Marla Spivak is an entomologist who is developing practical applications to protect honey bee populations from decimation by disease while making fundamental contributions to our understanding of bee biology. Essential to healthy ecosystems and to the agricultural industry as pollinators of a third of the United States’ 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. To mitigate these threats, Spivak’s research focuses on genetically influenced behaviors that confer disease resistance to entire colonies through the social interactions of thousands of workers. Her studies of hygienic behavior—the ability of certain strains of bees to detect and remove infected pupae from their hives—have enabled her to breed more disease-resistant strains of bees for use throughout the beekeeping industry. Spivak’s “Minnesota Hygienic” line of bees offers an effective and more sustainable alternative to chemical pesticides in fighting a range of pests and pathogens, including the Varroa mite, a highly destructive parasite that spreads rapidly through Western honey bee colonies.
By translating her scientific findings into accessible presentations, publications, and workshops, she is leading beekeepers throughout the United States to establish local breeding programs that increase the frequency of hygienic traits in the general bee population. With additional investigations into the antimicrobial effects of bee-collected plant resins under way, Spivak continues to explore additional methods for limiting disease transmission and improving the health of one of the world’s most important pollinators.
Marla Spivak received a B.A. (1978) from Humboldt State University and a Ph.D. (1989) from the University of Kansas. She has been affiliated with the University of Minnesota since 1993, where she is currently Distinguished McKnight Professor in the Department of Entomology. 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.