Beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies during the year spanning April 2015 to April 2016. Reasons for this vary from case to case as evidence mounts for the argument that their die-offs are due to man-made activity.
The rapid declines became most noticeable around 2006 or so, when beekeepers first began noticing mysterious die-offs. It was characterized as “colony collapse disorder,” and has been responsible for the loss of 20 to 40 percent of managed honeybee colonies each winter over the past decade.
Commercial growers and hobbyists alike have been forced into more radical methods to preserve the 19 billion dollar agricultural industry. The price of some of that extra work will get passed on to the consumer. The average retail price of honey has roughly doubled since 2006, for instance, but one extraordinary breakthrough in the fight to preserve the population points to fungus, as a new way to save the bees cheaply and very effectively.
Paul Stamets, a mycologist, author, and founder of Host Defense Organic Mushrooms launched BeeFriendly, an initiative to support honeybees through innovative research on fungal-derived products for bees with the goal of increasing bee lifespans, reduce mite and viral numbers, and improve honeybee immunity.
According to partner, Walter “Steve” Sheppard, an entomologist and geneticist who chairs the Department of Entomology at Washington State University, attributes more than 61 different factors at play and that while the insects can handle one or two of these issues, in combination they can “really lead to a problem.”
The idea is to create a sort of “antiviral” for bees much in the way that bears do for themselves, for instance when they rub their wounds in resin. For bees, the specific fungus, an extract of the Amadou mushroom, which from ancient tomes was used to ignite fire against flint as evidenced by the Ötzi the Iceman findings.
So far the results have been positive. Initial experiments on 300 honeybees who consumed the mushroom extracts reduced their viral load by 75 percent and it extended bees lives in controlled settings by 30 to 100 percent, depending on the insect’s life cycle, according to Host Defense. When compared with the control, reduced the Deformed Wing Virus by more than 1,000 times, according to Sheppard.
While the results are showing reduced viral loads, the researchers still need to prove that these methods will help the entire colony to survive, he says. Needless to say if these trails advance beyond control phase, it would be the most cost effective solution to date that directly addresses a large amount issues at once.
Further trails as follows:
Summer 2016—full-sized hive field tests measuring multiple bee health parameters over one year;
Fall 2016 & Winter 2017—full-scale field test measuring survival of treated and untreated colonies under diverse locations and producer conditions.