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Marla Spivak: Winnovating Bee Health

Posted on Nov 25, 2013 by in Science |

Marla Spivak

What’s all the buzz about bees?

Don’t bee afraid. I’m very sweet.

Not only are bees essential for healthy ecosystems, they are also vital for human food security. More than 1/3 of the world’s food production depends upon these busy little creatures. While bees are flying from flower to flower to eat, they are unintentionally providing a valuable service to us humans – pollinating our food crops (and making delicious honey).

I’ve learned about food security in my global health classes and at work where we have a strategy group on the issue. But so far, I’ve never heard people in the global health and development world bring up bees in relation to food security. (Looks like there is a definite need to cross-pollinate knowledge.)

Of the 20,000 species of bees in the world, honeybees are particularly fascinating. They have remarkable health behaviors that have allowed them to thrive for over 50 million years!

About 7 years ago, however, there was an alarming drop in the population of bees worldwide. That means something was dead wrong. How could such an incredibly resilient and intelligent species suddenly start dropping like flies?

Dr. Marla Spivak is an entomologist (the Latin-derived title for a scientist who studies insects), who studies bee health in order to preserve these vital insects. Spivak caught the bug for bee research as a teenager. She picked up a book on bees from her local library and was awestruck by how bees are such highly social and complex creatures.

Spivak investigates the genetically influenced hygienic behavior of bees, their system of social healthcare (seriously!), and social immunity. Her studies have enabled her to breed more disease resistant strains of bees and to establish local breeding programs that increase the frequency of hygienic traits in the general bee population.

What I find compelling about Spivak and her research is that she seems like a medical anthropologist – but for bees. Spivak studies the culture of bees and tracks their behaviors. Her research speaks to me on multiple levels. My forefathers were agriculturalists and health care professionals. Food security, as I mentioned, is a major global health issue today and it is intimately connected to bee health. Most of all, though, I find her approach to be incredibly insightful and innovative.

In her talk at TEDGlobal 2013, Spivak reveals 4 interrelated and compounding reasons for bees’ endangerment. Bottom line: we need bees and now they need our help. So how can you help? Plant flowers and keep them free of pesticides.

But can it be that simple?

As Dr. Spivak says,

“Every one of us needs to behave a little bit more like a bee society… where each of our individual actions can contribute to a grand solution, an emergent property, that’s much greater than the mere sum of our individual actions.”

Dr. Marla Spivak is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Entomology at the University of Minnesota and a 2010 MacArthur Fellow. She is the author and creator of numerous beekeeping manuals and videos, and her scientific articles have appeared in such journals as the Journal of Neurobiology (now Developmental Neurobiology), Evolution, Apidologie, and Animal Behavior.

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Firdaus Arastu graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Anthropology and Psychology and currently works on global health and development policies at the Aspen Institute. In her spare time, she enjoys watching historical dramas, baking, and reading web comics. She aspires to be a Renaissance woman and a public intellectual. Follow her @Firdalish and read more of her writing on