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.”