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Is 5G The Next Big Threat To Our Bees?


Published by: The Gauteng Smallholder Magazine

One of our periodic articles on bees and beekeeping, this time independently of the views of Gauteng’s 3 beekeepers’ associations.

Good news for cellphone users: 5G is here! But wait… it’s sinister, say Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, because it will make it possible for the Chinese to harvest our personal information, and it’s dangerous, say others, because its radiation will turn us all into three-headed zombies and kill insects and, in particular, the world’s bees.

In the interest of a rational look at this development we attempt to explain what it is, and whether it is harmful. In the telecommunications sphere, networks such as 5G (which means fifth generation), and 1, 2, 3 and 4G before it, are cellular networks, in which the service area covered is divided into small geographical areas called cells. Analog signals representing sounds and images are digitised in the device (phone, computer, tablet, etc), converted by an analog-todigital converter and transmitted as a stream of bits. A bit being, if you think back to your schooldays, what happens when you reduce numbers and letters to zeroes and ones (aka binary code), represented electronically by positive and negative electrical charges.

This stream of bits is then communicated between devices and a transmitter/receiver using radio waves. The transmitter/receivers are contained in the cellphone masts we are all familiar with, either in the form of metal scaffolding structures, or fake palm trees. Each tower transmits and receives only over a limited area around it, called a cell. The towers themselves are connected with the telephone network and the internet by a highbandwidth (ie fast) optical fiber or wireless connection.

As you move with your phone, your connection is automatically handed off to an adjacent cell or tower. 5G can support up to a million devices per square kilometer, compared to 4G ~ our current network ~ at only 100 000. Apart from being able to handle more devices 5G is supposed to be faster with higher download speeds.

This is achieved partly by using higher-frequency radio waves than what is currently in use. However, higherfrequency radio waves have a shorter range than the frequencies used by previous cell phone towers, so to ensure wide service, 5G networks operates on up to three frequency bands ~ low, medium and high.

A 5G network will thus be composed of networks of these three different cells, each requiring different antennae, each giving a different ratio of download speed versus distance. 5G devices will connect to the network through the highest speed antenna within range at their location. So, if you are further away you will connect via the low frequency band as it has the largest reach.

So, 5G is designed to improve the speed of our networks ~ in some cases leading to a 10 gigabyte per second download speed ~ the equivalent of watching three and a half hours of high definition Netflix. It will also help take pressure off the current 4G LTE networks used by most carriers, which is becoming overburdened.

Will 5G, or 4G for that matter, cause health problems? The answer is… maybe. The power of radio waves emitted from a cell phone tower decreases four times over as you move away from the tower. And this will apply in the same way to a tower with more antennae. So proximity to and the number of antennae in a tower is not a huge concern. Of greater concern than the radiation from a tower is that emitted by your cell phone itself.

But there’s more, namely the release of electromagnetic radiation. The main biological effect of this radiation is an increase in temperature. However, the power levels involved in mobile and wireless telecommunications are very small, involving at most temperature rises in tissue of a few tenths of a degree. Additionally, the amount of power ~ heat ~ a device is able to emit is regulated, and is the same for a 4G or 5G device.

However, with the addition of medium and high frequency bands in 5G, this has an effect on the frequency of radiation. In 4G, the frequencies range between 4 to 6 gigahertz (GHz) ~ which is the unit used to measure frequency. In 5G, the current maximum frequency is 86GHz, considerably higher, and falling into the millimeter-wave range. But what is this actually? A photon is a particle representing electromagnetic radiation. Each photon carries energy proportional to the radiation frequency. So, because 5G has higher frequency, it will therefore also have higher energy. These energies are non-ionising which means the photon energy is not big enough to remove an electron from an atom or molecule. The sun, for example, emits four times more millimetre-waves (between 400-800 terahertz, tera being 1 000 giga.)

In fact, we already use items daily that emit millimetrewaves. The reverse parking sensors in your car emit up to 77GHz. A microwave emits between 3 and 30GHz. A Wi-Fi router emits up to 6GHz. Body scanners such as those used at airports emit, depending on their sophistication, up to 80GHz. Clearly, the decades-long risks of exposure are unknown because the technology has not been around long enough for prolonged study. And this is why the answer to the question “can 5G cause harm” is a maybe… but it is also a maybe for 4G and probably the other Gs too. And also wind turbines, red meat and prolonged exposure to the Kardashians.

But, what about smaller creatures such as bees? Will they be affected? Again, the answer is maybe…but unlikely, and it is clear more research needs to be done, because much of what has been done is unsophisticated, at best. For example, as far back as 2006, a Landau University researcher in Germany placed two digital enhanced cordless telecommunications stations (the docking station you put a cordless landline phone into) in two bees hives. He also left two hives untouched as a control.

He then trapped 25 bees at the entrance to each hive and released them 800m away from the hives, recording how many made their way home. The bees from the hives with docking stations built smaller combs and found it harder to come home. But, the researchers didn’t know if the bees they trapped and released had ever left the hive or if this was their first sojourn into the world ~ there was no way of proving the bees’ competence at wayfinding prior to the experiment. They also had no proof that it was the radiation emissions that halted combbuilding and not just the presence of a foreign object in their hive. Bees can be finicky and will be affected by any foreign object. For all we know, bees with an old shoe suddenly placed in their hive would build less comb.

Honey bees have ferromagnetic crystals, or magnetite, in their abdomens, which act as magnetic sensors. Bees use this capacity for orientation and navigation. Research into the effects of telecommunication on bees’ internal magnetic receptors has been, well, inconclusive. Research conducted by the EU-funded Eklipse Project in 2018, found poor scientific evidence to back up claims that bees are affected by telecommunications. And, in those experiments that can be considered adequately conducted, there is little to no evidence that the presence of antennae, or the distance between hives and antenna has much effect on the swarm’s population size, reproduction capabilities or production efficiency.

Research into hives versus cell towers on two Aegean islands showed varying effect on the bees in relation to the antenna ~ and some effects were also contingent on other factors. Eklipse found that those studies that showed negative effects on the insects were lab-based experiments, putting the bees in unnatural situations (for example, testing the bees’ flight pattern when exposed to radiation at a height that a bee would likely never fly at and therefore not be exposed to).

As with humans, the long term effects of 5G on insects is unknown but appears at the outset to be low-risk. In fact, there are more immediate risks to bees ~ the use of pesticides, monoculture crops and certain invasive parasites ~ than 5G.

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