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‘Genius grant’ to University of Minnesota entomologist: Bees are winners, too

There is something so cool about seeing a “genius grant” go to a scientist who focuses on honeybees — the literal worker bees who get less notice than they deserve for their considerable role in bringing food to our tables.

Of course, the bees themselves didn’t win one of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grants this week. University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak did that. And she was selected for her creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future.

MacArthur President Robert Gallucci described the grant recipients as “explorers and risk takers, contributing to their fields and to society in innovative, impactful ways.”

Still, the award says something about the importance of research on the common honeybee. It places Spivak’s work in a league with scientific endeavors more typically recognized by major award programs. The other scientists among this year’s MacArthur grant winners include a biophysicist, a population geneticist, an anthropologist, a quantum astrophysicist, a marine biologist and an optical physicist.

Bee biology stands out in that lineup as something particularly practical and accessible to non scientists.

In terms of human inquiry, it likely predates those other fields by a long time span.

Rock art in Africa, the Middle East and Asia shows that the earliest human civilizations had mastered honey hunting skills, Tammy Horn, author of “Bees in America,” said in a New York Times blog.

After the Roman Empire dissolved in about 400 A.D., Christian monasteries and convents preserved beekeeping skills that had developed over the centuries. With the Enlightenment came a more scientific focus on the honey bee.

So important were the bees to basic food supplies that European settlers carried their bee colonies and beekeeping skills to the Americans, Australia and other places around the globe.

It’s no wonder. honey bees pollinate everything from the onion to the soybean. If ever you see one in your apple tree or pumpkin patch, thank it for the bounty you harvest. All told, they pollinate about one-third of our food crops and also contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

An abundance of bees in the Upper Midwest has made the region the top honey producer in the United States. As such, it also has made the region particularly vulnerable to diseases and pests that have attacked bees.

Disappearing at alarming rates

Until recently, much of the research with the bees had focused on their fascinating social orders and the various ways they could be coaxed into stepping up the turnover in their pollen baskets as well as the volume in their honey stashes.

Spivak’s focus has been the health of the bees. They had been disappearing at alarming rates due to the accumulated effects of parasitic mites, viral and bacterial diseases and exposure to pesticides, MacArthur noted.

To mitigate these threats, Spivak probed the genetic factors that explained why some colonies resisted diseases that were causing other whole colonies of bees to collapse.

It turns out that — like humans with their hand washing — hygiene was a key for bee survival. Certain strains of bees were better at detecting diseases in time to do something about it, to spot infections at a quiescent stage in the metamorphosis of the bees and clean the infected elements from their hives.

Armed with that discovery and other findings, Spivak bred a “Minnesota Hygienic” line of bees. Not only were they better equipped to withstand disease and pests such as the highly destructive Varroa mite — but also, they curbed the need for chemical pesticides.

Many scientists stop with the discoveries they achieve in their labs, leaving it to others to translate their research into practical benefits and to spread those benefits where they are needed.

Spivak didn’t stop though. She translated her scientific findings into accessible presentations, publications, and workshops. Eventually, she led beekeepers throughout the United States to establish local breeding programs that increase the frequency of hygienic traits in the general bee population.

Among other outreach efforts, Spivak leads the U of M’s Bee Lab, which provides research and education to professional and amateur beekeepers.

She also stood out as a teacher at the U of M’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences. In 2009, she was named a Distinguished McKnight Professor, an honor reserved for the highest-achieving faculty.

Meanwhile, Spivak has turned her research toward the potential to improve bee health by learning whether some of the resins bees collect from plants might help fight destructive microbes.

Now, Spivak will have a $500,000 “genius grant” to further that research. If she wishes, that is. The MacArthur grants come with no strings attached.

Whatever she does with the grant, the bees already have been winners too.

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