Queen Bee: Marla Spivak is helping bees get a leg up (make that six legs up) on survival in a pesticide-filled, flower-emptying world.
By: Deborah Caulfield Rybak, Delta Sky Magazine January, 2011
Bee researcher Marla Spivak has been stung by thousands of bees in the course of a career devoted to them. But nothing prepared her for the bee-related sting she got in September.
Spivak, a Distinguished McKnight Professor in Entomology at the University of Minnesota, isn’t big on interviews, but she had reluctantly agreed to meet with a particularly persistent woman named Liz Brooks. When the appointed time arrived, Brooks was a no-show. Then Spivak’s phone rang: Apparently there was no Liz Brooks; it was just a ploy to make sure she was in her offi ce. “Perhaps you’d better sit down,” she was told. The bee researcher learned that she’d been awarded a $500,000 “genius” grant, one of given to individuals in a variety of disciplines, unprompted, by the prestigious MacArthur Foundation.
While the foundation doesn’t discuss specific reasons why it selects its recipients, Spivak’s work is well known in bee and agricultural circles. Spivak and her team bred a line of honeybee queens to produce colonies that can recognize when pupae are infested with disease or contain a mite known by the nasty name Varroa destructor. These bees— called the Minnesota Hygienic line—then throw the infected pupae out of the nest, which disrupts the mite’s reproductive cycle and saves the hive. The work has made her a star academically and in the field, which is where she prefers to spend her time. “I’ve always felt that academics were often far removed from reality,” she explains. “I’m very practically oriented.” Spivak’s tiny office on the university’s St. Paul campus is crammed with bee books and memorabilia. Her library carries titles such as The Humble Bee, Befriending Bumble Bees and Bees Besieged. There are bee postcards, bee candles and even a crumpled bee outfit stuffed in the corner of a shelf.
Spivak’s youthful features, ponytailed hair and slim build make her look more like a graduate student than someone who’s been working with bees for most of her 55 years. Her career path has differed dramatically from most college professors’, and bees have always been a very specific passion. “I wasn’t one of those kid entomologists poking in the grass, picking up bugs,” she recalls. “Bees, being so highly social and complex, fascinated me. Then there were the beekeepers who interacted with them in ways I’d never seen; it was almost how a person might interact with a horse.”
Spivak interned with a New Mexico beekeeper while a student at the experiential Prescott College in Arizona. Later, she transferred to Humboldt State University in Northern California, thinking she might just forget about bees and pursue a career in marine biology. “But I kept drifting back. Everywhere I turned, there would be bees in my face.” So Spivak went to Arizona to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Research Lab in Tucson with Steve Taber, whom Spivak describes as a “totally wild and eccentric and amazing bee- keeper” and someone with “real bee sense.” Taber, she says, used to yell at his students, “You’ve got to think like a bee! You’re thinking like a human!” She laughs. “I’m not so sure I learned a lot about research from him, but I learned a lot about how to think like a bee.”
Thinking like a bee, she explains, involves (among other things) feeling through its antennae and legs and “realizing that the colony is the organism—each bee has no central authority, it responds to direct information from the environment and its nestmates.”
She took that knowledge to South America for a time. While others her age backpacked around the world in the 1970s, she did the same in South America, but with a different approach: “I went from beekeeper to beekeeper, who were always living in amazing locations because their bees are located in great natural areas. They were very warm and great hosts and loved to exchange information.”
When she joined the University of Minnesota in 1993, she wanted to be a different kind of professor. “I really wanted to make a difference and do something practical with my hands. I got really lucky here. I’m not so sure I would have had the creative leeway and support for odd ideas in other places.”
Bees made big news in 2007 when the first reports of widespread colony collapses hit the media. Currently, she says, about 30 to 40 percent of all bee colonies are dying each year, a smaller percentage of that from colony collapse. “Sometimes we know why and sometimes we don’t. We’re still trying to sort that out.” According to Spivak, who has cowritten articles on the subject, the three main bee killers are pesticides, disease and not enough flowers.
“There aren’t enough flowers out there for bees anymore,” she says. “Corn and soybean crops provide basically nothing for the bees. And we use a lot of herbicides to get rid of all those weedy plants on our roadsides and crop borders and golf courses, so there aren’t enough flowers to provide nectar and pollen for bees. And the flowers they do find are often contaminated with pesticides, which can weaken bees and make them susceptible to disease.”
Her research, she explains, is not focused on solving the problem, but on addressing some of its components. “My biggest goal is to keep bees healthy. One of the things we’ve gotten into is propolis, the bees’ natural collection of resin.” Although health food stores have been selling it to humans for years, no one knew exactly why bees collected it until recently, thanks to a research project by one of Spivak’s students. “The propolis, which bees cement inside their hive, helps fight off microbes and keep their nest environment cleaner, which quiets their immune system.”
Spivak plans to use her grant money (which will be paid out in $25,000 installments over five years) to pursue that line of research and to create a reserve to fund her graduate students, “which is always a struggle.”
But foremost is her dream to establish a one-of-a-kind bee center, which would be a combination research lab, honey production facility, museum and public education center. Spivak even envisions a rooftop garden with bee colonies equipped with camcorders, “so you can hear and feel and see the bees from a safe place.” The University of Minnesota has already started a fund-raising campaign for the project (beelab.umn.edu).
“Bees are a portal to everything, not only pollination and food quality, but agricultural issues, landscape issues and health issues for humans,” Spivak says. “I want people to get the whole bee experience.”