For Dr. Marla Spivak, bees are anything but a bother. Her interest in the insects was sparked at the age of 18 when, bored and looking for something to read, she picked up a library book about bees and beekeepers. Very quickly, she wanted to learn more. She found the stories about the bees to be, she says, the “best of science fiction come true.” She was equally fascinated by the “beekeepers who love their bees like family” – so much so that in 1975 she went to work for a commercial beekeeper. She has since dedicated her life to studying bees, earning her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 1989 where she focused on honeybees in Costa Rica. In recent years, she has been fascinated by the social behavior and healthcare systems of bees. That’s right, it’s possible honeybees have a better and more natural healthcare system than we do!
As a leader of the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, Dr. Spivak works with an entire “bee squad” so that we may learn about the lives of bees and how to support them. I recently spoke with Dr. Spivak about her research and the goals of the lab. She explained, “The main focus of my work is figuring out ways bees can help themselves. I'm interested in their ‘social immunity’ or health care – how they take care of themselves.” The lab also researches environmental factors impacting bee health, she noted. “Since 2009, we have been studying the benefits of propolis (plant resins) to bee health, the effects of agricultural landscapes on the health of honeybee colonies and on native bee diversity and abundance, and the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on honeybee and bumble bee health. Current students are studying how to enhance floral landscapes to improve the nutrition and health for bees.”
Given that more than 1/3 of the crops produced around the world depend on pollination, humans are dependent on these busy bees. Bees seek pollen because they need to eat, and their meals ensure that we, in turn, have produce for our tables. The work that Spivak and her colleagues do, then, is serious bee business – especially as we face a crisis of disappearing bee populations.
In her outstanding TED talk (which has been viewed more than 2 million times), Spivak explains that 20,000 different species of bees have been buzzing on earth for about 50 million years. But several years ago reports began circulating that bees were disappearing. In fact, since 1945, the number of honeybee hives in the United States has dropped from 4.5 million to 2 million. Another report suggests 44% of US honeybees were lost from 2015 to 2016. Why is this happening?
In her talk, Spivak details how bees are “dying from multiple and interacting causes,” describing four factors at play. First, there are fewer flowers available for bee pollination, which leads to a “dysfunctional food system” for bees. Farmers in the United States, for example, no longer plant “cover crops,” such as clover and alfalfa, which naturally fertilize crops and provide food for bees. Instead, large farms began using synthetic fertilizers, reducing the amount of naturally flowering crops available for bees.
Second, crop and flower cultivators began using chemical pesticides, which are deadly to bee populations. Even if the chemicals don’t kill bees, they can disorient them to the extent that they are unable to find their way back to their colonies. Third, farmers began reducing the variety of crops that are planted on each farm. These “monocultures” also lead to the use of additional pesticides because they are highly vulnerable to pests. Ultimately, these activities – fewer cover crops, the use of chemical pesticides, and the lack of diversity among crops have created “agricultural food deserts” for bees.
Finally, parasites and viruses are a threat to bee health, and make it even more difficult for bees to access their sources of food given the distances they must travel from monoculture to monoculture in search of a landscape full of flowers ripe for pollination.
These human actions and the resulting decline in bee populations have caused what Spivak calls a “big bee bummer.” But there is hope, she says. All of us have a role to play in addressing the problem and fixing the bee bummer by planting bee-friendly flowers and avoiding the use of pesticides, while farmers can also help by reinstating the use of cover crops such as clover and alfalfa and diversifying their farms.
When asked if she considers herself a bee advocate, Spivak explains that it’s about more than just bees:
My goal is to help bees. I do research on bees, and have been asked to speak about my research and my thoughts, basically on the bees' behalf. I think it is important to find one thing that everyone can do to help bees, because by helping bees we end up working on much larger issues about food, land use, soil and water quality, and conservation. It is too much to think about and take action on all those bigger issues. Planting flowers moves us toward them in a simple and effective way.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in addition to her work with bees, Spivak is an avid gardener (in her spare time, she also enjoys bicycling, walking, and practicing Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art). Perhaps we should all join her in our respective gardens and global commons to make the world a more bee-friendly place. Spivak reiterates, “When bees have access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition through their pollination services.” While we may think of them as pests, our own health and wellbeing depends on the health and wellbeing of bees. So plant your flowers this spring and welcome the gentle hum of bees – and a healthier planet for all.