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University of Minnesota bee researcher Marla Spivak receives "genius grant" from MacArthur Foundation

Prestigious award comes with $500,000 grant

September 28, 2010

University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak has been named one of 23 recipients of this year's "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Spivak, a nationally and internationally respected expert on honeybees' health, is developing practical applications to protect honeybee populations from decimation by disease while making fundamental contributions to our understanding of bee biology.

"This is significant recognition for a truly distinguished member of our faculty," said Provost Tom Sullivan.  "This is only the second time in University of Minnesota history that one of our faculty has won this award.  We congratulate Professor Spivak and her outstanding portfolio of research."

Spivak and the other fellows all were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future. As a new MacArthur Fellow for 2010, Spivak will receive a $500,000 "no strings attached" grant. MacArthur Fellowships come without stipulations and reporting requirements and offer fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore. The unusual level of independence afforded to Fellows underscores the spirit of freedom intrinsic to creative endeavors. The work of MacArthur Fellows knows neither boundaries nor the constraints of age, place, and endeavor, according to the foundation.

"This group of Fellows, along with the more than 800 who have come before, reflects the tremendous breadth of creativity among us," said MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. "They are explorers and risk takers, contributing to their fields and to society in innovative, impactful ways. They provide us all with inspiration and hope for the future."

Spivak, who has been a member of the U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences' department of entomology faculty since 1993, has been honored numerous times for her teaching work as well. In 2009 she was named a Distinguished McKnight Professor, an honor the University of Minnesota reserves for its highest-achieving faculty who recently have attained full professor status.

Spivak's research
Essential to healthy ecosystems and to the agricultural industry as pollinators of a third of the United States' food supply, honeybees 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 hive -- 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.

In addition to her research, Spivak leads the university's Bee Lab, which provides research and education to professional and amateur beekeepers. The university's bee research and outreach program, which has been operating since 1918, is the only one of its kind in the Upper Midwest, the top honey-producing region in the United States.
 

Spivak bees 300
University of Minnesota researcher Marla Spivak, a nationally and internationally respected expert on honeybees' health, is developing practical applications to protect honey bee populations from decimation by disease while making fundamental contributions to our understanding of bee biology.

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