Photo of May Berenbaum

May Berenbaum

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For pioneering studies on chemical coevolution and the genetic basis of insect-plant interactions, and for enthusiastic commitment to public engagement that inspires others about the wonders of science.

May Berenbaum on what has sustained her curiosity in entomology

Every now and then a scientist comes along, who not only makes fascinating, field-­advancing discoveries, but who thoroughly enjoys engaging with the public in creative, accessible, enthusiastic ways. May Berenbaum is one such scientist.

She was the first to prove a genetic basis for the “arms war” that exists between plants and the insects that eat them. In nature, often plants evolve a way to defend themselves from being eaten (spikes, or poison for instance). It follows that then their predators find a nifty way to get around them (the ability to hover, or an enzyme that digests that poison).

Berenbaum shined a spotlight on the genetic process that underlies that competition and then went on to apply that knowledge to things like the ability of insects to evolve resistance to pesticides, a subject with huge implications for our modern food systems.

When bee populations in the US first began suffering from a mysterious and incredibly deadly disease, Berenbaum was one of the first scientists tapped to be part of a national effort to untangle the origins of this serious problem. Her work on Colony Collapse Disorder has made her the voice of the scientific community when it comes to honey bees and their welfare.

Her brilliant science is matched by an equally engaging personality, and a desire to spark the public’s interest in the ways insects impact our lives. For more than 30 years, she has hosted the Insect Fear Film Festival–­­ a celebration of all the wacky, misinformed, hilarious, and terrifying ways bugs have been portrayed by Hollywood through the years.

She’s active on twitter (@MayBerenbaum), has written books (including a honey cookbook), and is a sought after public speaker, giving lectures with titles like Bees in Crisis: Colony Collapse, Honey Laundering and Other Problems Bee-Setting American Apiculture.

Why should the public care about bugs? The answer is simple she says, many of the world most pressing environmental challenges, including climate change, emerging infectious diseases, invasive species, and accelerating biodiversity losses, involve [insects]. Understanding them will be a key way to understanding and solving the problems facing us today.