Submitted by Professor Ben-Joseph on Thu, 2015-08-20 10:08
| Aug. 17, 2015
Honeybees need a healthy diet of pollen, nectar and water. But at a bee
laboratory in Eastern Washington, Steve Sheppard fills their feeding tubes with
murky brown liquid from the forest.
His bees are getting a healthy dose of mushroom juice.
“If this does what we hope, it will be truly revolutionary,” said Sheppard, who
heads the Department of Entomology at Washington State University. “Beekeepers
are running out of options.”
Commercial honeybees, which pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the United
States annually, have teetered on the brink of collapse for nearly a decade. A
third of all bee colonies have died each year since 2006, on average, according
to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Scientists say the mysterious phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, may
be the result of at least 60 environmental factors that combine to cripple
honeybees— including pesticides,
disease, malnutrition, loss of habitat and climate change.
Like a pancake ‘feeding on you’
Beekeepers, however, say the honeybee’s single greatest threat is a
virus-carrying parasite called the varroa mite.
If left untreated, varroa mites typically destroy a colony of honeybees in
less than two years.
Ken Christensen, EarthFix/KCTS 9
Sheppard has spent decades breeding western honeybees to better tolerate the
mite and its viruses. But he hasn’t had much success, he said.
Varroa mites have devastated U.S. beehives since the late 1980s, when they
arrived here from Asia. In 1996, half of colonies east of the Mississippi River
died due to mite infestations.
The reddish-brown pests, which are no bigger than the head of a pin, invade
colonies and multiply rapidly. They
hide among bee larvaedeveloping
in the honeycomb, feed on infant bee blood and lay several eggs each.
“It would be like having something the size of pancake feeding on you,”
Honeybees that emerge from the infected hives typically carry illnesses, like a
virus that results in deformed wings that prevent bees from flying.
If beekeepers don’t intervene, the varroa mite can destroy a colony in less than
two years. Meanwhile, the pest reproduces so rapidly it builds resistance to
chemical pesticides more quickly than solutions can be invented, Sheppard said.
That’s why he decided to try an unconventional approach last year, after local
mushroom expert Paul Stamets called him with an idea to help arm the honeybee in
its fight against the mite.
Learning the way of the bee
“We’ve gone to the moon, we’ve gone to Mars, but we don’t know the way of the
bee?” asked Stamets, who owns the medicinal mushroom company Fungi Perfecti near
WATCH: Paul Stamets give a TED Talk:
The self-taught mycologist said he noticed a relationship between honeybees and
mushrooms when he observed bees sipping on sugar-rich fungal roots growing in
“I looked down, and they were sucking on my mycelium,” he said.
Now he thinks he knows why.
In recent years, his research has shown that rare fungi found in the old-growth
forests of Western Washington can help fight other viruses, including
tuberculosis, smallpox and bird flu. He wondered if the honeybee would see
similar health benefits from wood-rotting mushrooms.
“Bees have immune systems, just like we do,” he said. “These mushrooms are like
miniature pharmaceutical factories.”
Stamets and Sheppard are feeding liquid extracts of those forest mushrooms to
mite-infected honeybees. Initial findings suggest that five species of the
wood-rotting fungi can reduce the honeybees’ viruses and increase their
In addition, the scientists are trying to fight honeybee viruses by taking aim
at the varroa mite itself. Insect-killing fungi have been used as an alternative
to synthetic chemical pesticides for years, and previous studiesshow
that one type of entomopathogenic fungus can weaken varroa mites in beehives.
Killing parasites without harming bees
Paul Stamets thinks his version of the funguswill
be more effective. So far, the results of the experiments in Sheppard’s lab look
“The product seems to be killing mites without harming bees,” Sheppard said.
This fall, the scientists plan to expand both experiments by partnering with
commercial beekeepers like Eric Olson, who runs the largest commercial
beekeeping operation in Washington.
Olson said two-thirds of his beehives died five years ago because of a varroa
mite infestation. After several years successfully controlling the pest, he
arrived this year in California for almond pollination season and nearly half of
his bees had died during the winter.
He spent $770,000 to buy replacement hives, he said.
“I was lucky that I had the cash and the connections to recover from that,” he
Olson recently donated about $50,000 to Sheppard’s department to help find a
solution to the mite. Looking at the bees in one of his hives, he said, “I’m
really concerned about whether these little girls will survive.”