Certain mushrooms produce anti-viral compounds that could protect threatened honeybees.
By Sylvia Kantor
Paul Stamets has had a life-long love affair with mushrooms, one that goes well beyond their culinary and psychedelic qualities. Wearing his signature hat — made from mushrooms — a turtle pendant and, always, a blue scarf, the nearly 60 year-old mycologist runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned farm and business in Shelton, Washington.
Stamets jokes that it only took him three decades to have his epiphany about the relationship between his beloved fungi and the threatened honeybee. He first began to connect the dots after noticing honeybees feeding on the mycelium (root-like filaments) of mushrooms growing among the wood chips in his garden.
Later, through research supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, Stamets showed that certain species in a class of mushrooms called polypores contained substances that were effective against human pathogens such as pox viruses, flu viruses and herpes. He later learned that these same mushroom compounds, present in certain polypores associated with trees and rotting logs, help bees break down pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other toxins, and bolster the bees' immune systems.
This is welcome news, because the modern day honeybee faces a litany of health threats. As many as 61 different variables may be at play in colony collapse disorder, the mysterious phenomenon responsible for a mass disappearance of bees in the last decade. Although researchers have yet to identify a specific cause, pathogens play a key role in colony collapse disorder. Scientists, beekeepers and farmers are working feverishly to protect the tiny insect that packs such a huge economic punch. At stake is our food supply and a $15 billion U.S. agricultural industry that depends on bees for pollination.
Mycologist meets entomologist
Early last year, Stamets asked Washington State University entomologist Steve Sheppard to help confirm his hunches about bees and fungi. The two have since joined forces to explore the connections that, as far as they know, no one has ever made before. This unlikely pairing of entomology and mycology could lead to less toxic and more effective ways to control the diseases and pests that are implicated in winter hive losses and colony collapse disorder.
Sylvia Kantor is Seattle-based freelance writer and formerly a science writer at Washington State University in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. You can follow her journey through the U.S. National Park system at 59x59blog.wordpress.com