Summer 2018
Cover Story

Bee love


When Dan Cariveau began studying bees about a decade ago, the first question people would ask was, “How often do you get stung?” 

Today, he says, the line of questioning has shifted to whether bees are declining, what kind of habitat they need, and how we can help them. 

Cariveau, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and a researcher at the U’s Bee Lab, sees the change in public perception as a positive sign that people are realizing how important and fascinating bees are. “There are about 20,000 known species of bees on earth, and they all have these wonderful stories,” he says.


This surge in public interest and concern came at just the right time for the new U of M Bee Lab, which opened in September 2016. Marla Spivak, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Entomology, had been doing honey bee research in two facilities: a lab in the Department of Entomology (of which the Bee Lab is part) and a small garage on the St. Paul campus, where the new Bell Museum now stands. Plans to build the museum meant she’d need to move the garage lab. But building a larger, more modern facility required funding. The Minnesota Legislature approved $4.2 million of the $6.4 million cost for new space, and the University agreed to raise the rest.

At the same time, headlines about honey bees’ declining health were everywhere, and concerned homeowners and businesses wanted to help. In 2011, Spivak and colleague Becky Masterman created an Extension outreach program called the Bee Squad to help educate backyard beekeepers. One of the program’s services, Hive to Bottle, placed beehives in backyards, the grounds of corporate headquarters, and other locations such as golf courses and museums, then maintained those hives and bottled the honey for a yearly fee of about $800 to $1,000. 

“The people who were getting this service fell in love with their hives, and they started donating,” Spivak recalls. “That’s how we raised the money—it was because of the public awareness of bees and pollinators and all this backyard beekeeping.”


A far cry from Spivak’s previous space, the 10,500-square-foot Bee Lab now includes offices for researchers, a food-grade honey extraction room, a research lab, and space for building hives and storing materials. Outside, the buzzing is audible in two apiaries containing dozens of research and teaching hives, and a flower garden full of native plants provides a brightly colored buffet for honey bees, native bees, and other pollinators.

The benefits of awareness

On a beautiful June morning, Marla Spivak sits in her office writing thank-you notes. 

Spivak, the U’s Distinguished McKnight Professor of Entomology, is grateful to lead donors—including the Minnesota Honey Producers Association Inc., Mann Lake Ltd., Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Robin and Barbara Schaller, and two anonymous donors—whose generosity drove the success of the Bee Lab’s $2.2 million fundraising campaign. But she’s also touched by the passion behind smaller gifts such as the one that came from 11-year-old Mabon VonThompson in Nebraska.  

Mabon wrote: 

Ever since I’ve heard that bees are endangered, I was getting more concerned every day. I have done many projects for bees but this one is the biggest one. What I have done to make money is do a lemonade and cupcake stand. I made $66. 

Bees are important to me because they pollinate 75 percent of our world. Without bees, food would bee (get it… bee?) scarce and plants and people would start dying. 

“This growing awareness of bees is the biggest gift not just to the University, but to the world,” says Spivak.

Unlike facilities at other universities, the U’s lab combines research on honey bees (which are not native to the United States) and native bees. “Honey bee and native bee researchers don’t often collaborate in such a strong way,” Cariveau says. “Here, we’re always chatting and mingling. There’s a lot of mixing that goes on in terms of ideas and techniques.”

That “mixing” is one thing Maggie Shanahan, a Ph.D. student at the Bee Lab, appreciates—and one of the reasons she came to the U after earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Puget Sound and doing four years of bee research and outreach in Mexico. Shanahan is studying the beneficial effects of propolis—a sticky substance honey bees collect from plants and use to coat their hives—on bees’ immune system. She’s also exploring how commercial beekeepers can encourage the production of propolis to keep hives healthier. Learning about native bees gives her a wider perspective, she says. 

“As honey bee researchers, we have the responsibility to broaden our vision and understand what’s going on with other bees and pollinators,” says Shanahan, who received donor-funded support from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences.

The new lab also allows researchers to study everything from large-scale habitat and ecosystems to the inner workings of individual bee cells. Bee Lab researcher Mike Goblirsch, for example, is the first person in the world to develop a cell line derived from honey bee eggs. Just as the human cell line made famous in the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks allowed researchers to conduct tests that led to medical breakthroughs, Goblirsch’s cell line will be used to study how viruses or pesticides affect bee cells. 


A research project Cariveau began this summer will help answer questions about the preferred environment of both honey bees and native bees. With funding from the state of Minnesota and the USDA, he and his team are paying rental fees to corn and soybean farmers in southwestern Minnesota to convert 40 to 45 plots, ranging from 1 to 15 acres, to pollinator habitat. 

The team will sow various flower seed mixes, some meant to attract honey bees and others native bees, so they can compare the impact each has on the insects’ population and health. They’ll also study whether plot size and location (some are in the middle of a corn or soybean field, for example, and some are near the edge) make a difference.

Hear the U's Marla Spivak talk about the importance of bees.

The enthusiasm from farmers has been gratifying. “Some of the farmers don’t even want to be paid back for the rental fees because they’re so excited about the work,” Cariveau says.

The team is also collaborating with researchers at the U’s Institute on the Environment on an economic analysis of how converting farmland to habitat affects farmers’ finances. And they’re working with Department of Entomology researcher Bob Koch, who is interested in whether the new pollinator habitat will attract predatory insects that eat soybean aphids. 

Spivak, whose team will do honey bee research at some of the farm sites, says this interdisciplinary approach will yield new knowledge about bees. And when this research is shared with the public, she says, it changes people’s perspectives. “Honey bees are kind of the ‘gateway bee,’” she says with a laugh. “People first learn about honey bees, and then they learn there are at least 450 species of native bees in Minnesota and you can see 50 of them on that white clover in the park in the middle of the city. And then they realize there are all kinds of other pollinators out there—and we need all of them.” 

Amy Sitze is a contributing editor for Legacy magazine.

What you can do for bees

Backyard beekeeping is one way to learn more about bees and help the honey bee population. But beekeeping is an art, a craft, and a science, says Marla Spivak, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Entomology—and it isn’t easy. If you don’t have the time or space to be a beekeeper, she says, there are two simple but important actions you can take to help bees: add plants that pollinators love and reduce pesticides in your garden. To discover the best plants for pollinators in your area, watch which flowers, shrubs, and trees attract bees and butterflies—and bring in more of them. It’s best to add flowers in clusters of at least three plants to attract beneficial insects. Here are a few Minnesota-hardy flowering plants that keep honey bees, native bees, and other pollinators happy throughout the seasons: