Marla Spivak gets up close with her honeybees.

Beekeeping has long been a passion for Marla Spivak ('78, Biological Sciences). And recently, her ground-breaking research with bees has created plenty of buzz.

In September, Spivak, a professor of Entomology and head of The Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, won a "genius award"—a $500,000, no-strings-attached grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The award recognizes her pioneering work in protecting honeybee populations from devastation—the "colony collapse" that has made headlines in recent years.

I Love Bees All beekeepers really love their bees

ONE OF SPIVAK'S MOST practical accomplishments is the breeding of the Minnesota Hygienic. It's a strain of bees that uses olfaction to "sniff out" infected pupae and remove them from the hive before they can spread disease to the rest of the colony.

But disease is likely just one of the problems plaguing these important pollinators, Spivak says. It's hard to tell what the main cause of colony decline is, but Spivak believes that there are a few factors.

The Minnesota Hygienic is a strain of bee that Spivak breeds 
to sniff out infected larvae and protect the hive from collapse.

ABOVE: Marla Spivak gets up close with her honeybees. LEFT: The Minnesota Hygienic is a strain of bee that Spivak breeds to sniff out infected larvae and protect the hive from collapse.

"Bees are in decline for three interconnected reasons," Spivak says. "There are not enough flowers out there that secrete pollen and nectar, so the bees are not getting proper nutrition. Then, the flowers that they do encounter often are contaminated with pesticides. It's a combination of poor nutrition, pesticides and brood disease."

She sees her MacArthur Fellowship as a way to continue to spread awareness about the plight of bees. "I consider the award to be not about me," she says, "but about bringing attention to the bees and what others can do to help them out."

Currently, Spivak is a mentor and advisor to graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Her students are researching several topics related to bee health, including certain tree resins that can boost bee immune systems, as well as Nosema disease and its role in colony collapse disorder.

"I help with the research and find the grant money," Spivak says. "Sometimes I oversee independent projects. But it's more interesting to me now to help students establish their careers in lines they're interested in."

Although she hasn't decided how to use all the grant money, she does intend to assist her students' research efforts.

"I would like to establish a bee center here at the University of Minnesota," Spivak says. "The public could come in and learn about bees. Bees are like a portal: When you start studying them you're learning about many different topics such as agriculture, pesticides, landscape diversity and food safety."

Bees were certainly the entryway to Spivak's own career path. Although she already had an interest in bees when she came to Humboldt State from Arizona, she wasn't necessarily interested in studying them.

"I was just more interested in learning new things, and I was happy about anything that took me outdoors," Spivak says. "For example, I had never lived near the ocean. So, at Humboldt, I was learning about the invertebrates in intertidal ecology. We took a lot of field trips. I remember going out before dawn or during full moons to study."

During her undergraduate studies, Spivak took a semester off to volunteer with Steve Taber, a renowned honeybee researcher. Taber reignited Spivak's interest in studying bees, and as soon as she completed her degree, she was off to do bee research in South America.

Spivak traveled from Venezuela to Kansas to Peru, from Costa Rica back to Arizona and on to Minnesota doing research. "I'm a hands-on learner," she says. "I need to experience things and then I get ideas about how and what to research." During that time, she was also persuaded to complete her Ph.D. in Entomology at the University of Kansas. "I went to graduate school kind of kicking and screaming," she admits.

Even after all her travels, Spivak still finds connections to HSU. Currently, she is co-adviser to Ph.D. student Judy Wu ('05, Zoology) who is studying the effects of pesticides on bees.

One thing is certain: the "genius" grant will give Spivak more resources to help investigate and ease the threats to bee health.

"I love bees. All beekeepers really love their bees. And seeing bees suffer is really difficult," Spivak says. She says she hopes that her and her students' research will help revive bee populations not only by developing practical applications to promote their health, but also by spreading awareness about their plight. "People hear that bees are dying, and most people want to know how they can help."

One simple solution Spivak offers: Plant more flowers .

For more information on Professor Spivak's work, see extension.umn.edu/honeybees