Honey Bee Social Immunity with Dr. Marla Spivak

Dr. Marla Spivak (2016 Conservation Awardee), 2010 MacArthur Fellow and Distinguished McKnight Professor in Entomology at the University of Minnesota, is a leading entomologist in the movement to protect and enhance the health and diversity of the world’s declining honey bee population. Essential to healthy ecosystems and to the agricultural industry as pollinators of a third of the US food supply, honey bees have been disappearing at alarming rates in recent years due to the accumulated effects of parasitic mites, viral and bacterial diseases, and exposure to pesticides. Dr. Spivak leads the University’s Spivak Honey Bee Lab, where the primary research focus is on honey bees, ranging from basic studies on mechanisms of social immunity and behavior, to applied studies on bee breeding and management.

Please join us on Sunday June 25th from 4-6pm for an exciting Explorer Talk in Minneapolis, MN, with Dr. Spivak, who will share stories of scientific innovation and discovery, drawing on her research, which includes studies of the benefits of propolis (tree resins) to the health and immune system of honey bees; the identification and biological activity of honey bee collected resins; the development of “bee lawns”—pollinator habitat in urban landscapes; the use of native forbs by honey bees through identification of collected pollen and decoding bees’ dance language; the health of commercial honey bee colonies and the evaluation of queens’ breeders efforts to select stocks for resistance to diseases and mite pests; novel methods to control Varroa mites in honey bee colonies; and surveys of native bees in Minnesota.

WINGS: You were a WINGS Woman of Discovery in 2016. Tell us about the work you have been doing in the seven years since you received your award.

DR. MARLA SPIVAK: I have continued to work on honey bee “social immunity” – or the health care system of honey bees.  The basic question is how a very densely packed society, such as honey bees (or ants, or termites) prevent disease and parasite transmission within the nest.  Unlike humans (who can social distance and mask, e.g., for COVID), social insects have to use other behaviors to stay healthy.  We have been investigating the benefits of tree resins, called propolis, as preventative care / medicine for honey bees.  We also study the role of hygienic behavior, or the removal of infected individuals from the nest, as a second phase of health care.  Finally, we are breeding honey bee colonies that display these and other behaviors with the goal of propagating colonies that are resistant to parasites and diseases.  We are starting to see success!

WINGS: In 2016 you said, “women are starting to dominate the life sciences.” Do you think that momentum has continued?

DR. MARLA SPIVAK: Yes, I do think so. And now there is more momentum to increase diversity in general in higher education, which is really heartening and long overdue. 

WINGS: What advice do you have for young women that want to pursue a career in STEM?

DR. MARLA SPIVAK: Trust your instincts, and find an ally or mentor that believes in your potential. 

WINGS: How can each of us help pollinator conservation?

DR. MARLA SPIVAK: The path forward remains the same:  Plant a diversity of flowers, preferably native, that bloom at different times over the growing season, and keep these flowers free of pesticide contamination.  These native flowers will provide food and nesting sites for bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.  With their long root systems, these flowers will help prevent soil erosion, which then improves water quality. Finally, having perennial plants in the ground helps sequester carbon, mitigating climate change.  

WINGS: What has being a WINGS Fellow meant to you?

DR. MARLA SPIVAK: I have never considered my work, my research, to be about me.  I study how honey bees use their natural health care system, called social immunity, to ward off pests and pathogens in order to stay vibrant and healthy. Usually, my mind is buried deep inside a beehive, so when I was awarded a WINGS fellowship, I’ll admit I was surprised.  It is a great honor, and humbling, to be included among a group of amazing women explorers and scientists.  

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