An Interview with Dr. Marla Spivak PhD

Dr. Marla Spivak PhD

University of Minnesota

By: John Miller

Bee Culture Magazine tasked contributors to interview a person in our industry.

I have long admired Dr. Marla Spivak Ph.D. of the University of Minnesota.

In the early 1990’s Dr. Spivak filled the position formerly held by Dr. Basil Furgala in the Department of Entomology at the UMN Bee Lab. Dr. Spivak poured her considerable energy into the program and the personnel in the program. Dr. Spivak originated the Hygienic bee line. In 2010, Marla was recognized in Entomology by the Macarthur Fellow Program, and in 2016 the new Bee Research facility opened, which allowed her and Professor Dan Cariveau to expand their research and outreach to include native bees and the flowering landscapes that all bees need to thrive.

Dr. Spivak’s work has produced an astonishing number of bee industry scientists and contributors, including Rebecca Masterman, PhD.; Dr. Katie Lee, PhD.; Mike Simone-Finstrom PhD [USDA Baton Rouge]; Mike Gobrilisch, PhD. [USDA-Mississippi]; Judy Wu-Smart PhD. [U. Nebraska]; Autumn Smart, PhD. [U. Nebraska]; Renata Borba, PhD. [Alberta, CA Tech Team]; Jodi Lepsch, Chippewa Valley Technical College [beekeeping]; Hollie Wall Dalenberg, [Masters program]; Marla’s current students are Katie Klett and Maggie Shanahan [both PhD.’s] and The Bee Informed Partnership personnel: Phoebe Koenig, Garrett Slater, Nelson Williams, and Ben Sallmann.

Below, excerpts from our interview:

JM: Lots of people are interested in improved [bee] genetics. I understand you are making another push for an improved line of bees. Can you share some insights?
MS: I am selecting for colonies that survive with no treatments, and then investigating the behaviors and genetics of the parent colonies of the survivors to understand the genetic and behavioral mechanisms and reasons for their survival. The work is at the UMN Ag Experiment station property, near Rosemount, MN.

JM: Who was the person most influential in your decision to work with bees?
MS: I think Martha Gilliam and Steve Taber III really encouraged me to pursue bee research, rather than just beekeeping.

JM: When did you know you’d become Marla Spivak, PhD.?
MS: The day I presented my thesis defense, in May, 1989 — and actually passed — was the day I finally believed I would actually get a PhD. I began grad school in 1981; I was married at the time had a baby in July the next year. My point is, it took me a little longer than usual to complete a PhD, as I became a single parent in 1984, then moved to Costa Rica for two years to complete my PhD research on Africanized honey bees [ecology and identification]. My PhD journey was a long one, and I wasn’t sure I would finally be a PhD until the committee said I passed. [My son came to my thesis defense and held up a sign from the back of the room that said, ‘I’m bored’. Sigh…]

MS: The biggest challenge in beekeeping since 1980 are Varroa destructor mites and viruses, for sure. It’s hard to keep colonies alive now.

JM: What is the most important un-answered question in beekeeping?
MS: How can we wean the bees off of so many mite treatments and still have them thrive?

JM: Industry icon Liz Venoski was fond of placing one of Marla’s quotes on her mementos: “Bees teach us how tso be better stewards of the earth.”
MS: Yes

JM: Seems to me we don’t very often learn from bees; imposing our ignorance of bees on bees.
MS: I agree.

JM: What three things must we learn in the next five years to stay in business?
MS: I think commercial beekeepers may need to learn to diversify their income sources in case a catastrophe happens in the almond orchards (e.g., lack of water, almond disease). And commercial beekeepers may need to dedicate someone on their crew to taking mite samples regularly so they can keep on top of the mites. Finally, hobby beekeepers (who don’t keep bees as a business), may need to think hard about the reasons they are keeping bees and make sure their bees are not contributing to the transmission of bee diseases and viruses.

JM: Your front yard on Otis Street is legendary. Can you describe the seed mix?
MS: About six years ago, I burned off the front lawn, and planted it to prairie. The first seeding came from a company called Prairie Restoration. It was a mixture of native perennial flowers and grasses. After that, I added in plugs from native plant nurseries.

JM: Care to elaborate on how your neighbors received and later embraced Marla?
MS: At first I received citations from the city of St. Paul to mow it down. Then I put up a sign that says: “Pollinator Habitat” to make sure people understood it is a project, not a neglected weed patch. Now people stop and smile…

JM: Did you get the Covid shots? Will you get the booster?
MS: Yes, got the Covid shots and if approved, I will get the booster, but I also really want vaccines sent all over the world.

JM: What is the Marla legacy you hope endures?
MS: One of my former students, Joel Gardner, named a sweat bee after me: Lasioglossum spivakae. I hope that bee lives forever.