May Barenbaum, Ph.D. ’80, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
If May Berenbaum has one gripe with her Cornell education, it’s this: she claims she wasn’t allowed to put on something called “The Insect Fear Film Festival”. “They thought it was not dignified,” she says. Fortunately, the University of Illinois, where she is now head of the department of entomology, had no such qualms and has held the festival annually since 1984. “We show bad insect science fiction and then explain to people why what they’re about to see can possibly happen,” Berenbaum says. (It’s probably just as well Cornell missed out—she met her husband, a film professor at Illinois, through his involvement with the festival.)
The Insect Fear Film Festival is just one demonstration of Berenbaum’s commitment to making science fun and accessible. And for her specialty in entomology, she knows that’s not always an easy sell. “I can totally relate to people who don’t like insects. It’s probably because they don’t know very much about them,” she says. “[Insects] are just capable of the most amazing things.”
Berenbaum has produced reams of research about all sorts of creepy-crawlies, as well as published several magazine articles and six books for the nonscientist but bug-loving general population. Her writing has covered bugs from earwigs to cockroaches, but she has devoted much of her time to a perhaps more charismatic insect: the honeybee.
Over the last decade, honeybee populations worldwide have been plagued by a mysterious epidemic, termed “colony collapse disorder” by scientists. This has led to reductions in the honeybee population of up to 90% in some areas, and with bees being important pollinators, this has had a real economic impact on agriculture as well as honey production. Berenbaum is one of the scientists searching for a solution. “Name something, and it’s been suspected [as a cause],” she says. “There is no consensus at all, and the general perception is that it’s a phenomenon that perhaps [has arisen] from multiple causes.”
But, Berenbaum says, the spotlight being turned on honeybees is giving some neglected bugs some long-overdue attention, and that can only be a good thing. And just because research has not yet pointed to a definitive cause doesn’t mean that it’s been wasted—there are some interesting clues. “When you feed them on a sugar diet,” she says, as has been the standard practice among beekeepers for the last few decades, “they are not turning on their chemical processing equipment… Feeding bees something other than honey may have physiological consequences that nobody anticipated.”
It’s clear that, for Berenbaum, the appeal of bees goes far beyond their economic significance as pollinators. “They’re scary in that they have no business being so smart. They’re organized and capable of unbelievable feats,” she says. “I can’t drive to Decatur without MapQuest, and these bees find their way over much vaster distances.”
Whatever her navigational disability, Berenbaum more than makes up for it with her research and teaching. In addition to several academic awards, she also holds the more unusual distinction of having had a minor character, a female entomologist, named after her on The X-Files. Berenbaum approved, not least because it was great PR for entomology, and entomologists: “She [the entomologist] was a total babe. I think that’s fabulous.”