By now, most of us have become familiar with the horrific phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has destroyed many of the world’s honey bee hives. It’s a regular occurrence to see articles discussing CCD and numerous scientific studies have attempted to explain its cause. Nearly all of the information available on CCD paints a rather bleak picture: worker bees, called “drones,” are dying in sudden and massive numbers, most likely attributed to human-driven processes and  human-introduced chemicals, and there isn’t a clear solution yet but in the meantime colony numbers are diminishing which has a ripple effect on nature and the food chain. It’s not a petty picture; however, after attending a recent presentation by world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, I can say, “FINALLY! Some good news!” in regards to the future of honey bee, or “Apis,” survival.

“Apis” is the genus for honey bees and an “apiary” is where beehives are kept. Honey bees are not to be mistaken with wasps like yellowjackets and mud dobbers. Apis species are considered “super pollinators” and are responsible for pollinating not only a good percentage of our food crops but also plants we consider “herbs.” The Center for Food Safety’s website notes: “According to the United Nations Environment Programme, of the 100 crop varieties that provide 90% of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees.  In North America, honey bees alone pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruits, such as almonds, avocados, cranberries and apples, in addition to commodity crops like soy.”

Every spring, we can witness honey bees and other pollinators buzzing around dandelions and dead nettles. Both of these plants provide important herbal medicines and nutritious forages and are some of the earliest food sources for the bees every spring.

Many other herbs, wild or cultivated alike, are also pollinated almost exclusively by honey bees. They include fennel, alfalfa, rose, wild cherry, blackberry/raspberry, red clover, and passionflower.

So what is threatening our Apis allies? What can we do about it as citizens and consumers, and what role does Paul Stamets play in all of this? 

Here’s the skinny:

While there are numerous stress factors identified as contributing to CCD, the invasive varroa mites are the leading contenders. Varroa mites become vectors for numerous viruses including one that deforms the wings of honeybees. It was Stamets, who was examining the connection between honey bee deaths and these varroa mites, who discovered that fungi, particularly reishi and amadou, could provide a strong antiviral solution for our little friends. He pursued a partnership with scientists at Washington State University and developed a fungi antiviral goo that the bees eat, which in turn brings their immunity up and results in a startlingly successful rate of survival. Though more study is required, this revelation is good news. Now, as citizens, we can help these “super pollinators” by:

  • Stopping our  use and purchase of pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids.
  • Investing in fungi research (http://bees.wsu.edu/).
  • Buying only ethical bee products.
  • Planting more plants that will feed our precious bees and NOT immediately weed or mow our early bee nourishers like dandelions and dead nettles once the growth of spring begins.

Resources and Further Reading:

Center for Food Safety
http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/304/pollinators-and-pesticides/impacts-on-the-food-supply

Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder

Wired Magazine.  “A Mushroom Extract Might Save Bees from a Killer Virus.” 
https://www.wired.com/story/a-mushroom-extract-might-save-bees-from-a-killer-virus/

The Honeybee Conservancy. “Honeybees: Heroes of Our Planet.”
https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/why-bees/honey-bees-heroes-of-our-planet/

Could a Mushroom Save the Honeybee?
https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/09/446928755/could-a-mushroom-save-the-honeybee

Washington State University Insider. “Fungus provides powerful medicine in fighting honeybee viruses.”
https://news.wsu.edu/2018/10/04/fungus-provides-powerful-medicine-fighting-honey-bee-viruses/

Personal notes of the author from Paul Stamets’ presentation at Imagine Convergence, Orcas Island WA. March 2019.

Writer Erin Lanum is a clinically trained herbalist and certified death midwife with years of focus on nutrition, herbs, sustainability, ethical wild-crafting, death and dying,  and human connection to the ecosystems inside and out. Erin holds a B.Sc. in Environmental Studies from the University of Oregon, is a graduate of Columbine’s School of Botanical Studies 4-year apprenticeship program in Eugene, OR, and a former student of Paul Berger at North American Institute of Medical Herbalism in Boulder, CO. Both Oregon and Washington are where she calls home, but she is grateful for her years in Hawaii and Colorado because making “home” in many places has broadened her sense of place.

For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.