring to bee stings, which is obviously incorrect.

    This article (http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/health-problems/the-backyard-creature-more-dangerous-than-snakes-spiders-and-jellyfish/news-story/ca8cb3b6a37d6ddca4dbc7645570e1e3) uses a photo of a European Wasp, but the caption refers to bees. It is no wonder that many members of the general public do not interpret the findings correctly when incorrect images are used.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Manu Saunders January 27, 2017 / 9:25 AM

      Thanks! I wonder why it’s so hard for subeditors to find an accurate picture. I found one outlet covering this Aussie bees/wasps story had used a picture of a US species of bee that doesn’t even exist in Australia! And the source photo had clearly labelled it as such 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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