Silent Spring: Is a Future Without Bees Closing in On Us?

Bees, essential to our food system, have been disappearing at an alarming rate. U of M entomologist Dr. Marla Spivak is looking for answers.

Photo by Gil Ford Photography
Professor Marla Spivak’s work diagnosing what ails America’s bees has earned her a coveted national honor.

I’ve seen the future of breakfast at a Waffle House in Wiggins, Mississippi. I’m sitting in a booth with Dr. Marla Spivak, scrunched around a Formica tabletop. The corners of her mouth turn down as she studies a gray lump of grits on her plate.

Spivak is the bona fide bee genius you might’ve seen on 60 Minutes, who last year was given one of the 23 MacArthur “genius grants”—the same $500,000 award given to David Foster Wallace and the guy who did The Wire for HBO—for her work with “hygienic” honeybees as an entomologist at the University of Minnesota. She travels all over the world to work with bees, and I’m spending a few days in February watching her check out Minnesota honeybee colonies wintering in Brett Favre country. It’s already spring here—the live oaks are breathing warm Mississippi air, and there’s purple clover on the ground. The azalea will be blooming in a couple more weeks.

Right now, we’re a few miles from Fergus Falls beekeeper Mark Sundberg’s bee yard. Sundberg’s been coming down here since he was a kid—his father started bringing bees down to the Gulf Coast on flatbed trucks to get a head start on spring more than three decades ago. He’s familiar with Waffle House grits.

“I’m pretty sure they’re made from ground-up corn,” Sundberg reassures me with a smile. My alarm must be obvious.

The breakfast I wish I was seeing is a proper bourgie brunch back in Minneapolis: the reuben eggs benedict at HauteDish, maybe even the French toast with peaches and cream. And good coffee. And a screwdriver. A screwdriver would definitely help these grits.

Right then, I was still a couple days from realizing how important honey-bees are to our future meals. That without the bees Spivak has been trying to keep alive and productive, most of my HauteDish brunch wouldn’t exist. Honeybees pollinate about 35 percent of our food, including most fruits and vegetables (the peaches and the apples on the French toast, the cabbage in the reuben benny, the oranges in the screwdriver, even the coffee). Meat and dairy producing cows need honeybee-pollinated alfalfa. More than 90 crops depend on bees carrying their pollen from flower to flower. In fact, besides the grits—corn doesn’t need bees for pollination and is mutually worthless to bees—even most of the items in a Waffle House breakfast would disappear without bees. So a future without bees is a future filled with gray goop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Unfortunately, since 2006, when a majority of bee colonies began disappearing and the specter of “colony collapse disorder” hit the media, a future without bees has been closing in on us. Spivak doesn’t especially like the term “colony collapse disorder” or the shorthand CCD because it’s a blank cable news diagnosis of a complex phenomenon, but she doesn’t deny that bees are in peril.

Five years after the coinage of CCD, bees are still disappearing at an alarming rate, and science has yet to pin down any prime suspect. Spivak points out that 30 to 40 percent of all bee colonies are done in annually by a matrix of post-war agricultural phenomena, all hostile to honeybee health. Vast crops of corn and soy along with the American love of the lawn prevent bees from finding enough nectar to turn into honey, thus threatening honeybee nutrition; a proliferation of insecticides have proved toxic to the honeybee nervous system; and globalization has quickly spread new parasites, fungi, and viruses. Whether it’s single-cell organisms such as nosema or parasitic mites such as the terrifyingly named Varroa destructor, all weaken the honeybee immune system. “And any two of these factors working together can kill a hive,” Spivak says.

So don’t take your breakfasts for granted, unless you’re into grits. Spivak loves beekeeping, but she’s an important scientist who’s published landmark work, some of which calls into question modern beekeeping practice. Her first breakthrough at the U of M was in understanding how honeybees can detect when Varroa destructor gets into a hive—the mite operates like a vampire, feeding on the bodies of bees until it slides into their brood and lays eggs. But Spivak figured out if the bees detect that their brood is diseased, they’ll remove it before it becomes contagious. Spivak just gets bees, and she’s really good at talking about them to normal people. She explains how hygienic behavior is a recessive trait—not all bees are willing to clean up the diseased brood right away, and there’s a threshold to when they act. “It’s like dirty dishes,” she says. “Everybody knows they’re there, and some people are fine with leaving them in the sink, but others just have to clean them up right now. “I moved to Minneapolis when Varroa was moving in [from Asia], and I was reading papers from Europe and other places about how hygienic behavior might be a mechanism” for bees to fight Varroa better than beekeepers who do it by soaking the hives in pesticide. But it was not yet understood how bees detected the parasite.

“It’s a weird thing to admit, but I kinda already knew how it worked. It’s dark in there—so they had to smell it. And that’s an intuition based on working with the bees.” Spivak thought, “If I were a bee, this is how it would work.”

But in science, you can’t just publish your intuition. “So I spent more than 15 years going through it piece by piece,” she says. Experiments—such as putting a bee into a tiny harness and wafting scents over its antennae to determine if the bee responded appropriately, or introducing Varroa to a hive with a superfine paintbrush—had to be double-checked and peer-reviewed. “And as I was going, people were doubting—they’re supposed to doubt—but I was thinking maybe I’m not right,” she says. “And then I would go, ‘No, I think I’m right. Like, shit, I know I’m right.’”

Spivak refined a test that had been developed by an American scientist—she would freeze kill the brood overnight and insert the freeze-killed brood back into the hive. If the bees cleaned out the freeze-killed brood after 24 hours, they were deemed hygienic. She’s since streamlined the freeze-killing process by screwing in a three-inch-diameter cylinder of plastic and filling it full of liquid nitrogen. Now she can do it in the field, from the back of a rental car in Wiggins, Mississippi.

All of this went into the development of the line of bees that Sundberg is selling. But a breed of bees is impossible to develop in the yard. “The problem is [hygienic] is a recessive trait, and when a virgin queen emerges from a hive to mate, she flies 20 to 30 feet in the air to mate with 15 to 30 random male drones,” Spivak says. “So we had to find a way to control the fertilization process.”

Spivak began artificially inseminating queens in a tiny bee harness with a microscope and a needle in her lab. “We did that every summer from 1994 to 2008,” she sighs. “Fifteen years looking at bee vaginas.” But the fruits of her labor were the first breed of certifiably hygienic bees. She named her swifter-picker-upper bees the Minnesota Hygienic Line. And now, years later, with patience and some double-checking, a number of Minnesota beekeepers are starting to produce certifiable hygienics on their own, outside of the lab.

Post-Waffle House, we relocate to Sundberg’s bee yard, about a football field behind the raised trailer he lives in—his wife and kids are back in Fergus Falls—for about 16 weeks a year. We suit up in a shed for a morning looking through frames of honeybee comb. His colonies are arranged in 12 short stacks of white wooden boxes (the stacks will rise as the hives start growing) arranged in a wide circle around the yard.

It’s my first time wearing the white smock and bee veil, and before the trip Spivak warned me that despite the protection, I would be stung. “That’s just the way it is,” she explained via a terse e-mail. Later she’ll tell me that when it comes to honeybee colonies there are two types of people: “ones that lean back and ones that lean in.” I’m pretty sure I’m the former, while Spivak is definitely the latter. And I think she sort of loves the fact that bees can sting.

Spivak is a petite person who pairs khaki cargo pants with her bee jacket. Even with her “Jackie O” bee helmet and veil on over her ponytail—not to mention the laptop computer and microscope set up in her impromptu lab in the shed—there’s a strong dose of cowboy in her. Her affection for the bees is obvious in the yard, but after spending some time hanging around her, it’s equally as obvious human beings are the species she finds to be suspect.

She points out that the only thing that makes human beings unique is their ability to be self-conscious. “Other than that, we’re not so special,” she says. “Ants invented slavery and tournament behavior and war, and they did this millions of years ago.” Human beings have really screwed it up, she says. “You know what gives me hope? Thinking about which species will survive the inevitable catastrophe. Ants might be around. Maybe termites.”

Spivak is from the West, although she’s not your stereotypical cowboy. Instead of Johnny Cash black, which would upset the bees (they see dark fuzzy forms as ursine threats), Spivak is a black belt in aikido, and her favorite singer is the model for intimidating pixie-intellectuals, the New York conceptual artist Laurie Anderson. She grew up as the middle daughter in a strict Jewish family . . . in Denver. Her parents forced her to go to Hebrew school, and she resented every minute of it, excelling in class (“that old guy wasn’t going to hit my table for mispronouncing a word”) while getting into trouble for pulling pranks in the bathroom.

Her mother was a teacher and her father a chemist who worked in an art supply store, and both older brothers went on to the Ivy League, but she resisted the family’s scholarly mold and became fascinated by the freedom of the outdoors. “My dad loved to go ‘Jeeping,’” she says, remembering weekends in a four-by-four prowling the cliffs outside of Denver, staying in sleeping bags in the back of the Jeep. “And for some reason, I was the only one who went along.”

When it was time to pick a college, she picked Arizona’s experimental Prescott College, which went bankrupt after her freshman year, but not before she stumbled onto bees in the library. No animal has been written about more than the honeybee—everyone from Aristotle to Virgil to Shakespeare to Shaw was fascinated by the social model of the hive.

“Their social behavior was intensely fascinating to me,” Spivak says. “I didn’t realize that insects could behave like that, these individual organisms working together for the common good of the superorganism.” And in the 37 years she’s worked with them, she’s come to consider the egoless honeybee to be more socially advanced than we are. “You know how entomologists classify human beings?” she asks rhetorically. “As sub-social.

“Most beekeepers are kind of solitary guys,” she says, watching Sundberg go through one of his hives by himself. “They’re happiest when they’re outside by themselves with their bees.”

She learned that on her first job during college, working for a semester at a large commercial beekeeping operation in New Mexico. And the solitary nature of the job is continually reinforced: After Prescott closed, Spivak finished her undergraduate work at Humboldt State in California, before earning her PhD in entomology at Kansas University. She was hired by the U of M in 1994 and performs three roles there: She teaches, researches, and does Extension work for the bee industry, whether that’s helping commercial keepers with their Varroa mite problem or giving a twice annual weekend seminar for hobby beekeepers.

“I remember my first talk to commercial keepers,” she says. “We were at a convention at some hotel in St. Cloud, and after my talk, everybody went to the bar and there were two tables: all the keepers, and their wives at the next table.” Spivak chose the wives’ table. “I wanted to sit with the beekeepers!” she says. “But they looked to be pretty skeptical of this female scientist from the ivory tower, so I sat with the wives.” And they went back to their husbands and told them to talk to Spivak if they wanted to find out what was happening with their bees.

With a 30 to 40 percent die-off each season, beekeepers have less freedom to be standoffish: They’re increasingly desperate for Spivak’s expertise. Beekeepers don’t have the same sort of support that other industries have. They can’t just call a vet when their animals get sick. Often the only place Minnesota keepers can turn for medical expertise is Spivak and her bee team: right-hand man Gary Reuter and the graduate students.

Spivak lets me drive on the way from Wiggins to Monroe, Louisiana, where Jeff Hull, a third- generation keeper with an operation in Battle Lake, does his springtime beekeeping (his family has moved to Monroe for part of the year since the 1950s). Before meeting Hull, we stop in Jackson, Mississippi, to try to refill Spivak’s liquid nitrogen tank, and this gives me the opportunity to convince Spivak to break into the great southern writer Eudora Welty’s backyard garden. We walk through at twilight to check out a decent honeybee spread: daffodils and camellias blooming under whitewashed trellises. There are placards with quotes from Welty’s work and letters, and we stop to read an excerpt from a letter from Welty to her gardener: I feel without ceasing every change in the garden itself, the changes of light as the atmosphere grows darker, and the springing up of a wind, and the rhythm of the locusts and the colors of certain flowers become very moving—they all seem to be a part of some happiness or unhappiness—and no longer simple in their own beautiful but outward way.

“I don’t get it,” Spivak mutters on her way to the rental car. “How could nature ever make you unhappy?”

I’m shocked at how she’s reacting to the great Southern gardener, but then I realize that Spivak is the furthest thing from Welty—she’s no Southern housecat, she’s a black belt entomologist. The natural world doesn’t give her a framework for human melancholy; its human beings actively bum her out. She’s in love with bees, because she sees the natural world through them, and it’s endlessly fascinating to her.

“Bees are a way to get all this information about what’s going on around them,” she says. “They’re not a canary in a coal mine—they’re a mirror.” And right now, bees are sick. “We’re screwing it up,” she says. “For 10 years I was up on my soapbox with beekeepers saying you have to back off these chemicals. You have to let this bee be a bee, because you’re making it a junkie,” she laughs. “And there was no movement on that. Not until bees started dying.”

Human beings and our patriarchal, self-interested, decision-making processes are altogether less democratic, efficient, and elegant than the female-centric hive mind. We’re sub-social and we consistently frustrate Spivak—who would not exclude herself from this judgment. When she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, “the genius grant” aspect was mortifying, she says. “I didn’t feel like I measured up to that assessment.” I ask if she has low self-esteem. “Yeah, it probably comes from battered woman syndrome.” She married a Peruvian on a trip to study Africanized bees in South America. “My parents always wanted me to marry a Jewish doctor,” she says. But her native skepticism got in the way of their plan. “I thought, ‘Where does it say that?’ ‘Who says?’ ‘Why?’” She felt doubly betrayed then when the husband she took a chance on started beating her—she finally had to take refuge in a Lawrence, Kansas, women’s shelter. “He was going to kill me.”

Spivak acknowledges that her toughness is a product of stubbornness. She has always done things her way and taken risks and ended up in some uncomfortable spots. The first time she worked with bees, moving them around that New Mexico farm at night, she could feel them crawling all over her—bees don’t fly at night—buzzing to the edge of her nerves. After graduating, she wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to a career with bees, so she worked on a commercial fishing boat for a year, even though she got seasick every time out.

It’s only recently that Spivak has learned to trust her intuition, to believe in her way of thinking through problems. Her newest research investigates propolis, the plant resin bees bring into the hive to ward off fatal illness. Spivak has published papers describing how the resin isn’t just a bee glue to keep the hive tight from the elements, but a medicine bees employ to strengthen their immune system and heal themselves—an anti-fungal antibiotic they use more of when the hive gets sick.

After years of frustration, she’s learned that behavior change takes a long time in human beings, and in that way this honeybee crisis may actually be a positive. “This is going to be a train wreck, and now people are catching on,” she says. “What did I think I was trying to do when I was out there in 1998 going, ‘Hey, what are you doing with all these chemicals?’ Did I think people were going to stop then?” Now she encourages all parties—commercial keepers, hippie hobby beekeepers, and everybody in between—to do their own thing: to try different techniques, experiment with fewer chemicals, try Russian bees, anything. It’s just more data. Colony collapse disorder, whatever it is, has encouraged us to try something new—or old—fast.

When I get home I go to a couple talks Spivak gives at the U of M. She’s fun to listen to—anthropomorphizing the bees in a way that makes it easy for a non-scientist to understand. At a hobby beekeeper seminar at the Bell Museum, she explains that Africanized bees got a terrible rap by the media in the ’70s and ’80s for being “killer bees,” because they react more strongly to the banana-scented pheromone released by a bee when it stings. Spivak explains to the crowd that Africanized bees—she did her PhD dissertation on them—are probably “just better at being bees” than the European imports American beekeepers work with. “In fact,” she says, “Africanized bees haven’t been having any of the modern problems that afflict their European bees.” They’re much harder for humans to keep, but it turns out they’re also harder for humans to harm. I call Spivak’s longtime colleague Jeff Pettis at the USDA bee research lab near Washington, D.C., to ask him a question that would mortify Spivak: What makes her so special anyway?

“Marla doesn’t listen to what the industry thinks she should be doing,” he says. “She’s done research she’s passionate about, and it pays off. And it’s been good for the industry and good for science.”

Spivak wants to build a new bee research center on the U of M’s St. Paul campus. Hers is a small department—she’s the only professor in it—but she sees the potential in giving bees a central role. “The bee center should be the gateway to the whole university. It should be a satellite of the Arboretum. And it should be landscaped for bees.” She thinks it could help connect in a very visual way all the things the U of M strives for. “Agriculture and medicine and food. A way to demonstrate through bees almost everything that’s happening on this campus.”

If bees are a looking glass into the future, than maybe there’s a different way to think about the future. “If we’re going to feed the planet and keep the earth at all healthy, then you have to move away from monoculture and towards diversified agriculture,” Spivak says. “And if you go there, you go right into bees.”

  • Senior writer Steve Marsh’s Q&A appears in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine each month. His work also can be found in Delta Air Lines’ Sky and at GQ.com and nymag.com.