Seventy years ago, Dr. William Albrecht, the “Father of Soil Fertility,” wrote, “It’s not the overpowering invader we must fear but the weakened condition of the victim.”
Outbreaks of parasite-spread diseases must be treated if possible, but treating symptoms can’t be confused with treating causes. While symptoms, both parasites and their diseases, need immediate attention, we must address the root causes of the problem if we want to restore long-term health. To do this, we must cease industrial agriculture’s harmful practices that poison natural environments and make bees and so many other species of plants, animals and insects susceptible to parasites and epidemics.
This applies to all food production. As Albrecht also said, “Insects and disease are the symptoms of a failing crop, not the cause of it.”
Albrecht’s common sense also applies to the health of wildlife and habitat.
We might be able to save honeybees from viruses transmitted by invasive parasites without chemical treatment.
Sometime in the 1980s, microscopic mites that had been afflicting honeybees outside the United States found their way to Florida and Wisconsin and began wreaking havoc across the country. These parasites have invaded and decimated wild and domestic bee colonies. Along with other dangers facing bees, like pesticides and the loss of forage lands, the viruses these mites carry threaten the bees we rely on to pollinate many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat.
This mite, Varroa destructor, injects a slew of viruses into bees, including one that causes shriveled wings, a primary factor in widespread colony collapse. Worse, these parasites have rapidly developed resistance to synthetic pesticides.
Beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 40 percent of their colonies between April 2017 and April 2018. But we might be able to save honeybees at least from this parasitic scourge without chemical intervention. I along with scientists at Washington State University and the United States Department of Agriculture recently published in Scientific Reports, a journal from the publishers of Nature, a study that could inspire a paradigm shift in protecting bees.
Our research shows that extracts from the living mycelial tissue of common wood conk mushrooms known to have antiviral properties significantly reduced these viruses in honeybee colonies, in one field test by 45,000 times, compared to control colonies. In the field tests, we used extracts from two species of wood conks, the red reishi and the amadou. The famous “Iceman” found in a glacier in 1991 in the Alps carried amadou in a pouch 5,300 years ago. The red reishi has long been used as an immune-boosting tonic in Asia.
Our hypothesis — and that’s all it is, we don’t understand the mechanism behind the results — is that extracts of wood conk mushrooms strengthen immunity to viruses. More study is needed. At present, there have been no substances proved to reduce viruses in bees.
In the field study, a small amount of one of these mycelial extracts was added to the sugar water commonly fed to honeybees by beekeepers; wild bees could benefit too. I’m excited by the prospect of this research. I am a mycologist by trade — a mushroom expert — and I hope to create, with some colleagues, a nonprofit organization that could make available this mushroom extract and a bee feeder, similar to a hummingbird feeder, so that all of us can help save bees from our own backyards.
Our team is designing a bee feeder that we hope makes it possible to track bee visits and their pollen loads. Ideally, citizen scientists will upload their data to a portal to monitor progress. I estimate that millions of these feeders are needed to reverse the decline in bee populations.
Nature can repair itself with a little help from mycologists. Fungi outnumber plants by about 6 to 1; there are two million to four million fungal species, though only about 140,000 have been named so far. Our research underlines the need to save biodiversity for the discoveries to come.
These mycelial extracts might aid other species like pigs, birds and other animals. But we need more animal clinical studies to prove that this will work on a wider scale.
Mycology is an underfunded, understudied field with astonishing potential to save lives: ours and the bees.