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The Bee Keeper

An Interview with a Bee Genius

How a pioneer in the study of disease-resistant bees and the medicinal qualities of propolis plans to spend a $500,000 MacArthur Fellow grant.


Often called a "Genius" Award, this $500,000, no strings attached award is given each year to "explorers and risk takers, contributing to their fields and to society in innovative, impactful ways. They provide us all with inspiration and hope for the future." It's the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award, and this year one of the winners was a honey bee researcher.

marla spivak

Dr. Marla Spivak certainly fits that description. She received a B.A. (1978) from Humboldt State University and a Ph.D. (1989) from the University of Kansas. She has been affiliated with the University of Minnesota since 1993, where she is currently Distinguished McKnight Professor in the Department of Entomology. She is the author and creator of numerous beekeeping manuals and videos, and her scientific articles have appeared in such journals as the Journal of Neurobiology (now Developmental Neurobiology), Evolution, Apidologie, and Animal Behavior.

But she earned her hive tool the hard way, working with commercial beekeepers all during her career in several states and several countries. She understands the needs of both bees and beekeepers, a rare commodity in any research program. She learned the basics of bee breeding from some of the most controversial, and intelligent breeders in the U.S., and has brought that experience and her education to bear on a variety of problems beekeepers face.

One of her many contributions has been the development of The Minnesota Hygienic line of honey bee queens. Bees from these queens are a determined bunch, being extremely thorough in keeping their nests clean. This extraordinary behavior enables regular worker bees to find baby bees that are infected with diseases or pests while they are still developing, long before they are born. These damaged baby bees are then removed from the colony before the diseases they have, or the pests infesting their cells can multiply and spread throughout the colony. Colonies with hygienic behavior have fewer problems with the greatest foe honey bees have…the Varroa mite, known to be associated with colony deaths, and strongly tied to some of the CCD problems honey bees have.

But Dr. Spivak is also working with the chemistry of propolis, the hive "glue" that bees use to help keep their colonies free of some pathogens, and to seal and keep closed the hive components to keep out other pests and predators. Propolis begins as a mixture of protective plant resins honey bees collect to which they add enzymes and other compounds when they return it to the hive. People have been using propolis for years to make soothing and healing salves and ointments and other healthful products. Some sources of propolis have large amounts of the active plant protective chemicals present when bees collect them and these have even more curative and healing aspects than "ordinary" propolis. Dr. Spivak's research has been investigating these properties.

I've been fortunate to know Dr. Spivak for several years, so when the award was announced I called to congratulate her, and to see how this was sitting. The award is a surprise, but she shared the secretive way the Foundation made certain that she would be available to take the phone call with the good news. They had previously set up an interview with a supposedly freelance writer who was to do an interview at a certain time. When the time came the interviewer didn't show up at her lab, but the phone call did.

Marla is the second MacArthur Foundation fellowship winner from the University of Minnesota, and the University is understandably pleased with this event. And it seems Marla is the first honey bee researcher to receive this award.

Why, I asked do you suppose a honey bee researcher has finally been noticed?

"Because of all the publicity that honey bees are getting, finally, people are more aware of the importance and value of honey bees, pollination and the role they play in our lives," she said, "and I think that's probably why a honey bee researcher got this attention."

"But," she added, "none of this would have been possible without the hard work and dedication of all the people I work with... Gary Reuter, my right hand here at the lab, all my students here in the lab, and especially the beekeepers I have the good fortune to work with."

What will all this bring to Marla and her life?

Her first response was that she would like to use some of it to leverage funds for the new research lab the University is trying to build for her. "That would be great," she said, "to get that project going." And "perhaps to do some work with my propolis projects, like travel, that I otherwise wouldn't be able to do," she added.

"But honey bees and beekeepers... that's where it'll get the most use," she said.

And now you know why this honey bee researcher was chosen.

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Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum is the editor of Bee Culture magazine.
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Bee Culture: The magazine of American beekeeping.
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