Paul Stamets, an expert on mushrooms and owner of Fungi Perfecti, had an epiphany: Something in mushrooms could help keep bees healthy. (John Lok / The Seattle Times, 2010)
A study published Thursday details a promising and novel approach to help stop the viruses killing honeybees, which pollinate much of the food we rely on: mushrooms.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The epiphany that mushrooms could help save the world’s ailing bee colonies struck Paul Stamets while he was in bed.
“I love waking dreams,” he said. “It’s a time when you’re just coming back into consciousness.”
Years ago, in 1984, Stamets had noticed a “continuous convoy of bees” traveling from a patch of mushrooms he was growing and his beehives. The bees actually moved wood chips to access his mushroom’s mycelium, the branching fibers of fungus that look like cobwebs.
“I could see them sipping on the droplets oozing from the mycelium,” he said. They were after its sugar, he thought.
Decades later, he and a friend began a conversation about bee colony collapse that left Stamets, the owner of a mushroom mercantile, puzzling over a problem. Bees across the world have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Parasites like mites, fast-spreading viruses, agricultural chemicals and lack of forage area have stressed and threatened wild and commercial bees alike.
Waking up one morning, “I connected the dots,” he said. “Mycelium have sugars and antiviral properties,” he said. What if it wasn’t just sugar that was useful to those mushroom-suckling bees so long ago?
In research published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, Stamets turned intuition into reality. The paper describes how bees given a small amount of his mushroom mycelia extract exhibited remarkable reductions in the presence of viruses associated with parasitic mites that have been attacking, and infecting, bee colonies for decades.
Mites contribute to colony collapse
In the late 1980s, tiny Varroa mites began to spread through bee colonies in the United States. The mites — which are parasites and can infect bees with viruses — proliferate easily and cause colony collapse in just years.
Over time, colonies have become even more susceptible, and viruses became among the chief threats to the important pollinators for crops on which people rely.
“We think that’s because the viruses have evolved and become pathogenic and virulent,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland professor in entomology, who was not involved in the mycelium research. “Varroa viruses kill most of the colonies in the country.”
He likened the mites to dirty hypodermic needles; the mites are able to spread viruses from bee to bee.
The only practical solution to date has been to keep the number of Varroa mites within beehives “at manageable populations.”
Stamet’s idea about bee-helping mycelium could give beekeepers a powerful new weapon.
At first, mushrooms were a hard sell.
When Stamets, whose fascination with fungi began with “magic mushrooms” when he was a “long-haired hippie” undergraduate at The Evergreen State College, began reaching out to scientists, some laughed him off.
“I don’t have time for this. You sound kind of crazy. I’m gonna go,” he recalled a California researcher telling him. “It was never good to start a conversation with scientists you don’t know saying, ‘I had a dream.’ ”
When Steve Sheppard, a Washington State University entomology professor, received a call in 2014 from Stamets, however, he didn’t balk. He listened.
Sheppard has heard a lot of wild ideas to save bees over the years, like harnessing static electricity to stick bees with little balls of Styrofoam coated in mite-killing chemicals. Stamets’ pitch was different: He had data to back up his claims about mycelium’s antiviral properties and his company, Fungi Perfecti, could produce it in bulk. “I had a compelling reason to look further,” Sheppard said.
Together with other researchers, the unlikely pair have produced research that opens promising and previously unknown doors in the fight to keep bee colonies from collapsing.
“This is a pretty novel approach,” vanEngelsdorp said. “There’s no scientist who believes there’s a silver bullet for bee health. There’s too many things going on. … This is a great first step.”
Experiments, more research planned
To test Stamets’ theory, the researchers conducted two experiments: They separated two groups of mite-exposed bees into cages, feeding one group sugar syrup with a mushroom-based additive and the other, syrup without the additive. They also field-tested the extract in small, working bee colonies near WSU.
For several virus strains, the extract “reduced the virus to almost nothing,” said Brandon Hopkins, a WSU assistant research professor, another author of the paper.
The promising results have opened the door to new inquiries.
Researchers are still trying to figure out how the mushroom extract works. The compound could be boosting bees’ immune systems, making them more resistant to the virus. Or, the compound could be targeting the viruses themselves.
“We don’t know what’s happening to cause the reduction. That’s sort of our next step,” Sheppard said.
Because the extract can be added to syrups commercial beekeepers commonly use, researchers say the extract could be a practical solution that could scale quickly.
For now, they are conducting more research. On Wednesday, Hopkins and Sheppard spent the day setting up experiments at more than 300 commercial colonies in Oregon.
Meanwhile, Stamets has designed a 3D-printable feeder that delivers mycelia extract to wild bees. He plans to launch the product, and an extract-subscription service next year, to the public.
Stamets said he hopes his fungus extract can forestall the crisis of a world without many of its creatures, including bees. He is alarmed at how fast species are going extinct.
“The loss of biodiversity has ramifications that reverberate throughout the food web,” he said, likening each species to parts of an airplane, that hold the earth together — until they don’t.
“What rivet will we lose that we’ll have catastrophic failure? I think the rivet will be losing the bees,” he said. “More than one-third of our food supply is dependent on bees.”
Felicity Chen had a problem. Actually, she had a solution for her mother’s asthma symptoms — cannabis. Her problem is that her mother had a bias against cannabis. She saw smoking marijuana as a vice. So Chen looked back at her childhood for a solution.
“Growing up, we used a lot of Eastern medicine, ” said Chen. “We’ve always added some sort of herb to the water and I would drink that to make me feel better.”
So Chen began infusing raw honey with cannabinoids and adding a spoonful to her mother’s tea. She said her mom saw it as just another herbal treatment, which she was used to taking.
Chen eventually teamed up with Stefan Carpentier, who owns A Jar of Honey, a beehive business in San Jose, to establish beehives near her home so she could source local honey, which is known to alleviate allergies.
They produce two types of cannabis-infused honey under the brand HoneyPot Supply. One contains THC, cannabinoid that produces a psychoactive effect. The other contains CBD, another cannabinoid in pot that does not produce a “high” and has been shown to have medical benefits, including reducing inflammation. Honey with CBD is their biggest seller.
HoneyPot will be one of the products showcased at the next Thursday Infused dinner, held on June 14 in San Francisco. The dinner highlights local chefs and foods that have been infused with cannabis to enhance the dining experience.
Compared to almonds in California, blueberry pollination in British Columbia is small potatoes. But there are some similarities. Commercial beekeepers migrate long distances from cold northern prairies to the mild coast with thousands of colonies. They are paid for pollination and their bees get a boost with early pollen and mild temperatures. But beekeepers come away wondering if the hassle and stress on their bees was worth it.
Here in western Canada, several beekeepers from northern BC and Alberta have decided that the 1,200-kilometre trek to the lower mainland’s berry bushes isn’t worth it. The blueberry area near Vancouver needs at least 45,000 colonies of bees for successful pollination. The beekeepers who are rethinking the southwest migration hold about 4,000 hives. The difference – 10 percent – won’t cause a berry shortage this year. But it represents a growing concern among beekeepers that the monetary gain from hauling bees long distances isn’t compensating for the pressures and expenses involved.
An Alberta beekeeper – Danny Paradis – says in an interview that BC berry growers are using a new fungicide that weakened his bees, resulting in a poor summer for the colonies when they returned to Alberta after spring in BC. But one of the biggest commercial beekeepers in the Vancouver area, John Gibeau of Honeybee Centre, disagrees. He is the country’s top blueberry-pollinator. Gibeau tells reporters that nothing has really changed in 40 years but last year was a bad-weather year, resulting in weaker hives.
I know both of these beekeepers. They are smart professional operators. Neither has an ‘axe to grind’ but they obviously have different perspectives. In the end, beekeepers will decide if the money from spring pollination balances the cost in stress, time, transportation, and effort. Blueberry rental in British Columbia’s lower mainland is relatively new. Berry farms have expanded dramatically in the past two decades. Theoretically, over half a million colonies in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC’s Peace River could make the thousand-kilometre migratory pollination trip. But just two percent of those ‘potential’ bees actually are taken for a ride. To me, this suggests that Canadian migratory pollination isn’t quite worth the effort – something Danny Paradis might contend.
I’m not sure what British Columbia pollination fees are this spring, but in the past beekeepers told me that they were paid as much as $130/hive. That equals about 70 pounds of honey at recent wholesale prices. If colonies return to the prairies weak from pollination, they can easily lose that much honey on the summer crop – and it costs money to haul bees into pollination. (Besides, few commercial prairie beekeepers want to be on the coast and miss the local hockey and curling action. Some things are more important than money.)
Over the past fifty years, pollination fees for California almonds have gone from about $5 to $200 per hive. The colonies rented there are about twice as strong as they were in the early days of pollination, but the rental is still at least 20 times higher, per bee. But that’s still not enough to compensate beekeepers who end up with damaged colonies.
My guess is that more and more beekeepers will opt out of pollination. Meanwhile, some growers will switch to newly engineered self-pollinating crops and others will experiment with wind, mechanical pollinator-drones, or other schemes. But for the next few years, growers will offer more money – there is a huge advantage in doubling or tripling a crop by spending just a couple hundred dollars more per acre for bees. And many beekeepers will accommodate.