By Bill Salisbury, Published March 15 2014
U of M leading research in antiquated digsST. PAUL – Critical research on Minnesota’s aquatic pests and food supply is being conducted in a century-old tractor garage and a condemned workshop on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
The school’s bee laboratory is lodged in a small, unfinished cinder block structure tucked away on a muddy road on the northwest edge of the campus.
The Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center is studying ways to control carp and zebra mussels with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions housed in the tractor garage built in 1911.
Both labs are headed by world-renowned researchers: Marla Spivak at the bee lab and Peter Sorenson at the invasive species lab.
“They put the best minds to work on two very problematic issues in a garage and a shed!” an incredulous Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said last week.
University officials are asking lawmakers to help them remedy that situation this year. They have requested $6 million from the state to help pay for a $6 million upgrade at the invasive species lab and a new, $3 million bee lab. (The university would pay the remaining $3 million of the projects’ costs.)
Those two labs are small fish in the university’s application for $232.7 million from this year’s state bonding bill for public works projects. Yet they are examples of the challenges faced by many projects vying for state money.
Hausman, chairwoman of the House Capital Investments Committee, is championing the labs, saying she would include them in the bonding bill she plans to introduce this month.
Gov. Mark Dayton recommended allocating money for the two projects in his $986 million bonding proposal.
And Hausman’s Senate counterpart, Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said both labs “should be funded.”
Although the labs have influential backers, no project is a sure thing in a politically charged bonding session. Legislators have received more than $3 billion in bonding requests and likely will have to turn down more than one-third of them.
‘We could do better
in a grade school’
At the aquatic invasive species center, Sorenson, the center’s director and a professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, opens the lid on a tank brimming with small silver carp, and one of the jumping menaces leaps out and slithers down the floor until the scientist retrieves it.
The lab is doing research aimed at preventing silver and big head carp, also known as Asian carp, from invading Minnesota’s rivers and streams, where they could upset the food chain and threaten the state’s prized game fish.
Researchers are testing ways to poison, scare away or otherwise eradicate these non-native carp, as well as getting rid of common carp that have infested thousands of lakes. But the obsolete facilities severely limit their work.
“We’re not able to study adult Asian carp,” said Becca Nash, the center’s associate director. “We can’t have any reproducing animals in here because our water filtration system is broken,” and it empties into wetlands that drain into the Mississippi River.
The center’s well also is failing, pumping just 4 gallons of water per minute one day last week, far below the 200 gallons Sorenson said his research projects need.
Some of students have had to build improvised lab equipment using garbage cans and window screens from Home Depot. “We could do better in a grade school,” Sorenson said.
He would like to hire more researchers, “but right now, there’s no reason for anybody to come here. Everything is broken all the time.”
University officials won’t build an expensive new lab if they get the state money. Instead, they plan to gut the tractor garage; upgrade its water, electrical and heating-and-cooling systems; and install up-to-date lab equipment.
Sorenson said that would allow the center to hire more faculty, double its complement of student researchers to about two dozen and start studying invasive aquatic plants, such as Eurasian water milfoil and curlyleaf pondweed.
“If we get it fixed, we’d be the leading center in the Midwest,” he said.
‘We’re not operating like a beehive’
A few blocks away, Marla Spivak toils away in a one-room, 900-square-foot cinder block shed called the bee lab.
That is where the university’s only apiculture professor and MacArthur “genius award” winner conducts ground-breaking research and teaches graduate-level courses and beekeeping classes for the public. She has to go to a nearby office to respond to calls for help from around the globe because the lab doesn’t have a working phone.
University President Eric Kaler recently called her “the world’s leading expert in the health and care of bees.”
The lab used to be called the “honey house,” where beekeepers extracted honey from combs. But the university condemned the building for food processing in 1996, so now Spivak and her colleagues extract their honey at a farm in Wisconsin.
The lab is so small that when Spivak and her students complete one research project, they must move out the equipment to make room for the next assignment. Students often have to transport colonies of bees to better-equipped laboratories on the campus to complete their research.
“We’re not operating like a beehive,” said Becky Masterson, coordinator of the university’s “Bee Squad” extension program.
Spivak’s public classes attract hundreds of beekeepers to the lab. “It gets crowded in here really fast,” Masterson said.
So when visitors arrive there, Spivak said a common first reaction is, “This is it?”
“Minnesota is one of the major honey-producing states in the nation,” Spivak said. “Most of the nation’s bees come here during the summer to produce honey.
“Minnesota has had a nationally and internationally renowned bee research program since 1918, but compared to other universities with much smaller programs and lower notoriety, this facility is the worst that there is.”
Spivak has been requesting a new, larger building for a decade. But university officials and the public didn’t start paying attention until bees started dying off en masse in recent years.
Now, one-third of the world’s bee colonies disappear every year, Masterson said. Demand for bee research and education is soaring.
Bees don’t just make honey. They pollinate one-third of the world’s fruit and vegetable crops.
“We need to keep bees alive in order to keep ourselves healthy,” Spivak said.
If lawmakers cough up the money, the university plans to construct a new bee building with two labs, honey extraction facilities and office and storage space.
“If Minnesota wants to retain its national and international reputation in bee research, it needs to upgrade this facility and make it more usable,” Spivak said.
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