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.

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.