For someone who started off her education avoiding bees, Humboldt State University alumna Marla Spivak's work is helping honeybees fight off extinction.

An entomologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, Spivak was recently named one of 23 recipients of this year's “genius grants” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Spivak said she fell in love with bees after reading a book about them while she was at Prescott College in Arizona. Shortly after, the college went bankrupt and she needed to find a college that would take her “quirky transcript” from the experimental liberal arts college.

When she started at HSU, Spivak said, she thought her love of bees would not translate professionally and tried to stay away by studying other creatures -- she majored in biology with an emphasis in invertebrate zoology.

”I tried to stay away from honeybees,” she said in a phone interview with the Times-Standard. “I thought it was too weird and too soon to know what I wanted to do already ... but they kept popping up -- bees or beekeepers kept popping up.”

For example, when she rented a place to live, she realized later that the property was owned by beekeepers, who asked her to help take care of their hives. During her senior year, she gave in to her passion for bees and took a semester off to volunteer at a bee research lab. After graduating, Spivak traveled throughout South America with a fellow beekeeper in search of other beekeepers and their hives.

Now Spivak has bred a new kind of honeybee -- Minnesota Hygienic -- which are resistant to a range of pests and pathogens, including the Varroa mite, a destructive parasite that spreads rapidly through Western honeybee colonies.

She said the combination of bee nutrition, pesticides and bee diseases are causing colonies to collapse.

According to the foundation, Spivak has translated her scientific findings into accessible presentations, publications and workshops, becoming one of the leading beekeepers in 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 honeybees.

She received a bachelor's degree in biology from HSU in 1978, and holds a doctorate in entomology with a specialty in honeybees from the University of Kansas (1989). She has been affiliated with the University of Minnesota since 1993, where she is currently a Distinguished McKnight Professor in the Department of Entomology.

Spivak said her education at HSU was very influential, adding that she has retained her knowledge from those classes and the friendships she gained in the community.

”When I was in Humboldt, I can honestly say, the education I got there was excellent,” she said. “It was perfect for me -- the size of that school and the quality of instruction was great.”

Steve Martin, chair of the HSU Environmental Science and Management Department, said it's an honor for the university's science programs to be connected to such an important scientist.

”It speaks really well to our science programs that we can prepare people who can eventually go on to do great things like that, and certainly her work is important -- given the importance of bees to our economy,” he said.

HSU Biological Sciences professor Michael Mesler, who is also an expert on pollination ecology, said Spivak's work is very important to California's agriculture industry.

”They are a preeminent pollinator,” Mesler said about honeybees. “Our agricultural economy is almost unbelievably tied to honeybees.”

Mesler said California's major crops, such as almonds, rely on honeybees. He said more than one million honeybee hives are brought to almond orchards to pollinate them. 

Spivak further emphasized honeybees' importance to agriculture, which isn't just fruits and vegetables.

She said bees also pollinate crops like alfalfa and ultimately are tied to the beef and dairy industry, which uses hay for livestock.

With her award, which comes with $500,000, Spivak hopes to further protect bees through research and creative approaches, including generating support for building a new bee lab at the University of Minnesota that would incorporate public education.

Mesler said Spivak's award also shows a change in the way society views bee research. He said he doesn't think that 20 years ago the public would have been very interested in bee research, but now articles are being written about research all the time.

However, he emphasized, that does not take away from Spivak's work.

”She's brilliant,” he said of Spivak. “Here we have somebody getting one of the most prestigious awards and it has to do with bee conservation. I think it points to not only is she brilliant, but people have gotten much more in tune with this as something that is important.”

Paul Blank, a member of the Humboldt County Beekeepers Association, said he's learned a lot about Spivak's work in his beekeeping classes. He said Spivak's bees have special grooming behavior -- they clean out their hives on a regular basis and that helps control the spread of diseases and parasites.

Blank, also the department chair for both geography and religious studies, has been keeping bees for about two years.

”You do come to love the bees and it's a joy to watch them, but she's doing it in a way that's above and beyond,” he said. “I think the MacArthur Foundation made a good choice.”

Donna Tam can be reached at 441-0532 or dtam@times-standard.com.