Off the Wall: Bugs, Baseball, and Bad Correlations

Believe it or not, some science nerds like sports. I love baseball. In particular, I like Padres baseball. As a card-carrying Padres fan who is beside himself with high hopes after mind-blowing offseason acquisitions, I want to do everything in my power to help the home team win. But what can I, a humble entomologist, do beyond “root, root for the home team”?  So I decided to do some research. The result of which is a dire warning for my Padres, “Insects hate you.”

Ok, granted, it isn’t personal. Insects don’t specifically hate the Padres. They hate the home team. Sound like crazy talk? Step back with me to August 22, 2011 when a moth flew into Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday’s ear (video below) at the top of the 8th inning. Holliday left the game to have the moth removed and the Dodgers rallied to win 2-1. A clear case of moths conspiring against the home team. 

Not satisfied with a sample size of one? Alright, here is more. Just last year, Lepidoptera (fancy name for the moths and butterflies) again demonstrated a bias against the home team by helping the Phillies beat the Cardinals 5-1 on June 20 in Busch Stadium. Admittedly, the Phillies were up by four runs well before the moths took the field, but sources say that the Cardinal fans were anticipating a rally.

Since moths are attracted to bright lights and mostly fly at night, you might expect day games to be safe for the home team. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just step back to July 2, 2009, in our very own Petco Park when honeybees took the field, resulting in a 52-minute game delay and 7-2 Padres’ loss against the Astros. Do bees hate the home team? We got pounded by the Astros. What do you think?

As an entomologist, I understand that swarming bees are just looking for a new home. By all accounts, swarming bees are “less defensive or likely to sting.” In fact, most swarms that aggregate in tree branches, the side of the house, or on the baseball diamond would disperse naturally in less than 24 hours if given the chance. Although unlikely to be a danger to fans and plays, it is a heck of a game delay.

The anti-home team trend is off to a strong start in this year’s spring training. On March 8 at the Angels’ spring training facility, a swarm of honeybees disrupted a game against the Royals. Not surprisingly, the Royals won 6-4. Bees hate the home team. Right?

THIS IS HORRIBLE SCIENCE! The argument that I have presented is filled with what folks call “confirmation bias.” I started with this thought of, “Hmm, I wonder if, when insects disrupt games, it tips in favor or the home or away team.” As I started searching for examples I immediately found few that favored the away team and that created a bias in my head. The more that I confirmed my bias, the more I was able to dismiss opposing outcomes. I mean who didn’t want to see the Yankees lose in the 2007 ALDS? Those flies were doing us all a favor.

That isn’t the way to do science. We observe as much as we can to make sure patterns aren’t just by chance. And we don’t dismiss things that are contrary to our previous findings. Science is an iterative process. That is a fancy way of saying that we are constantly testing our findings and incorporating new information.

So as an entomologist, I won’t freak out if I see a lot of moths swarming the lights on opening night. That said, if we are down in the bottom of the 9th inning, this baseball fan is turning his hat inside out and going rally cap mode. Because there has to be good data to back that up. 

Posted By Michael Wall, Ph.D., Vice President of Research and Public Programs, Curator of Entomology.

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