Bees play a very important part of our ecosystem as pollunators, helping plants reproduce so we all have food to eat. But there has been massive bee colony death in the last fifty years due to climate change and humanity's overuse of pesticides. In addition to this devastation, honey bees are susceptible to disease brought by Varroa mites.
Two of the major viruses that affect honey bee colonies, the Lake Sinai virus and the Deformed Wing Virus, have been responsible for the deaths of millions of bees. But a 2018 study in Nature Scientific Reports found that a mycelium extract reduces viruses in honey bees.
In other words, a chemical found in mushrooms has helped combat these deadly bee viruses.
The study, which was done at Washington State University in conjunction with the USDA and a Washington based business called Fungi Perfecti, found that bee colonies that were given mycelium extract from amadou and reishi fungi saw a 79-fold reduction in deformed wing virus and a 45,000-fold reduction in Lake Sinai virus.
"Our greatest hope is that these extracts have such an impact on viruses that they may help varroa mites become an annoyance for bees, rather than causing huge devastation," said Steve Sheppard, a WSU entomology professor and one of the paper's authors. "We're excited to see where this research leads us. Time is running out for bee populations and the safety and security of the world's food supply hinges on our ability to find means to improve pollinator health."
"One of the major ways varroa mites hurt bees is by spreading and amplifying viruses," Sheppard said. "Mites really put stress on the bees' immune systems, making them more susceptible to viruses that shorten worker bee lifespans."
This is the first research paper to come out of a partnership between Sheppard's lab and Fungi Perfecti. Their co-owner and founder Paul Stamets is a co-author on the paper, having previously demonstrated the antiviral properties of mycelial extracts on human cells.
"He read about viruses hurting bees and called us to explore the use of the extracts on honey bees. After two years, we demonstrated that those anti-viral properties extend to honey bees."
Stamets is passionate about the various benefits of fungi, both to humans and wildlife. And he's been enjoying this partnership with Sheppard and his lab.
"This is a great example of connecting the dots between two fields of biological science," Stamets said. "I am excited about new discoveries and opportunities. For me, the best of science is when it is used for practical solutions. Our team is honored to work with WSU researchers and look forward to continuing collaboration."
This is exciting news, but it's still got a ways to go before practical implementation. The mycelial extracts haven't been produced to a scale where beekeepers can purchase them for their own colonies. "We are ramping up production of the extracts as rapidly as is feasible, given the hurdles we must overcome to deploy this on a wide scale," Stamets added. "Those who are interested in being kept up to date, can sign up for more information at http://www.fungi.com."