‘For the bees’: Retiring U of M entomologist Marla Spivak reflects on long career of bee science, advocacy

A woman stands amidst several beehives
Marla Spivak is retiring after more than 30 years with the University of Minnesota studying bees.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Marla Spivak planned to spend her life with bees, but she did not anticipate training a generation of bee researchers.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become an academic or work at a university,” said Spivak. “I was going to be a beekeeper.”

Her fascination with honey bees began in 1973 when she checked out a library book about the life of bees.

“It fascinated me, both the bees and the beekeepers,” recalled Spivak who keeps a copy of the book in her St. Paul office. “I went to work for a commercial beekeeper and then I was just hooked.”

a woman holds a book
In her office at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, Marla Spivak holds the book that she says inspired her to a life of working with bees.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Spivak is retiring from the University of Minnesota later this year after more than 30 years of research on ways to improve bee health. She is perhaps best known for her work to develop disease-resistant bee strains called hygienic bees. They naturally preserve the health of the colony by detecting and removing sick bees.

When Colony Collapse Disorder began killing honey bees in the early 2000s, Spivak became a very public voice for bees. She started the University of Minnesota Bee Squad in 2010, and oversaw development of the Bee and Pollinator Research Lab on the St. Paul campus in 2015.

She’s won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2010 and she’s mentored many students who have become noted bee scientists. The University is raising $5 million for an endowed chair in honey bee research to ensure her research continues.

a woman swings a net over tall grass
University of Minnesota researcher Marla Spivak sweeps a roadside ditch near Hannaford, N.D., for insects.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2010

After decades of working with and observing bees, Spivak is still fascinated by the social organization of a honey bee colony.

“There’s no governing board, there’s no ruler, they just interact with each other,” she said. “And then these beautiful behaviors at the colony level and the personality of the colony emerges just from local interactions among individual bees.”

When she started in the 1970s, raising bees was easy, said Spivak. The honey bee colonies needed minimal care to produce honey.

Then in the mid-1980s, the first parasitic mite arrived in the U.S. and keeping bees has never been the same.

A woman stands holding the branch of a pussy willow bush
Marla Spivak says for a scientist whose best day is one spent in the field looking into bee hives, the public attention was a challenge.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Beekeepers started to use pesticides in their own colonies,” she said. “Beekeepers, who are the first people that really don’t like pesticide use because it can affect their bees, had to become pesticide applicators in their own colonies.”

Honey bee troubles multiplied, leading to significant bee colony losses and by the early 2000s, scientists were raising the alarm about Colony Collapse Disorder.

Spivak found herself in a new role, trying to explain the issue to a curious public.

“This Colony Collapse Disorder turned into this multifactorial impossible thing to explain, especially to the press,” recalled Spivak. “When you’re trying to say what’s going on with the bees and you say ‘Well, it’s a combination of factors,’ everybody falls asleep.”

University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak
University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak speaks at a press conference at the Minnesota State Fair.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2016

Colony Collapse Disorder is not fully understood but causes include parasitic mites that spread viruses to bees, changes in agriculture that resulted in fewer flowering plants on the land to sustain bees, and the rise of neonicotinoid insecticides that bees ingest when they consume pollen and nectar.

Some commercial beekeepers have been critical of Spivak for not speaking out more strongly against pesticides.

“The pesticide issue is the really thorny one that we really need to dig into more deeply,” said Spivak in a recent interview.

“It’s a hot button because a lot of people would like to ban pesticides and that’s not realistic. We need them. But how do we apply them in a way that provides benefit to farmers and yet don't harm beneficial insects? It’s a conundrum.”

Marla Spivak and her bees
University of Minnesota researcher Marla Spivak checking a bee hive at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.
Tim Post | MPR News 2006

For a scientist whose best day is one spent in the field looking into bee hives, the public attention was a challenge.

“I have to admit I’m quite uncomfortable with all of that attention,” she said. “It’s an internal struggle all the time to say ‘OK, this is giving back to the bees. It’s not about me.’ I mean, that’s kind of a mantra of mine.”

“She’s just such a great speaker,” said Mark Sundberg, president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association. He values Spivak’s ability to communicate important information to beekeepers.

“I’ve seen her talk so many times, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her use notes,” said Sundberg. “She’ll throw the slides up there, and then she just goes. She knows the material so well. When I see Marla on the program I know it’s going to be an interesting talk.”

Applying pesticide
Mark Sundberg places a pesticide strip into a bee hive to kill varroa mites. The mites are increasingly resistant to pesticides. Sundberg is using genetic selection to improve the health of his bees.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2014

The association has a long relationship with the U of M, and recently donated $100,000 to the new honey bee research endowed chair.

Sundberg worked with Spivak on her research into hygienic bees, and also appreciates her hands-on approach to science.

“One of the neat things about Marla is that she does a lot of the hands-on research herself, it isn’t just turned over to the grad students,” he said.

Sundberg noted that Spivak has come to Mississippi, where he winters his bees, to conduct research on hygienic queens.

When asked to rank her professional accomplishments, Spivak puts her hygienic bee breeding research at the top of her list. She believes it is critical to breed bees that need less human intervention to survive.

“What they’re doing is sniffing out the brood, their baby bees, that are sick or parasitized and they actually sacrifice them, they toss them out of the nest and we call it hygienic behavior,” said Spivak. “By weeding out sick individuals, they can prevent disease transmission and they can begin to keep the colony healthy.”

Spivak also noted her research on propolis, the tree resins bees collect, which has medicinal and antimicrobial properties when used in bee hives.

Rounding out her list of accomplishments is her research on bee habitat because she said it resulted in the creation of the popular Lawns to Legumes program.

bees flying near a purple flower
Bees fly to a purple coneflower in Moorhead.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2023

Spivak is also proud of the students she has mentored. Several have gone on to become noted bee researchers studying both honey bees and native bees. Elaine Evans was Spivak’s first master’s student at the U of M.

Spivak encouraged Evans to pursue her interest in bumble bee research and studying competition for resources between honey bees and native bees.

“Taking on that important topic to be able to look at possible negative impacts of honeybees on the environment,” said Evans. “She is really passionate about the contribution of all bees.”

A woman locks a chainlink fence gate
“There’s no governing board, there’s no ruler, they just interact with each other,” Marla Spivak said bees.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

As Spivak prepares to walk away from decades of research on bees at the end of the year, she remains amazed at the ongoing public interest and support for the insects she fell in love with 50 years ago.

“Something about bees captured people’s hearts. I’m so appreciative, and so are the bees. But it was very unexpected.”

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