As explained in this article, honeybees are declining very rapidly and that’s not good news. One of the main causes of this disaster, called colony collapse disorder, is a parasite named Varroa destructor (it lives up to its name, without a doubt).
Varroa destructor are mites, so small at only about 2 millimeters long that latch onto the bees during their larval stage. The mites will feed on their tissues and transmit RNA viruses in the process.
Sometimes the larva won’t grow at all, meaning they’re more or less dead. When they manage to grow, they have diseases such as deformed wings. Might sounds simple, but this disease is one of the largest contributors to the plummeting numbers of honeybees around the world.
Bees depend on their wings so much that when they’re shrunken or misshapen, it’s going to affect them greatly. Deformed wings disease makes them unable to fly well, shortens their lifespan, and compromises their immune system. If a bee is very infected with the virus, it can barely pollinate plants.
And speaking of pollination, it gets worse. When a sick bee lands on a plant, then that virus will transfer to the flora and it will infect future pollinators. It really is devastating, and so far, beekeepers don’t have effective solution to battle this virus. They might eradicate the mites in the hives, but flowers in the wild can still infect the bees.
The good news
This is where researchers give honeybees more hope for survival. In Nature Scientific Reports, researchers found that mushrooms are surprising solution which will help honeybee populations, food systems, economy, and ecosystems that are dependent to their activity.
It’s not all mushrooms, of course. The ones which help the bees belong to the genera Fomes and Ganoderma or amadou and reishi. Amadou usually grows on trees with a shape similar to a horse’s hoof (it’s also a great faux leather material!). On the other hand, reishi is more common at Asian markets because of its medicinal properties.
How it began
Paul Stamets, one of the researchers and the study’s lead author said, “I wanted to see if those extracts had a similar antiviral effect in bees.” The passionate proselytizer has suspected that bees could also benefit from mushrooms for a long time.
The lead author lamented about how the bees keep on declining, “The loss of biodiversity has ramifications that reverberate throughout the food web. What rivet will we lose that we’ll have catastrophic failure? I think the rivet will be losing the bees. More than one-third of our food supply is dependent on bees.”
His suspicion of mushroom vaccines was provoked when he first noticed bees that flew back and forth to a pile of fungus in 1984. The bees were sipping droplets of liquid that came out of the mushroom. Initially, Stamets thought that the droplets gave the bees sugar or nectar-like substance.
“I could see them sipping on the droplets oozing from the mycelium,” he said.
But years later, he questioned whether the mushrooms didn’t only give the bees sugar. He wondered if the bees were actually trying to medicate themselves. Based on these questions, Stamets went to Walter Sheppard, one of the world’s leading experts on bees.
From that moment, Stamets and other researchers had studied the relation between bees and mushrooms. They compared infected bees which fed on only sugar water versus sugar water which had mushroom mycelium extract.
The experiments showed that bees that fed on mycelium extract had an improvement. In fact, caged disease-infected bees got around 800-fold decrease in virus titres (a measure of the level of virus in a bee’s system). The result was not as dramatic with bees in the wild/field with only 44 (on amadou) and 79-fold reduction (on reishi), but it was still significant.
Geneticist Jay Evans, head of USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory expressed his astonishment, “It’s shown a strong effect, stronger than anything I’ve seen.” The mushroom extracts gave stronger results than RNA interference which Evan is investigating. He joked, “I’m a little jealous.”
The future of the mushroom vaccine
Because of this research, Stamets has received some patents on the extracts and he plans to sell them on his website called fungi.com. The product is in the form of a 3D-printable feeder that gives mycelia extract to wild bees. “I’m not in this for the money. I walk my talk, and I use my business to fund further research,” he explained.
Even though the extracts have proven to be successful, Stamets is right to keep on researching. It’s still unknown whether the mushroom “vaccines” could help honeybees in a long term, since Stamets’ field studies only took over two months during summer. They’re not yet tested in winter, which is the hardest and deadliest time/season for honeybees.
Researchers also haven’t completely figured out how the extracts help the bees. It’s unclear whether the extracts boost the bees’ immune system, inhibit the virus directly, or affect the way the virus replicates inside the bees. The mechanism or perhaps consequences is not clear yet, so future research is important to find that out.
Lena Wilfert, an ecologist of University of Ulm in Germany, couldn’t agree more with this. “Whenever I hear about something like this, I immediately think of the risks and drawbacks,” she said. Wilfert understands that deformed wing disease is the greatest threat of all known viral pathogens that strike insects, and she acknowledges the benefits of the extracts.
“But any time you apply a medication at large scale, you’re going to have potential for resistance evolution in the thing it targets,” said WIlfert.
Stamets also realizes that he needs to do more in his research to help the honeybees. “We have to prove all this, you know? And thankfully, I’ve become more disciplined as a scientist, being around other scientists. We’re doing tests right now in several hundred more beehives. We’re ramping up,” he said.
Truthfully, we need all the help we can get in order to restore honeybee population. And even though there’s still more to be done with this mushroom extract, it’s still a significant improvement. “Up until this discovery, there were no antivirals reducing viruses in bees. Not only is this the first discovery, but these extracts are incredibly potent,” said Stamets.
“A loss of bees is like rivets in an airplane. If we lose the bees, it is a critical rivet in an airplane that can lead to catastrophic failure,” Stamet reiterated.
A mushroom vaccine could save the honey bees