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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.

 

“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.

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