Her Business is Bees

Questions for Marla Spivak

Entomologist Marla Spivak from the Apiculture and Social Insects, Department of Entomology, University of Minnesota is one of the 23 MacArthur Fellows of 2010. In accordance with the mission of the fellowship, her work on bees is of exceptional merit and promise as it researches bee diseases to conserve these natural pollinators from decline. Honey bees are an integral component of the agricultural fabric of the United States. They have been on a sharp decline due to the cumulative impacts of parasitic mites, viral and bacterial disease and pesticides. Spivak’s team has furthered the understanding of the various threats faced by bees today and has worked on studying genetically influenced behaviours that raise immunity and cleanse colonies of disease. They have also cultured a variety of bees called the ‘Minnesota Hygienic’ which offer a sustainable alternative to pesticides in fighting disease-carrying pathogens, including the Varroa mite, a highly destructive parasite that spreads rapidly through Western honey bee colonies.

What evoked your interest in bees?

I was an undergraduate at Prescott College in Arizona. I read a book about bees and decided I wanted to see the bees for myself. My adviser found a beekeeper in New Mexico, Jerry Cole, who allowed me to work for him for a semester, for credit.  I was hooked from there.

You mentioned in your video that you had some “unusual and creative” ideas to help bees and bee keepers. Please share some of these innovations.

I’m not ready to talk about these ideas, sorry.

One of your projects focuses on antimicrobial properties of propolis [1]in human and animal health. Please tell us how the study of bee immunity can contribute to scientists’ understanding of human health?

Propolis has many anti-microbial properties, mostly known for humans. Dr. Peterson from the University of Minnesota medical school found that propolis is active against human HIV (this is published — see my references on our web site:  www.extension.umn.edu/honeybees).  We are now developing methods to chemically fractionate propolis to find compounds that have specific activity against bee pathogens, including bee viruses. If we are able to uncover active compounds, we can then test them against human HIV virus.

Do you see a decline in use of bees as natural pollinators in the agriculture industry? If so, how do you envision your research changing the scenario?

No, in fact there is increasing demand for bee pollinators in agriculture, but declining numbers of bee colonies. Our work focuses on bee health, trying to keep bees healthy for honey production and pollination services.

What, according to you, is the single most fascinating and unique characteristic of honey bees?

Honey bees, as other social insects (ants, wasps, termites, and other social bees) have no central authority.  The colony functions as an organism –comprised of an assembly of individuals.  We study “social immunity” — behaviors and properties of individual bees that function to help the immune system at the colony-level.  In this case, through hygienic behavior, or through the collection of propolis, the individual bees are analogous to cells within the immune system of an organism in fighting off infection.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


[1] Propolis is a complex resin that honey bees collect from some trees, such as poplar and birch in temperate regions. Bees collect the propolis on their hind legs and deposit it in the nest as a form of cement or caulk to seal cracks and to line the nest entrance and cavity. Propolis is widely known for its diverse antimicrobial properties and its value as a human medicine. Few studies have investigated the antimicrobial benefits of propolis to bees.http://www.extension.umn.edu/honeybees/components/projects.htm

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