From OPB.org article by Ken Christensen, August 17, 2015
Honeybees need a healthy diet of pollen, nectar and water. But at a bee laboratory in Eastern Washington, Steve Sheppard fills their feeding tubes with murky brown liquid from the forest.
His bees are getting a healthy dose of mushroom juice.
“If this does what we hope, it will be truly revolutionary,” said Sheppard, who heads the Department of Entomology at Washington State University. “Beekeepers are running out of options.”
Commercial honeybees, which pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States annually, have teetered on the brink of collapse for nearly a decade. A third of all bee colonies have died each year since 2006, on average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Like a pancake ‘feeding on you’
Beekeepers, however, say the honeybee’s single greatest threat is a virus-carrying parasite called the varroa mite. If left untreated, varroa mites typically destroy a colony of honeybees in less than two years.
Sheppard has spent decades breeding western honeybees to better tolerate the mite and its viruses. But he hasn’t had much success, he said.
Varroa mites have devastated U.S. beehives since the late 1980s, when they arrived here from Asia. In 1996, half of colonies east of the Mississippi River died due to mite infestations.
The reddish-brown pests, which are no bigger than the head of a pin, invade colonies and multiply rapidly. They hide among bee larvae developing in the honeycomb, feed on infant bee blood and lay several eggs each.
“It would be like having something the size of pancake feeding on you,” Sheppard said.
Varroa mites feed on honeybees and transmit several viruses to their hosts. -photo Ken Christensen, EarthFix/KCTS 9
Honeybees that emerge from the infected hives typically carry illnesses, like a virus that results in deformed wings that prevent bees from flying.
If beekeepers don’t intervene, the varroa mite can destroy a colony in less than two years. Meanwhile, the pest reproduces so rapidly it builds resistance to chemical pesticides more quickly than solutions can be invented, Sheppard said.
That’s why he decided to try an unconventional approach last year, after local mushroom expert Paul Stamets called him with an idea to help arm the honeybee in its fight against the mite.
Learning the way of the bee
“We’ve gone to the moon, we’ve gone to Mars, but we don’t know the way of the bee?” asked Stamets, who owns the medicinal mushroom company Fungi Perfecti near Olympia, Washington.
The self-taught mycologist said he noticed a relationship between honeybees and mushrooms when he observed bees sipping on sugar-rich fungal roots growing in his backyard.
“I looked down, and they were sucking on my mycelium,” he said.
Now he thinks he knows why.
In recent years, his research has shown that rare fungi found in the old-growth forests of Western Washington can help fight other viruses, including tuberculosis, smallpox and bird flu. He wondered if the honeybee would see similar health benefits from wood-rotting mushrooms.
The red-belted polypore mushroom is among five species of fungi that have been shown to improve the honeybee’s immune system. -photo Katja Schulz, Flickr Commons
“Bees have immune systems, just like we do,” he said. “These mushrooms are like miniature pharmaceutical factories.”
Stamets and Sheppard are feeding liquid extracts of those forest mushrooms to mite-infected honeybees. Initial findings suggest that five species of the wood-rotting fungi can reduce the honeybees’ viruses and increase their lifespans.
In addition, the scientists are trying to fight honeybee viruses by taking aim at the varroa mite itself. Insect-killing fungi have been used as an alternative to synthetic chemical pesticides for years, and previous studies show that one type of entomopathogenic fungus can weaken varroa mites in beehives.
Killing parasites without harming bees
Paul Stamets thinks his version of the fungus will be more effective. So far, the results of the experiments in Sheppard’s lab look promising.
“The product seems to be killing mites without harming bees,” Sheppard said.
Paul Stamets cultures mycelium at his laboratory near Olympia, Washington. -photo Ken Christensen, EarthFix/KCTS 9
This fall, the scientists plan to expand both experiments by partnering with commercial beekeepers like Eric Olson, who runs the largest commercial beekeeping operation in Washington.
Olson said two-thirds of his beehives died five years ago because of a varroa mite infestation. After several years successfully controlling the pest, he arrived this year in California for almond pollination season and nearly half of his bees had died during the winter.
He spent $770,000 to buy replacement hives, he said.
“I was lucky that I had the cash and the connections to recover from that,” he said.
Olson recently donated about $50,000 to Sheppard’s department to help find a solution to the mite. Looking at the bees in one of his hives, he said, “I’m really concerned about whether these little girls will survive.”
In confronting Climate Change, ending agribusiness to Grow Organic is even more important than transitioning from fossil fuels.
Solving global warming was never going to be easy, but it would be a heck of a lot easier if we cast off the deadly grip of agribusiness – and started farming for the future
Global warming? Panic over. Fly guilt-free where you like as often as you like. Splash out on that 7 litre Mercedes you’ve always secretly wanted. The global warming crisis could be over. There’s an easy solution that’s been staring us in the face for decades.
The make or break climate conference, COP21, is happening in Paris in December. There will be a lot of haggling, a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of moaning. India and China will fight to keep their coal-fired power stations. Exxon and their Saudi pals will continue to fund scientists who deny climate change. Brazil will fight to protect their right to chop down the Amazon rain forest. Let them have their way … for the time being.
There needn’t be any pain. The negotiations in Paris could be a doddle.
We can continue to burn fossil fuels, using our abundant and cheap reserves of coal and natural gas to generate electricity. We can save liquid fuels for airplanes and ships. We must still go for wind and solar and geothermal, but in a less panicky way.
So how do we do it?
The answer lies in the soil
Farming is responsible for 30% of excess greenhouse gas emissions. But farming could cancel out 100% of our annual excess greenhouse gas emissions. It’s already happening right now, but on less than 2% of the world’s farmland, the organic land.
Carbon dioxide is killing us all. Organic farming sucks carbon dioxide out of the air and converts it into rich soil that will feed us forever. Sounds like a pretty good deal. Of course going organic means we’d have to eat food that tastes better, not get sick from pesticides in our food, enjoy cleaner water and more biodiversity – but that’s a small price to pay for having a habitable planet.
This is the UN International Year of Soils 2015. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that on current trends we have 60 years before the soil runs out.
An organic solution to the greenhouse problem
On August 31 2015, global food giant General Mills announced an investment of $100 million to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent. This will include sourcing products from an additional 250,000 acres of organic production.
Jerry Lynch, the company’s chief sustainability officer pointed out that organic agriculture promotes soil that helps farms better endure droughts, heavy rains and pests, while pulling more carbon from the air and putting it into the ground in the process.
A 34 year trial at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania growing field scale crops shows that organic farming can sequester 1 tonne of carbon per hectare, year after year. The Rodale trial figures show that if regenerative principles were applied globally to arable farming and pasture we could offset all of the annual increase in greenhouse gas.
Change is afoot
The Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance brings together Government, industry and NGOs to advance new solutions to food production that protect soil from further degradation by increasing carbon-rich soil organic matter.
The French National Institute for Agronomical Research states that:
if we adapted farming practices to boost organic matter in soils by 0.4% a year it would compensate for all global greenhouse gas emissions. France’s Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll recently commented: “We could store the equivalent of anthropogenic carbon gas produced by humanity today. Storing carbon in the soil is organic matter in the soil, organic matter is fertilizing the soil.
The benefits of soil organic matter as a carbon sink can be further enhanced by the use of biochar – finely ground charcoal used as a soil improver. (That’s what I do at Carbon Gold). Biochar has a centuries-long residence time in soil, so it acts as a long term carbon sink for carbonised biomass such as rice husks and forestry thinnings which would otherwise decompose or be burned and produce more carbon dioxide. And it accelerates the buildup of organic matter in soil.
So it’s not just me. The Rodale Institute, the UN’s FAO, General Mills and the French government all agree: grow organic, save the planet. Agriculture can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
The COP21 climate conference is in Paris in December. Every participating country will make INDC commitments (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) to reduce emissions. All they have to do is convert agriculture to organic and they can surpass those commitments with ease.
Solving global warming was never going to be easy, but it would be a heck of a lot easier if we cast off the deadly grip of agribusiness and started farming for the future.
Craig Sams is a pioneering Macrobioticist, a former Chairman of the Soil Association, and co-founder of Green & Black’s Chocolate.
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