Science shows that fungi can boost the immune system of a hive.
Fungi are the original source of our antibiotics, and are providing some of our most reliable current anti-viral research. Certain mushrooms are proving to be effective in combating a variety of cancers. What is of particular interest to me is the ability of some types of fungi to seriously boost our immune systems. When I traveled to the Caribbean last year to teach composting and biological teas, I skipped my immunizations in favor of taking twice-daily doses of immune-boosting mushroom extracts. (Please don’t ever take my actions as health advice, I’m of wickedly robust health and this strategy may not be appropriate for all global travelers.)
Old news to bees
Here’s where things get interesting; the immune-boosting power of fungi is old news to the bees. Over the last couple of decades, leading mycologist and entrepreneur Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti has been collecting compelling field research demonstrating the relationship between honey bees and certain types of fungi. Originally observed by Stamets in a patch of King Stropharia mushrooms at his home in Washington, convoys of bees were repeatedly seen sipping exudates from the fungi’s mycelium from dawn to dusk. (Fungi is the organism, a mushroom is its fruiting body, the mycelium is the fuzzy mass that makes up the fungi, and a hyphae are the individual strands of the mycelium).
While initially unsure what to make of these observations, Stamets later came up with a theory in response to the rise of Colony Collapse Disorder in the early 2000s. Officially classified in 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder is responsible for annual hive losses of 30-40% each winter. Blamed on a number of factors from neonicotinoids and other pesticides, climate change, the spread of the Varoa mite and habitat loss, the underlying theme seemed to be a lack of resilience on the part of the bees.
Stamets theorized that the nutritional reinforcement the bees were gathering from their visits to the patches of fungi played a key role in maintaining hive health. With the devastating loss of habitat for beneficial fungi we’ve experienced over the last 50 years, mostly due to development and short-sighted agricultural practices, many of the world’s bees have lost access to the fungi that help keep them healthy. Once the hive’s immune system is weak, the doors are wide open for an opportunistic infection.
Stamets teamed up in 2014 with the head of the Washington State University APIS Molecular Systematics Laboratory, Dr. Steve Sheppard, to conduct research trials to see if restoring the fungi + bee relationship could help to prevent colony collapse. “The preliminary results suggest that certain extracts of polypore mushrooms can increase worker bee longevity and reduce viral burden,” reports Fungi Perfecti. Of particular surprise to Dr. Sheppard was the significant increase in the worker bee’s lifespan, which results in a much more productive and resilient hive.
The use of fungi as a nutritional boost isn’t unique to honey bees. A recent discovery by Cristiano Menenzes of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation found that bees were intentionally farming fungi within their hives. The Brazilian stingless bee, Scaptotrigona depilis, depends upon this fungi for the health of the hive, particularly in the developing brood cells. This fungi permeates the cerumen, the building material made of wax and resin that makes up the structure of the hive. After the bees deposit regurgitated food into the brood cells and lay an egg, the fungus starts growing. Once the egg hatches, the larvae then consume the fungi. This process was found to be crucial to the health of the brood, and when researchers tried to raise bees in the lab without the fungus, the results were devastating. The survival of the brood dropped from 72% to only 8%, a reproduction rate that spells near certain doom for the hive.
How you can restore beneficial fungi to your own garden
Beneficial fungi are crucial to many functions in a healthy ecosystem, and fortunately are quite easy to encourage. Healthy populations will flourish when provided with the right conditions.
- Never till again. Tillage and aggressive manipulation of soil are simply the most devastating activities to soil health a gardener can do. Fungi like it gentle, so be considerate.
- Provide habitat. The fungi we want to cultivate are decomposers, and their favorite food sources are hard to digest materials like lignin, aka wood. Use liberal amounts of wood chips in garden pathways and recreational areas of your yard. Make it a boss move and lay down several layers of cardboard first, which fungi (and earthworms) go absolutely bonkers for. Logs, stumps, and other pieces of wood in contact with the soil will grow fungi quite quickly. Make some fungal habitat art pieces. These logs often then become habitat for solitary bee species, which like to burrow into them, and provide protected areas for ground-dwelling bees as well.
- Avoid fungicides, even OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute)-listed ones. Quit trying to kill pathogenic fungi; it’s a much more effective strategy to encourage beneficial ones.
- Keep some wild areas of your garden. Resist the urge to overtidy, as fungi and many other garden allies thrive in undisturbed areas of the yard. Make it a point to cultivate an appreciation for “wabi sabi,” the aesthetics of natural wear and randomness.
“Nature leads us to solutions if we connect the dots, are open minded, and think creatively.” — Paul Stamets
James Loomis is the Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens.