Story by Josephine Marcotty
Photos and videos by Renée Jones Schneider
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.
MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. | Last in a series
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.
U researcher Marla Spivak has discovered that propolis, made from tree resin collected by bees, has antimicrobial powers that create a whole immune system for the hive. Does it protect bees from viruses? (3:00)
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.”
Spivak, a small, reserved woman whose jeans are often decorated with gunk from her hives, takes the moderate approach for a reason.
For most of her life her focus has been narrow — bees and beekeepers. Somehow it’s all become much bigger in the public’s mind, that saving the bees can help repair the human relationship with nature and how we grow our food.
Sitting in an office just off her dark and cluttered lab, she is still clearly stunned by how, unexpectedly, the bees gave her power, too – the genius grant, the recent surge of funders for her dream lab, the 1.7 million people who have watched her TED talk on YouTube. With an impatient wave of her hand, she pushes it all aside.
“But it’s not about me,” she said. “If the bees grab me out of thin air, if I’m a conduit for something, I have to do it right.”
It was, in fact, a book that grabbed her out of thin air.
She stumbled on it in the library while a freshman with a wide open mind at an environmental college in Arizona. “Bees Ways,” it’s called, written by in 1948 by a hobby beekeeper who introduced her to the extraordinarily complex society inside the hive.
“Each bee instinctively knows that she is only one atom in a great cooperative whole, and she behaves accordingly,” the author wrote.
Spivak was hooked. After that, she spent much of her time caring for bees, including one colony that inexplicably attacked her one day when she opened a hive. She was attending school in California and working on a farm to make money. Though she’d been stung before, this was different; she was stung “many, many, many times,” she said, and it almost killed her.
Later, she realized it was an overload of venom, not an allergic reaction. But when nothing happened on the day she sat with a bee outside the hospital in Arizona, she stood up and with a “huge sense of relief,” went off to meet the scientist who would set her on her course for life.
Science was her way into the hive — the tool she could use to ask the bees questions and get answers — but she didn’t set out to work for a university.
“I was really anti-academic,” she said. She traveled for a year in South America, where she fell in love with a man from a primitive village in the high jungle of Peru, and in another leap of faith, married him.
She landed a job with a researcher studying Africanized bees in a mango grove in Venezuela. Those bees were spreading across the world and he was trying to figure out what made them so successful and how to stop them. But they were dangerously aggressive and would attack en masse at the slightest provocation.
“That was the peril,” said Mark Winston, now a professor at Simon Fraser University. But Spivak was calm and competent, “not one of these ivory tower researchers that has never had her head inside a beehive,” he said.
She was fascinated by his research — and convinced she could do it better. “I kept thinking, ‘the bees are not going to answer you.’ ”
That conviction propelled her into graduate school in Kansas. And when she became pregnant, it carried her right through the prevailing assumption at the time that she had to choose between having a child and pursuing an academic career.
She can laugh about it now. “Just give me a barrier,” she said.
She made it through graduate school but her marriage disintegrated. She filed for divorce just before leaving for Costa Rica with her 3-year-old son to do research on Africanized bees for her graduate thesis.
Gary Reuter remembers the sharp young woman who came to interview for the bee researcher job at the University of Minnesota in 1992. He was on the search committee, which was deeply impressed that a non-Minnesotan wore winter boots to an interview in January. Later, after she hired him as a technician, handyman and research partner, she told him she had just forgotten to bring her shoes that day.
Spivak had promised herself never to live in a cold climate or a big city, and though a scientist, she still considered herself anti-academic. But she needed the job. And the University of Minnesota was the leading bee research center in the country’s largest honey producing region.
Part of her job was to help commercial beekeepers. Their hives were being decimated by an invasive, disease-carrying parasite called the Varroa mite that had swept through the country’s colonies starting in the 1980s. She was horrified by beekeepers’ rising use of “icky” insecticides that killed the mites but also harmed bees. She found herself lambasting them for being too quick to use chemicals, and warned they were creating resistance in the mites.
“We are setting this up for the mites to thrive, and they will win,” she told them.
When the beekeepers insisted they had to use chemicals to protect their livelihoods, she didn’t give up.
“I said, ‘We have to breed bees that can resist this,’ ” Spivak recalled.
And she did — producing the “Minnesota Hygienic Bee,” a line that could smell mite-infested and diseased broods and cast them out of the hive.
But she made mistakes, too. An early one, which has resurfaced with the bitter debate over neonicotinoids, was a research project commissioned by Bayer CropScience, today a leading manufacturer of the insecticides. The company wanted to find out if a new, experimental insecticide used on canola seeds would show up in hives and affect bees.
Spivak says she quickly realized that the experiment’s design was flawed because the bees were able to feed on both treated and untreated canola plants.
The results were never published, but Bayer used it to persuade federal regulators that neonicotinoids are safe for bees.
It was the last time she conducted research funded by the chemical industry, she said.
“That was my lesson,” she said. “I was so naive.”
For the most part, Spivak stuck to the place where she was most comfortable — her tiny lab on the fifth floor of the entomology building on the St. Paul campus, working with her students and beekeepers.
Working with bees did not always win friends.
One year she had to explain to the irate pest-control manager at the neighboring State Fairgrounds why his clever plan to outsmart her bees backfired. In an attempt to keep them away from fairgoers, he had placed an open barrel of root beer syrup in a parking lot. After they ate all the syrup, they swarmed all the root beer stands at the fair.
“He trained them to root beer,” she said.
As the number of bee colonies continued its relentless decline and the nation’s beekeepers struggled to survive, Spivak struggled, just as fruitlessly, to persuade the university to build her the research facility she needed to help them.
In 2010 her office phone rang. “Can you sit down?” said the voice on the other end.
And everything changed.
St. Paul resident Susan Damon walks through how to make your yard healthy for pollinators. (2:17)
The man from the MacArthur Foundation said her $500,000 award did not mean the foundation thought she was a genius.
But the public would.
At first the burden — the expectation that she would do great things and become a public figure — was paralyzing. She became physically ill.
But soon after that phone call, she sat in the office of Al Levine, her dean and now a vice provost. He asked what it would take to keep her in Minnesota. Already other universities were wooing her.
“She said: ‘I don’t want anything, I just want a bee lab so we can solve this problem,’ ” Levine recalled.
When he offered to hire a full-time fundraiser for the lab, she felt the floor tilt beneath her.
“I thought, ‘how funny, now you are listening to my voice,’ ” she said. And just like that she recognized that, whether she wanted it or not, deserved it or not, she had power.
“But how do I do this carefully?” she wondered.
In August, Becky Masterman climbed up a flight of stairs and through a cramped doorway onto the hot roof of the Hirshfield Paint Company’s building in northeast Minneapolis. Tucked up against one wall were two beehives, painted blue and pink by kids from a nearby elementary school. Before long a handful of Hirshfield employees wandered up to get a glimpse of their bees.
Spivak’s Bee Squad was there to make it happen. The idea came to her one day when she realized that the public’s concern about bees, the rising discomfort with environmental risks associated with agriculture and the new urban food movement were all going to blow up — in a good way.
She recruited Masterman, a former student, to run the Bee Squad and drew on the MacArthur grant to help pay her salary. For a fee that covers their costs, they manage about 100 hives around the Twin Cities for businesses and homeowners who are clamoring to do something for bees.
The Minnesota Legislature approved funds for two-thirds of her new lab this year, and the university is close to raising the remaining $2.2 million.
Her life outside of bees has not changed much. Her son is getting a Ph.D. of his own and dating the daughter of a beekeeper. She still lives in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, and is working on making her own garden “bee friendly.”
She doesn’t plow through barriers quite like she used to, aided in large part by the discipline she’s learned through years of studying the Japanese martial art of aikido. It’s based on a philosophy of neutralizing an attacker by using their own force to harmlessly disable them.
“I think about aikido all the time,” she said. It’s helped in the debate around insecticides.
Using them to keep flowers and yards looking pretty makes no sense, she says, especially when urban lawns and parks have become a refuge for many insects. The nation’s vast farming regions, Spivak says over and over again in her talks, have become a vast desert for bees.
But she sees all sides in the fight over neonicotinoids: The farmers who rely on them, the beekeepers who subject their own bees to insecticides while pollinating crops to make a living, and the even worse toxins that could replace neonicotinoids if they were banned.
But, she asked in exasperation, “Do we have to use them on everything all the time?”
Nor does she have an answer for the bee crisis. But she has ideas. For instance, maybe there should be many varieties of bees — one bred for the tough life of an over-the-road pollinating bee that is hauled like livestock from orchard to orchard, others for hobbyists that can thrive in different regions of the country.
Neonicotinoids remain on her mind — as well as in her lab. One of her graduate students is studying how different concentrations of the toxins affect egg-laying by queen bumblebees. Only this time the research is for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“I just want to keep moving forward,” she said. “Not backward.”
On a sweet summer day, Spivak and three students were kneeling like priestesses before a row of small research hives, their eyes glued on the fuzzy mass of bees moving around the entrance. They were looking for the few bees who carried a tiny jewel-like sparkle of resin on their hind legs instead of pollen. This is where she is happiest, counting bees in the sunshine and contemplating their remarkable behavior.
The bees collect resin from trees and use it to make a propolis, the dark sticky stuff that coats the frames inside their hives, a nuisance for beekeepers who actually try to breed bees that don’t collect so much. It’s long been known as a traditional and natural treatment for people, and years ago, a researcher at the U’s medical school found that it suppressed HIV in the lab.
“But no one asked why bees use propolis,” Spivak said.
One of her students climbed a dozen trees on campus to collect resin to figure out which ones the bees favor. On that sunny day in August another student captured the resin-carrying bees in a tiny cage, then stunned them in a cooler of ice so she could pluck the sticky resin off their legs with a pin. She popped each shiny droplet into a tiny glass vial so its source could be identified in the lab. One by one, the bees she had scattered across a picnic table warmed up and flew home.
Propolis, Spivak’s team has found, has antimicrobial powers that create a whole immune system for the hive. Now they’re trying to figure out if the bees choose different kinds of resin from different plants depending on which kinds of diseases they confront in the hive. If so, they could be onto a remarkable advance in disease treatments for bees — if she can convince beekeepers.
No doubt, Spivak said, the findings could lead researchers to new medical advances for people as well. But someone else will have to take that on.
“Because I’m not that interested in human health,” she said, turning her eyes back to the bees.