Could The Mushroom Save The Honeybee?

Aug 14, 2015

Honeybee populations have been plummeting for nearly a decade throughout the United States. Now, two scientists in Washington state are teaming up to help the pollinator, and they’re investigating an unconventional source for their remedy: the mushroom.

Eric Olson clutches the lid on top of his wooden beehive. He slowly lifts it up and peeks inside at thousands of stinging insects.

Olson has been a beekeeper in eastern Washington for half his life. He loves spending time with his bees -- especially when they’re doing well.

"These girls are fantastic!" Olson says. "Those bees are solid across there and they’re making honey and they’re making babies."

But just months ago, Olson and his team discovered that nearly half the bees in his 18,000 hives were dead.

Olson wasn’t alone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that nearly half of honeybee colonies across the country collapsed in the past year.

Big losses have been happening for nearly a decade, and scientists haven’t determined what’s causing them. More than 60 factors may play a role in collapsing colonies. Factors like pesticides, disease, and loss of habitat.

"If we don’t find some answer, I’m really concerned about whether these little girls will survive," Olson says.

But one unlikely source of help for the honeybee may be growing close by.

Paul Stamets tromps through the underbrush of the forests of western Washington. He spots a mushroom growing out of the side of a tree. It looks like a little brown shelf with a soft, white underside.

Stamets is a pioneer in the study of mushrooms.

He snaps the mushroom off the tree. Then he wraps it in wax paper to take back to his lab. He’ll turn the mushroom into an extract.

"I use fungi to help clean up the environment and improve immune systems of animals," Stamets says. "I began to think: I bet we can do something to help the bees. These mushrooms are like little pharmaceutical factories."

Stamets recently partnered with Steve Sheppard, a bee expert at Washington State University. They think that fungus might give the honeybee two weapons in a fight against its worst enemy. That’s a disease-carrying bug called the varroa mite.

Sheppard says that varroa mites invade hives, feast on bee blood and transmit a slew of viruses to their hosts.

"I always think of it as having something the size of a pancake on your back feeding on you," Sheppard says.

Outside his lab near the Idaho border, Sheppard crouches so he can peer into a stack of wooden bee boxes.

He extends his bare hand and plucks a bee from one of the hives. He quickly spots a varroa mite. It’s a pinpoint of reddish brown crawling across the bee’s thorax.

He bags a few hundred bees from the hive. Back at the lab, he transfers them to little plastic cages. Finally, he fills feeding tubes with a few drops of murky brown juice made from mushrooms. It comes from the lab of Paul Stamets, the mushroom expert who’s working with Sheppard.

They’re finding that the mushrooms are reducing viruses in bees and helping them live longer.

Next, Sheppard and Stamets will test a different type of fungus to see if they can attack the mite directly.

"The results are certainly encouraging so far," Sheppard says.

Sheppard and Stamets plan to expand both experiments by partnering with commercial beekeepers, like Eric Olson.

"I don’t have too much hair left, I have pulled my hair out," Olson says. "We just can’t seem to get control of the varroa mite. We’ve got our fingers crossed."

If they work for Olson and other beekeepers trying out these solutions, the mushroom extracts could find their way into beehives nationwide.

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