Talking Bees With Dr. Marla Spivak

On September 22, 2016, we had the honor of listening to Dr. Marla Spivak from the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab speak at Science Salon held at the Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul. Her presentation, "Protecting our Pollinators," comes at a time in which news about the poor state of our pollinator populations continues to grow. Dr. Spivak, her colleague,s and her students, are investigating the issues that have been plaguing our honey and native bees, as well as potential solutions. She shared this work with us at Science Salon.


Our bees are dying, far above acceptable levels. Acceptable levels are losses that bee populations can rebound from to maintain a healthy number. Currently we are losing bees at double the acceptable level. These losses can be attributed to multiple problems: viruses, parasites, pathogens, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and a lack of food. 

Dr. Spivak said the research indicates lack of food seems to be the biggest concern, with the rest of the issues compounding that problem. She recommends that improving food access for bees should be a primary focus right now. Bees aren’t particularly picky — if there is nectar and pollen available, they are pretty happy. The problem is, she said, humans have created an environment full of monocultures. Our suburbs are full of Kentucky Blue Grass lawns, which provides no food. We treat our lawns for “weeds,” which eliminate small food sources. Our agricultural system is the same; we have fields upon fields of one crop, which provides food when it is flowering, but then it becomes a food desert. 


Having a landscape that is continually in bloom with a diversity of flowering sources for bees has proven to greatly improve the health and survival of bee colonies. Both the pollen and nectar have proteins and lipids that increase immunity to disease and viruses, as well as help bees detox from pesticides. In other words, having a good diet allows bees to combat more effectively the other problems we are seeing in our bee populations. 

What can we do? How can we help? Dr. Spivak says the solution is pretty easy: plant more flowers and avoid pesticides/ herbicides/ fungicides. And when you do plant flowers, watch what the pollinators are visiting. If you notice that they visit some plants more than others, plant more of those plants next year. 

Need helpful hints on what to start with? Bees love mints and clovers. And Dr. Spivak reminds us to not forget the trees. Cottonwoods can be especially important for the production of propolis — a resin that has antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, and waterproofing properties.


What is Dr. Spivak’s team working on? They are studying what plants bees seem to really like — by translating the communication among sister bees that share information on where good food can be found. 

They have also been doing research on seed mixtures; what types of plants are the best and what kinds of mixtures we could be using in our lawns. 

There is much more work they are doing in their new center at the University of Minnesota, and at the visitor-friendly Pollinator Discovery Center at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Learn more at: 

-- Ashley Smith, Minnesota Academy of Science


What is Science Salon? 

The Minnesota Academy of Science works to bring scientists from different disciplines together. Science Salon is a forum for professional scientists and engineers to stay current on groundbreaking research and emerging technologies, engage in cross-disciplinary networking, and participate in philanthropic activities. At the Science Salon, attendees meet with the Board of Directors of MAS, network with scientists from different disciplines, and attend lectures from renowned researchers.

Learn more about other Salons here.