Over the past decade, beekeepers have experienced dramatic colony losses, with average bee losses of more than 30 percent. Causes range from pollution to habitat loss to viruses transmitted by parasites.

It's on the last of those causes that research may have found a sliver of hope. Scientists may have discovered a way to combat the viruses, and all it took was some mushrooms and the dreams of a one-time long-haired hippie.

The mushroom extract solution

Back in 1984, Paul Stamets, the owner of a mushroom mercantile in Washington state, saw a "continuous convoy of bees" traveling to and from the mushrooms he was growing. The bees would actually move wood chips to gain access to the mushrooms' mycelium, the branching fibers of fungus that look like cobwebs.

"I could see them sipping on the droplets oozing from the mycelium," he told The Seattle Times. Seeing this activity led him to wonder if mushrooms could save bees all over the world.

As colony collapse disorder became a widespread phenomenon, Stamets returned to this epiphany, thinking it might help scientists figure out a way to keep bees alive.

Fomes fomentarius fungi growing on a tree Fomes fomentarius fungi growing on a tree. The spongy material, amadou, can be used to help bees. (Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikimedia Commons)

It was a tough sell.

"I don't have time for this. You sound kind of crazy. I'm gonna go," he recalled a California researcher telling him. "It was never good to start a conversation with scientists you don't know saying, 'I had a dream.'"

Thankfully, that's not the way all his conversations went. When Stamets contacted Steve Sheppard, a Washington State University entomology professor, in 2014, Sheppard paid attention. He had heard a lot of theories about saving bees, but Stamets' observations provided hard evidence that seemed worth exploring.

The findings of that exploration, published in the journal Nature Reports, revealed that a tiny portion of mushroom mycelia extract taken from amadou (Fomes fomentarius) and red reishi (Ganoderma resinaceum) mushrooms resulted in a decreased presence of the viruses associated the tiny Varroa mites.

Bee antivirals

To test the mushroom hypothesis, Stamets, Sheppard and other researchers conducted two experiments. First, bees exposed to the mites were separated into two groups. One group was given access to a sugar syrup with the mushroom extract while a second group was not. The second experiment involved field testing the extract in small colonies maintained by Washington State University.

In both experiments, bees that received the mushroom extract demonstrated significant decreases in viruses.

One of viruses, named deformed wing virus (DWV), results in both smaller wings and shortened lifespans for worker bees. DWV occurrences saw an 800-fold decrease in the lab setting and a 44-fold decrease out in the field when they were fed amadou extracts. It's more difficult to control experiments in the field, hence the differences. Another set of viruses, collectively called the Lake Sinai viruses (LSV) showed a 45,000-fold decrease in occurrences when bees in the field tests were fed red reishi extracts — and that number isn't a typo.

The studies took place over two months during the summer. Future studies with the extract will look at how colonies fare over a longer period, including during the winter. Sheppard and other researchers are already setting up experiments at 300 commercial colonies in Oregon, The Seattle Times reports.

Stamets, for his part, has designed a 3D-printed feeder that delivers the extract to wild bees. Sometime next year, he intends to launch the feeder with a subscription-based service for the extract, selling it through his website, Fungi Perfecti. The money he earns from this isn't intended to make him rich, however.

"I'm not in this for the money," Stamets told Wired. "I walk my talk, and I use my business to fund further research."

Mushroom extract may help save bees
Mushroom extracts have been shown to reduce the presence of bee-killing viruses.