Mushroom Extracts Boost Honey Bee Immune Systems

Apr 16, 2021  | 6 min  | Ep4635

Thousands of farmers are joined in the field by millions of bees. Each face obstacles in getting their assignments done that are critical in the link of agricultural production.

For the honey bees, they are facing a major obstacle via Colony Collapse Disorder.

If the fight against CCD is lost, $15 billion in agricultural production is in jeopardy.

Josh Buettner has more in our Cover Story.

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

USDA values national honey production well over $300 million annually, but in beekeeper brothers Tim and Steve Hiatt’s home state of Washington, honey bee pollination directly impacts the $2.5 billion apple industry there – an area which accounts for the lion’s share of the fruit’s domestic production.

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

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: "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.”

While the brothers say sporadic losses have plagued apiarists for centuries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has noted a substantial decline in new CCD cases in recent years. But those closer to the hive parse those reports with an array of more than 60 underlying stressors like 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 honeybees.  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 honeybee.”

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 and eventually conquer bees immune systems also compromised by exposure to 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.”

Employing a multi-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.

Paul Stamets/Owner – Fungi Perfecti/Olympia, Washington:  “Woo!  Harvest time is the best.”

Mycologist Paul Stamets is a purveyor and promoter of what he calls high-quality gourmet and immune-supportive mushrooms. Post 9/11, the federal government sought extract samples from Stamets’ company Fungi Perfecti as research into safeguards against a possible chemical weapons attack.

USDA, Washington State and Stamets put their heads together and a partnership with higher education blossomed.

Dr. Nick Naeger/Entomologist/Washington State University:  “Over ten years ago Paul Stamets was growing mushrooms and noticed that honeybees 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.”

Naeger says research shows when bees consume liquids extracted from certain varieties of Stamets’ mushrooms, it cuts viral levels a thousand fold. 

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

The natural pesticide is good news for Aaron Riggs, who manages a 69 acre apple orchard in the Evergreen State.

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.”

While the coronavirus pandemic created some hurdles in supply chains and cleaning procedures, the Hiatts say traffic on the roads to market have cleared substantially.  Hundreds of their hives criss-cross the U.S. on truck beds every year to pollinate tree fruit and nuts before rounding out the summer in honey production.

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.”

With nutritional testing underway, researchers at Washington State University hope to eventually petition the Food and Drug Administration for approval of fungal extracts as a livestock feed additive for bees.  The designation could help ease the burden on beekeepers battling 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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