Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Bee Queen

By Robyn Dochterman

Sunny weather puts honeybees in a good mood, and researcher Marla Spivak seems to be in one as well as she prepares to visit the bees. She slips off her black clogs and laces up the purple canvas high-tops she keeps in her locker at the bee lab. Next she reaches for a helmet draped with a veil of fine nylon netting and secures it so it covers her face and neck. White coveralls hang untouched on the cinderblock wall, and Spivak doesn’t even look at the elbow-length leather gloves nearby.

Both the suit and gloves are de rigueur protection for beekeepers. But after 32 years of working with bees the University of Minnesota entomologist is not afraid of being stung, though she knows she almost certainly will be; the painful pricks are an everyday hazard of her work. “Ten stings a day is OK,” Spivak says. “Twenty stings is a lot.”

Hollering distance from Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues on the St. Paul campus, the apiary, or bee yard, contains about 30 colonies of honeybees. Tucked just out of sight of speeding cars and strolling pedestrians, its busy residents make honey and pollinate residential flowers in relative obscurity.

“Many people don’t even know the bee yard is here,” Spivak says, nodding to a nearby field where Gopher soccer players practice corner kicks and thigh traps. The bees and the bee yard have a low profile on campus, but Spivak has just the opposite stature in the apiarian field. She’s leading an epic fight against bee diseases and a tiny parasite that is wreaking havoc on honeybees and the crops they pollinate.

Once known primarily for honey, bees have gained cachet for their larger contribution to agriculture: pollination. As they buzz from bloom to bloom collecting nectar for honey, bees become dusted with tiny grains of pollen from male flowers, which they distribute to nearby female flowers, fertilizing them. In California, almond growers depend on bees to pollinate their half-million acres of orchards, paying beekeepers to truck their hives to the orchards from all over the United States. Some apple, cranberry, and blueberry growers do the same. But during the winter of 2004–05, almost half the honeybees in the country died, jeopardizing the almond crop.

The primary culprit was a mite called varroa destructor. The parasite catches a ride on bees and feeds on them, much like a tick takes its meals from a deer or dog. If enough mites get a foothold in a hive, they weaken the entire colony to the point of collapse. For years, beekeepers kept the mites in check using pesticides and antibiotics. While chemicals control 95 percent of the mites, those that survive develop resistance, eventually resulting in a thuggish mite population impervious to chemicals.

Spivak’s work breeding bees that can better protect themselves against the perils of disease and mites may prove imperative to the future of beekeeping. Some honeybees can sense when immature bees have been besieged by problems and remove the diseased or mite-riddled larvae from the hive, literally throwing them out the door. The hives that are best at this are known as “hygienic” and are healthier than hives that aren’t so good at it. Spivak began selecting for this trait as she bred bees. Called “Minnesota Hygienic” (because it was developed at the University) her line of honeybees capitalizes on naturally occurring strengths.
“My hope is we can help bees defend themselves so they don’t require as much chemical treatment,” says Spivak, who views the bee situation as emblematic of a larger agricultural dependence on chemicals. “In my mind, that’s the most important thing, so we can get the bees off the chemical treadmill and back on their own six feet.”

On her way way to the apiary to check the health of one of the queens, Spivak starts to smolder wood shavings in a metal can. Soon, a ribbon of smoke pours out of the spout and she heads into the grassy yard filled with beehives. If the queen and her colony of workers are doing well, Spivak will continue to breed from her line. If things don’t look top-notch, she’ll try other queens.

The hive sits in a small circle with other colonies. Each consists of a stack of three pastel wood boxes. Amber-colored bees return from foraging flights, their hind legs dotted with bright yellow or orange pollen collected from neighborhood flora. They land at the hive entrance and then disappear inside. The vibrating wings of nearly a million bees in motion fill the yard with a sonorous hum.

Spivak lifts the cover and peers down into the hive. Thousands of insects move in different directions at once, like the swarms of people at the State Fair. They crawl over wooden frames in the box. They crawl over each other. A few crawl on the scientist’s blue jeans. Spivak is indifferent to their presence there.

She puffs smoke from the can into the hive to calm the bees and encourage them to move deeper inside. Spivak uses a small pry bar to loosen the frames from the edges of the box and slowly lifts out a frame, scanning it for the queen. The bees have built a waxy comb stretching from one side of the frame to the other and now cover almost every hexagonal cell of the comb. What looks like chaos is, in fact, an intricately choreographed routine of bee roles and responsibilities.

Some cells of the comb contain eggs so tiny they make a grain of rice seem super-sized. Because the queen is the only bee that lays eggs—up to 2,000 a day—Spivak immediately knows she’s alive and busy, but she wants to see the queen to judge her fitness.

In other cells, a shift of nurse bees is busy feeding small, comma-shaped larvae. As Spivak slowly turns the frame, a new drone, one of the few male bees in the colony, emerges from a cell and looks around. Still other bees guard the entrance to the hive to protect against predators. The field bees returning with pollen are the oldest in the hive and have already completed stints as attendants, nurses, or guards.

How hives manage such extensive coordination among thousands of individuals is still mostly a mystery, Spivak says. It’s one of the things she finds especially fascinating about her subjects. “I like looking at how the behaviors of the individual work in a hive,” she says. “No one bee is in charge. The queen doesn’t tell them what to do. There’s no central authority. None of the bees has the big picture. And yet, they just do.”

Spivak has been fascinated by honeybees since she came across a book about them while attending Prescott College in Arizona. “I stayed up all night reading it,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe that some insects were social and that some people interacted with their bee colonies like pets. I drove everyone crazy until I could see a bee colony.”

She soon went to work for a commercial beekeeper and then completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Humboldt State in California. After graduating, she traveled extensively in South America to sight-see and visit beekeepers. While in Peru, she fell ill and was hospitalized briefly. Her doctor was a beekeeper, she discovered, and she recuperated while taking care of bees on his property. Spivak continued her education at the University of Kansas, where she earned a Ph.D. in entomology and spent two years investigating Africanized bees in Costa Rica. While she was doing post-doctorate research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Lab in Tucson, Arizona, she saw an opening for an apiculture position at Minnesota.

David Ellingson of Ortonville, Minnesota, was among a group of honey producers who interviewed Spivak for the job. It was 1993, and mites had been gaining ground since 1987. The group quizzed Spivak about her view of the situation and ideas that might help them in their commercial operations. Ellingson, who has 3,000 hives near South Dakota and is the president of the 1,200-member American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), was impressed with her foresight. “She looked at the whole picture and she had this vision of something that would work,” Ellingson says. “Marla said the [mites’] resistance would build up. Boom! Just like that, it happened.” Now an associate professor in the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, Spivak has provided hygienic bees to some beekeepers so they could see the strength of the line for themselves.

One reason for giving away queens is that “beekeepers are hands-on people,” Spivak says. “If they see it, they will believe it and then adopt it.” Ellingson, among the first to try the new line, did just that. With hygienic bees in his hives, he was able to reduce the miticides he used. He has become one of the most vocal proponents of Spivak’s line, which is now available to all beekeepers through a commercial distributor. What’s at stake for him is his livelihood. For the public, the stakes might be even greater.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture credits bees for involvement in nearly a third of all the food Americans eat. That adds up to $15 billion a year in food products, according to the ABF. Native bees do their share of pollinating, too, but since the 1600s, when honeybees were imported to North America from Europe, they have been the easiest to manage, and one of the few to sweeten the deal with honey.

Without sufficient bees to pollinate produce, the quantity and quality of avocados, blueberries, cotton, cranberries, cucumbers, hay, nuts, oranges, pumpkins, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, pumpkins, and watermelons all suffer. Even milk is affected, since many cows eat alfalfa, which bees also pollinate. Poorly pollinated plants—in which not enough ovules received pollen grains—bear fruit that is misshapen and less sweet and that has fewer seeds.

In early 2005, when almond farmers discovered that only half the usual number of bees were available to pollinate their crop, they doubled the price per hive they paid beekeepers in hopes of luring more of them to California. Some of those bees were already engaged in other pollination jobs. “The beekeepers pulled the bees off alfalfa,” says Ellingson, one of several Minnesotans who truck their colonies west each year. “So if you don’t see alfalfa sprouts in your salad, it’s because there weren’t enough bees.”

The queen is not on any of the frames in the top box, so Spivak lifts it off the stack to get to the one below it. The elusive queen is not on any of the frames in the second box, so she sets that aside, too, and begins to look through the third and final box. “Some queens are like this,” Spivak says. “They run and hide.” She moves the 60-pound boxes smoothly. At 5-foot-6, her size belies her strength.

Whenever she speaks to an audience about her research, Spivak begins by projecting a photo of herself in the bee yard. She began adding this element to her presentation after speaking to beekeepers not long after she received her Ph.D. “I noticed everyone’s glazed eyes when I was done,” Spivak says. “Finally one gentleman stood up and very politely asked, ‘How does a little thing like you lift those honey supers [boxes] anyway?’ I realized they didn’t hear—and didn’t understand—my words because they couldn’t make the connection between me on the podium and me in the bee yard. I found it to be a genuine question, and funny, and I learned from it.”
It’s that kind of response that has helped Spivak build rapport with Minnesota beekeepers, says University entomologist Gary Reuter (B.S. ’75), who has worked with her for 12 years. “They really respect her,” Reuter says. “She’s earned their respect. They can tell she knows what she’s talking about.”

They respect her because she takes the time to understand their concerns. Beekeepers are driven by economics and ritual—what they learned about beekeeping from their parents and grandparents, Spivak says. “I just have to encourage them to see that bees bred for resistance produce as much honey and don’t require as much chemical input— and let the beekeepers make up their own minds.” Spivak’s work is becoming known worldwide, and Minnesota Hygienic bees are starting to make a difference for beekeepers all over the country.

The sun is high, heating up the bee yard, as Spivak searches for the elusive queen bee. There! On one of the very last frames. The queen is marked with a yellow dot and the code “85C” on its back, but its long abdomen would have made it stand out, even without the dot. No other bee in the hive looks like 85C. Spivak recognizes it as one of the bees she tagged after insemination in August 2004.

Each year, Spivak selects the daughters of the queens with the strongest hygienic traits and breeds them to continue and strengthen the line. During the summer, Spivak, Reuter, and their students collect drones from the hives and gather their sperm in a syringe. Then they anesthetize unmated queens. Spivak gets out her headphones, puts on some rock music or singer Cesaria Evora, and begins inseminating the queens under the bright light of a microscope.
Now, nine months later, 85C has laid an even pattern of eggs with few empty cells between them. One clear indicator of a thriving queen, that quality pattern was just what Spivak hoped to see. Not so far down the line, daughters or descendents of this hygienic queen could end up helping bees everywhere fight off hive hazards and stay healthy. The queen might have been elusive, but she is strong.

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Robyn Dochterman is interactive editor for She lives in Scandia, Minnesota.

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