KU alumna wins $500,000 genius grant for honeybee research

Marla Spivak’s work with bees and their keepers has earned her a $500,000 “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Spivak is a distinguished professor of apiculture and social insects at the University of Minnesota, but earned her doctorate in 1989 at Kansas University, where she studied under Chip Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Her work on honeybees’ health has helped protect honeybee populations from disease.

She has focused on genetically influenced behaviors that make entire colonies resistant to disease, and has bred more disease-resistant strains of bees for use throughout the industry.

The genius grants provide money based on creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future. Other fellows from this year include an indigenous language preservationist, a stone carver and a quantum astrophysicist.

No stipulations are placed on the monetary awards. Fellows are nominated and selected in secret by people whose anonymity is carefully guarded.

Taylor on Tuesday praised Spivak’s work, saying she was unique among scientists in the field. “She works more closely with beekeepers than any of the researchers I’ve ever known,” he said. “She’s been extremely successful in getting them to cooperate.”

As a result, he said, her research more than others’ has had an impact on more people.

“She’s absolutely dedicated to both the science that she’s doing and the industry that she’s working with,” Taylor said.