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Biological Sciences

The Buzz on Being an Advocate for Science

May Berenbaum has spent the last four decades studying the evolutionary arms race between plants and insects. At the same time, she has spent countless hours and days working on public outreach and science literacy projects.

May Berenbaum tries to never turn down an invitation. The entomologist is as likely to be found talking about insects in front of a local ladies’ art club as she is to be lecturing a room full of fellow scientists. She’s given animated discourses on bee biology in museums, living rooms, and in front of the House Committee on Agriculture; she’s chatted with hosts of podcasts and answered questions as part of a honeybee-themed “Ask Me Anything” thread on the website Reddit.

“Frankly, I think insects are so intertwined with the lives of humans that there are an infinite number of opportunities to connect with people,” says Berenbaum, who won the National Medal of Science in 2014.

In her lab at the University of Illinois, Berenbaum has spent the last four decades studying the evolutionary arms race between plants and insects. She’s probed how insects often manage to evade plants’ defenses, and her work has helped scientists learn about the effects of pesticides and climate change on insect populations. At the same time, she has spent countless hours and days working on public outreach and science literacy projects.

May Berenbaum examines a butterfly specimen

Berenbaum says the role evolved out of her own experience becoming fascinated with insects. “For most of my life, I had been terrified of insects,” she says. “In college, I realized that fear stemmed from ignorance, and it made me very keen to reach out to the public and share knowledge.”

When she landed her job in Illinois, she also took to heart the fact that the school’s mission—as a land grant college— included an emphasis on public service. She felt she owed it to the Illinois taxpayers to have an ongoing dialogue about both her research and the broader importance of science in society. It’s a viewpoint that she still holds close to her heart today. “I really want to make sure people have the scientific information they need to make sound and responsible decisions in their daily lives,” she says.

In 1980, junior faculty members weren’t exactly encouraged to get involved in the sort of public engagement that Berenbaum strived for.

Berenbaum admits that it hasn’t always been easy trying to juggle being both a scientist and a tireless crusader for science. In 1980, junior faculty members weren’t exactly encouraged to get involved in the sort of public engagement that Berenbaum strived for.

“That was just the attitude back then,” she says. “There were other things that it was expected we focus our time on. It was definitely not taken into consideration for promotions or salary.” But Berenbaum made time for her side projects— writing books and popular science articles, volunteering for editorial boards, and sticking with her mantra of trying to never turn down an invitation.

Communicating about Colony Collapse

In 2006, a team of scientists published the full sequence of the honeybee genome, and just a few months later, the first reports started to emerge that bees were dying with no apparent cause. Berenbaum was already chairing the National Research Council’s Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America, responsible for authoring a report on pollinators. In 2007, under her leadership, the committee published evidence of declines in populations of pollinating animals from bats to butterflies and bees. In the wake of the report— and growing concerns on the effect of dying bees on agriculture—Berenbaum testified in front of Congress, emphasizing that more research on pollinators was urgently needed.

“The Congressional hearing was one of my most direct ways to influence policy,” says Berenbaum, “and it coincidentally happened to be when the Farm Bill was being debated. I think it was not so much the elegance of the report, but just the timing, that precipitated a policy change that has persisted.”

As she became a scientist with an active role in shaping government policy, Berenbaum found that bees and other insects fell into a rare nonpartisan purple zone. “I was absolutely delighted when I started interacting with policymakers to find that even in these divided times, there are issues that unite people,” she says.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle supported adding language to the 2008 Farm Bill to boost research and conservation efforts on pollinators with new grants and collaborations between government agencies, researchers and farmers. For Berenbaum, the increased attention to pollinators helped thrust her into the spotlight as a bee spokesperson, garnering interviews and new chances to talk about her work.

More than a decade later, the decline of bees—now dubbed colony collapse disorder—remains a newsworthy topic and legislators continue to shape laws to help bee and other insect populations. The Saving America's Pollinators Act of 2019, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to consider pollinator health when registering pesticides, is now under debate.

As she became a scientist with an active role in shaping government policy, Berenbaum found that bees and other insects fell into a rare nonpartisan purple zone.

“The controversy arises not so much in assessing whether there are problems with pollinator populations, but which pollinators are in need of the greatest help, what factors are most responsible, and what the most effective response should be,” says Berenbaum, who has been interviewed by newspapers and magazines about the new legislation. Pesticides, she points out, are certainly a contributing factor to declining insect populations but their effect likely pales in comparison to climate change and habitat loss, so there’s no shortage of additional work to be done to protect bees and other insects—at both scientific and governmental levels.

Driven by Passion

For young scientists who want to merge a research career with an eye to public outreach, Berenbaum thinks the key is to love what you do. “If you don’t enjoy it— both the topic and the interaction with people—that lack of enthusiasm will be immediately perceptible to your audience,” she says.

Berenbaum, for one, never stops having fun and coming up with new and creative ways of reaching people. In 1984, she founded the Insect Fear Film Festival; now in its 36th year, the festival shows feature films that revolve around insects and lets attendees handle—and learn about—live insects.

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Berenbaum thinks it’s gotten easier to balance science advocacy with a research career; university administrators are more supportive and aware of the benefits that outreach—and citizen science— can provide to research. Plus, the internet has given researchers new avenues to reach the public.

“The realization has hit hard that the entire scientific enterprise rests on the goodwill of the public, mostly because of how much of our research is supported by the federal government,” she says. ”So in a way, outreach and education is something that’s really owed to the general public.”

When Berenbaum’s group launched BeeSpotter in 2007, a website that lets people report bee sightings, they hoped to both interest the public in bees and collect valuable data about bee populations. They’ve succeeded in both, with tens of thousands of bee reports—including sightings of endangered bee species.

“A lot of public outreach projects actually help advance science,” says Berenbaum. “It’s not all altruism.”

With an ever-growing list of ways that people can help protect insects—and an ever-growing list of basic research questions on how we alter insect populations—Berenbaum has no plans to slow down on either the research front or her public outreach.

“I’m happy to offer help and advice and information as long as anyone is interested,” she says.