Fungal Extracts Help Honey Bees

Feb 14, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4526

USDA lists honey bees as a critical link in U.S. agricultural production. According to their calculation, the billions of workers that take flight everyday add an estimated $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture.

Their work day is not an easy one. Among the many obstacles these tiny pollinators have faced is colony collapse disorder. A great deal of brain power has been devoted to fighting the causes of CCD. Those attacking the problem have come up with some new weapons.

Josh Buettner has more in our Cover Story.

For more than a decade, colony collapse disorder has captured headlines. The syndrome causes adult worker bees to abandon the hive - leaving the queen and her immature brood to fend for themselves.

Tim Hiatt/Hiatt Honey – Ephrata, Washington: “She’s laying good eggs and she is keeping the hive population up. A good queen, yeah.”

Due to the crucial relationship between pollinators and flowering plants, the United Nations warned the mysterious phenomenon could be capable of slashing worldwide crop output by one-third.

Tim Hiatt/Hiatt Honey – Ephrata, Washington: "It is a concern.  Every year there’s stories of beekeepers who lose 50, 70, 80 percent of their hives.  And it’s hit us in the past.  We’re doing our best to prevent that from happening.  All they can say for sure is that it’s a multi-faceted problem.”

Tim Hiatt, and his brother Steve, are second generation beekeepers in Washington State.

Steve Hiatt/Hiatt Honey/Ephrata, Washington:  "We’re just one link in the chain of providing food.”

The brothers say sporadic losses have plagued apiarists since well before European settlers introduced the honey bee to North America.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that new cases of colony collapse have declined substantially in recent years. But those closer to the hive point to a dizzying array of more than 60 underlying stressors – including pesticides, disease pathogens and environmental factors.

Dr. Jennifer Han/Research Associate/Washington State University: “The varroa mite has been described by many people as probably the number one threat to honey bees.  It has like these almost like hook like mouth seam-ripper type appendages.  And what they use that to do is basically rip a hole in the exoskeleton of the honey bee.”

Dr. Jennifer Han is a post-doctoral pathology research associate with Washington State University. She says invasive symbiotes, like the varroa mite, attract several other diseases – including deformed wing and Lake Sinai virus. According to Han, these microscopic insects eventually conquer honey bee immune systems that have been compromised by neonicotinoid or nicotine-based insecticides.

Dr. Jennifer Han/Research Associate/Washington State University: “Imagine having a parasite living on you that’s about the size of a dinner plate feeding on you at all times.”

Decreased flying time and the inability to pollinate are among the negative results from this relationship.

Dr. Nick Naeger/Entomologist/Washington State University:  “Bees, just like other animals, can get viruses. And we do not have any good treatments, much like we do not have a good treatment for the common cold.”

Washington State University is employing a mutli-pronged approach to boost pollinator populations.  Dr. Nick Naeger is an entomologist specializing in honey bee analysis whose work grew out of a Department of Defense initiative involving fungi.

Post 9/11, Congress passed the Project Bioshield Act, which allocated $5 billion toward stockpiling vaccines in the event of a bioterrorist attack.  Government research led to work done by mycologist Paul Stamets.  His company, Fungi Perfecti – in southern Puget Sound on the opposite side of Washington - are purveyors and promoters of what they call high-quality gourmet and immune-supportive mushrooms.

Through the course of submitting certain fungal strain samples to DOD – Stamets, USDA and Washington State University put their heads together and an ancillary partnership with higher education blossomed.

Dr. Nick Naeger/Entomologist/Washington State University:  “Over ten years ago Paul Stamets was growing mushrooms and noticed that honey bees would forage in his mushroom beds. Bees normally live in hollowed out logs where they would encounter fungi on a daily basis. Now they live in these very nice sawn wood hives that have less fungus in them. We think that by allowing bees to eat fungal and fungal products again, that this could restore some of their health.”

Dr. Naeger says his research shows when bees drink liquids extracted from certain mushrooms, it cuts their viral levels a thousand fold.  These long-lived polypore mycelium samples are supplied by Fungi Perfecti. 

Dr. Nick Naeger/Entomologist/Washington State University:  "Those fungi tend to produce a whole range of antimicrobial compounds.”

Dr. Han, in turn, utilizes a related component common in most soils.

Dr. Jennifer Han/Research Associate/Washington State University:  “What I’ve done is looked at a fungus, called metarhizium, that can infect and kill insects. Eventually, the final project we want to be something probably like a strip that beekeepers can just insert into the hive.  The spores of this fungus land on the skin of the varroa mite.  And that spore will germinate – burrow it’s way inside the varroa mite and proliferate inside and kill the bug from the inside out.  It’s gruesome and fascinating all at the same time.”

The natural pesticide’s potential is good news for the region’s non-citrus tree fruit producers.  Aaron Riggs manages a 69 acre apple orchard on the Columbia Plateau – an area known for its favorable weather and soils.

Aaron Riggs/Manager – Cache Orchard/Ephrata, Washington:  "You couldn’t set enough fruit if you didn’t have the bees.  You would get some pollination through other insects or things like that, but you wouldn’t get near the crop to make it profitable if you didn’t have the bees.”

Hundreds of Hiatt Honey hives criss-cross the    U.S. every year on truck beds to pollinate tree fruit and nuts in California and the Pacific Northwest before rounding out the summer with honey production in North Dakota.

Steve Hiatt/Hiatt Honey/Ephrata, Washington:  "We have to wait for the sun to go down because the bees will be flying all around the orchard.  And then when it’s dark like this, the bees will all be home.  We’ll gather them up and take them to a different location.”

USDA values national honey production at $320 million per year, but the Evergreen State alone accounted for over 8 of the 11 billion pound domestic apple crop in 2018.  And while they proclaim apples a $2.5 billion industry there, Washington State University also has earned respect for throwing down the gauntlet in the fight against colony collapse and its root causes.

Tim Hiatt/Hiatt Honey – Ephrata, Washington: “They’re doing a lot of work to try to improve bee health and we’re really appreciative of their efforts. 

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner. @mtmjosh

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