A Scientist’s Aim: Save the Bees

Marla Spivak, a star researcher at the University of Minnesota, has become one of the country's leading champions for bees. Now she's fighting for their survival.

September 1, 2014 | Source: Star Tribune | by Josephine Marcotty

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Marla Spivak sat on the curb outside an emergency room in Arizona nearly four decades ago holding a jar with a lone honeybee buzzing around inside. She was 22, and on her way to a summer job with a renowned bee researcher.

She had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, only that she desperately wanted to understand those mysterious creatures who were somehow better than people at making a society. But a year earlier she had almost died after being repeatedly stung.

So with a friend at her side to call for help if she needed it, and the doors of the emergency room at her back, she pressed the bee to her arm to find out if she was, as she feared, fatally allergic to its sting.

It was one of many times in her life that Spivak would rely on her fierce – or foolish – courage to propel her along a slightly eccentric path to becoming one of the country’s leading champions for bees. She’s now 59, a nationally known University of Minnesota professor of entomology and a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship – a genius grant. She bred a line of bees that can heal sick hives, discovered that bees collect tree resin to self-medicate, and launched a team of experts known as the Bee Squad to help other Minnesotans succeed with hives of their own. Now she is close to achieving her holy grail – a new $6 million lab to study the insects that are crucial to a third of the nation’s food supply.

Her mission, though, has changed considerably since she contemplated her fate inside that glass jar. She is still entranced by bees, more than ever. Now she wants to save them.

A conduit for change

As an acrimonious debate about pesticides and their impact on bees swirls around her, Spivak’s strategy is to stick to an objective and disciplined scientific line. At the public talks she gives two or three times a week in Minnesota and elsewhere, her message is utterly pragmatic: Plant flowers, she says. Don’t use insecticides any more than is absolutely necessary.

That nuanced advice does not always endear her to some who have staked out different ground in the national fight.

“We cannot solve the current bee crisis by planting our way out of it with flowers,” said Steve Ellis, a Minnesota beekeeper. He’s one of several who have sued the federal government over its regulation of neonicotinoids ­­­- a breakthrough compound that has become the most widely used insecticide in the world but is now implicated by many scientists in a dramatic decline of bees and other insects. “We have to stop poisoning the bees,” Ellis said. “Everything else is window dressing.”