Soon, we may have to share our mushrooms with bees.
While this may not upset too many vegetarians—bored to the point of insanity with uninspiring risottos and halloumi-topped burgers—it might ruffle a few Italian feathers.
But there are more than enough mushrooms to go around and, as anyone who has ever showered in a mouldy student bathroom will attest to, they grow everywhere. Bees, on the other hand, aren't so readily flourishing, with Greenpeace estimating a 40 percent loss of commercial honeybees in the US since 2006 and 45 percent in the UK since 2010.
In the face of such troubling numbers and bees' 22 billion euros-per-year contribution to European agriculture, conservationists are backing increasingly unconventional methods (medieval mead, anyone?) in an attempt to save the winged critters. Maybe mushrooms are the next logical step.
Professor Steve Sheppard and Paul Stamets from the Department of Entomology at Washington State University (WSU) certainly seem to think so. The pair are championing the use of "mushroom juice" in the protection, conservation, and revitalisation of honeybees. At their "bee laboratory" in Washington, Sheppard has been feeding mushroom juice and sugar to a select study group of bees.
If this does what we hope, it will be truly revolutionary. Beekeepers are running out of options.
Speaking to local press, Sheppard explained the potential of his experiment: "If this does what we hope, it will be truly revolutionary. Beekeepers are running out of options."
Meanwhile Stamets heads up the Washington-based mushroom medicine company Fungi Perfecti and became intrigued when he noticed honeybees feeding on fungi growing on trees. He and Sheppard parterned up to complete a set of primary experiments at WSU's "bee laboratory," examining how bees react to fungi nutrients.
While environmental factors like decreasing food sources and habitat sizes are bad news for bees, Sheppard and Stamets believe that diseases such as the varroa mite pose the biggest threat. Described by Sheppard as "like having something the size of pancake feeding on you," the mite carries a virus that has been devastating honeybee hives since arriving from Asia in the 1980s.
Varroa mites spread deadly viruses in honeybees and have short lifespans, meaning they can evolve quickly and become annoyingly responsive to pesticides. They're also resistant to synthetic combatants.
Studying various mushroom extracts—particularly those with antiviral qualities—Sheppard and Stamets' research looks at just how supportive they are against varroa mites. According to WSU's science blog, "initial screening has identified extracts which reduce the virus load without hurting the bees" while Stamets notes in a Fungi Perfecti newsletter that preliminary results suggest that fungal species and feeding concentrations vary considerably in their effect on honeybees.
"Some species, such as the Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) had no detectable effect on captive longevity at any concentration, while others, such as the red-belted polypore mushroom (Fomitopsis pinicola), appear to improve captive lifespan and may decrease viral burden at certain concentrations," he wrote.
Stamets adds that bees given the mushroom-sugar compound are "alive longer" and the "viral counts" in these honeybees are "significantly lower."
But things get a little curious when Stamets claims that his own pathogenic fungi—which he patented in 2001—is most effective in protecting honeybees against varroa mites, especially when other researchers can apparently offer nothing to support this. (Neither Stamets nor Sheppard responded to MUNCHIES' request for comment.)
There does not seem to be much of a factual basis to the claims. Professor Sheppard notes that he has been unable to breed bees resistant to varroa. However in my lab, we have been able to breed hygienic honey bees resistant to deformed wing virus.
Unsurprisingly then, not everyone agrees with the scientists. While biocontrol would be a noble answer to the beepocalypse, the London Beekeepers Association told MUNCHIES they "could not comment" on the research and Professor Francis Ratnieks of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex questions the veracity of their experiment altogether.
"There does not seem to be much of a factual basis to the claims," he tells MUNCHIES. "Professor Sheppard notes that he has been unable to breed bees resistant to varroa. However in my lab, we have been able to breed hygienic honey bees resistant to deformed wing virus and that also have reduced varroa build up, so that fact that he has been unable to do it does not mean it is not possible."
Ratnieks is involved in the development of "hygienic honeybees," attempting to cultivate in-built, natural defence mechanisms within the insects that can detect attacks such as varroa.
"Hygienic bees have also been bred in the USA, most recently by Professor Marla Spival of the University of Minnesota," Ratnieks adds. "This is not just some speculative 'it might work' thing but published research. The article [on Sheppard and Stamets' research] is garbage."
Strong words but while hygienic behaviour is supported by research in publications including the Journal of Apicultural Research and Journal of Economic Entomology as an effective preventative of disease within bee populations, the antiviral qualities of fungi for honeybees is only just being explored.
At least researchers can agree on one thing: a passion for honeybees. If there's one thing we need more of, it's that.