The honeybee has been having a tough time surviving, but cutting edge research on mushroom extracts as feed additives offers new hope for saving bees. We covered this topic in a previous blog post in July 2019, but it's time for an update.

Bees have been plagued by a devastating virus in recent years that has wiped out huge numbers of them. From 2018-2019, according to Bee Informed Partnership, US beekeepers lost 40% of their beehives. Since honeybees are valued at nearly $20 billion to American agriculture, this threatens crop pollination and honey production.

Scientists report that mushroom extracts may offer a solution to the deadly bee virus, based on their California experiment. From February through mid-March 2020, Washington State University (WSU) researchers are conducting a field experiment in California’s San Joaquin Valley with 72 hives that were hauled in for the annual almond orchard pollination event.

Hear Paul Stamets speaking about the science first-hand in this 2:08-minute long video:

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the name given to this virus by researchers, and they attribute much of the problem to the ‘deformed wing virus’ that disfigures bees’ wings. Entomologist Laura Lavine of WSU said the virus halves a bee’s lifespan, compromises its immune system and impairs its flight mechanism.

A tiny, button-shaped parasitic mite with eight legs, known as the varroa destructor, is responsible for transmitting the deformed wing virus. It latches onto bees and feeds on their tissues.

The lead researcher is WSU entomologist Walter Steven Sheppard. He clarifies that the fungi he’s using are classified as Ganoderma lucidum, also known as lingzhi or reishi. These kidney-shaped mushrooms are rust-colored ‘shelf’ mushrooms that grow like fans on trees.

Sheppard has also experimented with the genus Fomes. Both belong to the polypores fungi order, and their extracts supposedly have anti-viral properties and are prized in Asian medicine.

The idea of using mushrooms to cure bees was the brainchild of mycologist Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti, a medicinal mushroom business based in Washington state. Back in 1984, Stamets noticed his bees landing on mushrooms and sipping drops of liquid from the delicate web of filaments in each mushroom’s mycelium. It wasn’t until 2016, some thirty-two years later, that he had an epiphany that maybe the bees were not just searching for sugar, but self-medicating.

A few years ago, Stamets approached Sheppard, one of the world’s leading bee experts, and shared his theory. They decided to partner and were soon collaborating with scientists from the USDA and WSU.

Sugar-water feeders were dosed with mycelium extracts from multiple mushroom species by the researchers, who observed the effect on bees. Initial results are promising. Treated bees that were infected by the virus fared better, in field and lab studies. Treated bees in cages had an 800-fold decrease in virus level, and bees in the field had a decrease of 44- to 79-fold.

It’s not clear yet whether the mushroom extracts are reducing virus levels by directly restraining the virus or by bolstering the bees’ immune systems, according to Sheppard. More lab work needs to be done to figure it out.

The field team will bring samples back to WSU to analyze in the lab for a month or longer. Nick Naeger and Jennifer Han, pollinator researchers, will lead the lab work.

The exciting news for beekeepers and bee lovers is that the mycelium extracts may be available for use in 2020, according to Sheppard. His team is working with the US FDA and other groups to get the fungi extracts registered as a bee feed additive. He thinks their work has the potential to be commercial soon, and they hope to get approval this year (2020).

We will bring more updates as this exciting story unfolds. Maybe some of the hardships of the honeybee, and wild bees, will be overcome, thanks to the ingenuity of Stamets and Sheppard and their teams, and the power of nature.