Mushrooms could save the bees. Maybe.

Wired shares the latest unexpected benefit from mushroom fundi Paul Stamets, who may have found a weapon to beat back CCD, the syndrome that’s devastating bee populations. He noticed that bees were using mushrooms to treat themselves for otherwise deadly mite-borne illnesses:

The worst of these diseases is deformed wing virus, believed to be one of the largest contributors to the devastation of honeybees worldwide. Named for the shrunken and misshapen wings that develop in affected bees, DWV robs its hosts of flight, undermines their immune system, and halves their lifespan. The sicker a bee is, and the more useless its wings, the fewer plants it pollinates. What’s more, what flora an infected bee does manage to visit become tainted by the virus, transmitting the infection to future pollinators.

The mushrooms in question belong to the genera Fomes and Ganoderma, better known to fungus fans as amadou and reishi. The former commonly grow on trees, in the shape of a horse’s hoof. The latter have long been prized in traditional medicine circles and are a common sight at Asian markets and health food stores. Both belong to an order of fungi known as polypores, extracts of which have been shown in numerous studies to possess potent antiviral properties against dangerous infections like swine flu, pox viruses, and HIV.

Stamets has long suspected that bees derive some benefit from mushrooms.

He recalls a scene from his backyard in July of 1984—the first time he noticed bees from his personal hive flying back and forth to a pile of fungus-coated wood chips. The bees, he says, were sipping droplets of liquid that had oozed from the mushroom’s mycelium, the fuzzy white network of cobwebby filaments through which fungi absorb nutrients.

At the time he figured the droplets contained sugar (fungi break down wood into glucose). “But then, a few years ago, I had an epiphany—a waking dream, actually, ” Stamets says. What if the bees were getting more than a shot of sugar? He began to wonder if they were in fact self-medicating.

That question led him to Walter Sheppard, chair of the entomology department at Washington State University and one of the world’s leading experts on bees.

In both indoor experiments and outdoor field tests, bees that fed on mycelium extracts fared significantly better than those that drank only sugar water. In caged bees infected with DWV, the researchers observed an 800-fold decrease in virus titres (a measure of the level of virus in the bee’s system) among bees dosed with amadou extract. The effect was less powerful in the field, which are less strictly controlled than lab trials—colonies fed reishi extract saw a 79-fold reduction in DWV, those fed amadou extract a 44-fold reduction—but the results were still highly significant.

You can read Stamets’ (and colleagues’) study, “Extracts of Polypore Mushroom Mycelia Reduce Viruses in Honey Bees,” in Nature: Scientific Reports here.

[via Newsweek]