Solutions Underfoot: How Paul Stamets is Using Mushrooms to Save the Bees
Old-growth forests are libraries of ancestral knowledge, with fungi being the biological network that connects it all. Visionary researcher Paul Stamets has spent more than 40 years studying mycelium, its ability to recycle nutrients, and its role in sustaining life from the ground up. He’s now using those restorative properties to save the bees from extinction.
Bee populations are declining as they face viruses precipitated by climate change. But Stamets’ groundbreaking invention of MycoHoney, made by bees that sip mycelium droplets, provides nutrients to safeguard bee survival. MycoHoney is the first step to saving the world’s most important pollinators from the growing threat of extinction, and ensuring the survival of humanity in the process. It doesn’t get much sweeter than this.
My favorite hat is a very cool hat, made from the amadou mushroom, which is a birch polypore mushroom. This hat is actually made by some ladies in Transylvania. It allowed for the portability of fire, as you can haul embers — hollow this mushroom out, put embers of fire inside — and carry fire for days.
There’s no doubt that we all are Africans. We migrated north into Europe and we discovered something new called winter. This mushroom allowed for the portability of fire.
This mushroom goes back thousands of years medicinally also. Hippocrates first described it in 450 BCE as an anti-inflammatory. Beekeepers throughout Europe use this for smoking bees. This mushroom in the 1960s was the first mushroom to contain an antiviral substance that was known to medicine.
Well, this mushroom is an example of the thread of knowledge going back to our ancestors, when we were once forest people. Not long ago we were so dependent on the forests, and deforestation is the greatest threat to human survival today.
Another friend of mine is agarikon. Agarikon was first described by Dioscorides in 65 AD as elixirium ad longam vitam, or “the elixir of long life.” It is a resident exclusively of the old growth forests in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Northern California, and now thought to be extinct throughout most of Europe because of deforestation. I believe that agarikon, like amadu, will be extremely significant for human survival.
We have now entered into the sixth greatest extinction event known in the history of life on this planet. But this extinction event is not caused by an asteroid impact, or volcanoes, or earthquakes — it’s caused by an organism, by us. Not only are we the cause of this extinction event, but we’re likely to be its victim.
Deforestation is causing zoonotic diseases to spread. The emergence of Ebola is directly related to deforestation and a clash between bats and humans. This is something that I think is emblematic of the times. When an organism exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, then disease vectors emanate. This is the way of nature.
I spend a lot of time in the old growth forests, and in these forests are libraries of knowledge. Ancestrally it goes back not only millennia, but multi-dimensionally in ways that we can barely imagine.
The largest organism in the world is a fungus in Eastern Oregon. It is a honey mushroom called armillaria. It covers 2,200 acres. It’s a contiguous mycelial mat, and it’s only one cell wall thick. Think of that: The forests are being governed and controlled by these large fungal mats, and I think we should respect things that are larger than us, especially the largest organism in the world.
The mycelium of these fungi in particular are the grand molecular disassemblers of nature. They’re soil magicians. They’re tenacious. They can hold tens of thousands times their weight. They can hold the soil together, preventing erosion. And then when they stream out and grow course habitats, they control the dissension of subsequent microorganisms that populate the downstream communities that give rise to the plants in the forest that create the debris fields that then feed the fungal descendants.
They’re purposeful in their choosing of microbial allies. They’re commensal.
The mycelium is an extended stomach. They’re externalized lungs, and I believe that these are externalized neurological networks and part of the Earth’s natural Internet that’s in constant biomolecular communication, governing the ecosystem.
The mycelium expresses these little extracellular droplets — in which are acids, enzymes, all sorts of messaging molecules — many compounds that scientists are still discovering that are unique (at least they’re unique to us) and the mycelium transports thousands of nuclide. These bundles of nuclei stream across the networks. And in the hundreds of millions of tips of mycelium in a swath the size of the stretch of my arms is a new insect, a new toxin, a new food source. There’s a reassortment of nuclei in an expression of a new enzyme, a new acid, a new solution to digesting that toxin. What happens?
The mycelium becomes educated. It then captures that new nutrition, and that information genetically becomes resident within the entire mycelial mat. These are self-learning membranes.
More than 90% of plants have mycorrhizal fungi, which extend the root zones hundreds of times, giving them the essential nutrients. But the use of fertilizers now on factory farms defeats the mycorrhizal networks and make a plant become addicted like a drug addict. Depending upon these natural ecological systems is far better.
A resource study came out just a few months ago — and it’s surprising that this study just recently came out — in which six bean plants were individually put into different pots. The first bean plant was exposed to aphids; the plant then produced alkaloids that are anti-aphid. The first plant was the only one exposed; the five other plants did not produce anti-aphids. But when the six plants were joined together in common soil connected by the mycelial networks, when the first plant was exposed to aphids, all the other five plants also produced the anti-aphid alkaloids, thus proving that the root system had a communication pathway to help alert and defend the community from potential pathogens.
Not long ago, our forests of the world had enormous amounts of wood debris. Unfortunately now, the wood debris has been taken out of the forests, and with our current practices, we have a small fraction of the resident wood debris in nature, which organisms depended upon and through which we’ve evolved through the thread of evolution to where we are today. Now we are removing that menu of wood debris from the ecosystem. Organisms have been dependent upon it for millions of years. What do they do?
I want to bring to you to an epiphany that I’ve had that I think is just truly revolutionary. Bee populations are facing stressors that lead to colony collapse disorders, loss of poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites from mites that are carrying viruses, and exposure to pesticides. My good friend Louie Schwartzberg has made a short movie about how bees forage several miles away from their habitat. The bees leave these hives and then they don’t come back. And worker bees are at the end of their life when they’re foraging, so when you see bees on flowers, that’s the last week or so of their life. But upon hatching, young bees then quickly become nurse bees and they take care of the brood. Well, when there is a loss of foraging bees, the nurse bees then are prematurely recruited, and as a result, the nurse bees’ population declines and the brood is not taken care of. Mites and other diseases then begin to spiral out of control, and suddenly the whole colony collapses.
So, follow me on this path of a very bizarre set of circumstances. My friend Dusty and I are hiking in the old growth forest in the Olympic National Forest, the south fork of the Hoh. Dusty sees this incredible bear scratch — bears scratch trees for the resin — which had become an entry wound for polypore mushrooms when we came back two years later. So the forest service and the lumber industry hired hunters to kill thousands of bears because they were scratching the trees and hurting their timber interests.
But David Suzuki and others then found out the bears were actually pulling salmon from the stream and bringing sea phosphorus back into the forest ecosystem, thus allowing the trees to grow larger. Humans are so adept at choosing exactly opposite of their best interest.
So, when we went returned to this tree and the red-belted polypore mushroom was popping out, this was exactly the species that the timber industry and the lumber industry was trying to prevent from growing.
But this fungus is very active in breaking down a wide assortment of toxins, including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
Meanwhile I had a garden, and in 1984 I had two bee hives. I was growing a giant mushroom in my garden, and one day was astonished to see the bees had moved wood chips away, exposing its mycelium. I looked really carefully and they were sucking on my mycelium. Now, in my garden we have many flowering plants, but a continuous stream of bees — from morning to dusk for 40 days — went to my patch of mycelium and sucked it down.
I thought this was very interesting. I looked at it carefully. I could see the little sweat droplets on the mycelium that they exposed, and they were sipping on them. I thought that was really interesting, so I published this in Harrowsmith Magazine and in one of my books, “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms.” Virtually everybody ignored me except for one bee keeper in Ottawa. I said, “Well, maybe that’s why bees are attracted to sawdust piles in the summertime.”
But later, an article came out saying that all plants are part fungi and that fungicide use reduces beneficial fungi that are important for bees. Then a series of other articles comes out about a Polyphenol called P. coumaric acid, which controls your detoxification pathways. We use it, bees use it, and all animals use it. So basically without fungi, you don’t have P. coumaric acid, and the bees are dependent upon these fungal compounds that are in decomposing wood for their detoxification pathways. When you remove the wood, their detoxification pathways are turned off, and there is a hyper-accumulation of toxins — fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and more. The bees develop malaise and are not able to take care of themselves.
So, Louie Schwartzberg knew of my work with insects and fungi and asked, “Paul, can you help the bees?” I told him about the strange experience with bees in my garden, and I started thinking and thinking. I love the brain space between sleep and awakening, and I lay in that state of semi-consciousness and I had this Gestalt-ic experience of connecting the dots. Then I had this epiphany that took me 30 years.
We have now created MycoHoney, coming from mycelium.
The MycoHoney is extremely sweet — a wide assortment of sugars and polysaccharides. Beekeepers typically use 50% sucrose solutions to feed the honey bees. The honey bees are not native to North America, but we have 4,000 native bees, and they also are dependent upon these complex sugars. So we approached several universities with this MycoHoney. When I contacted Washington State University, they said, “Please, don’t go to anyone else. This is too cool of an idea.”
So we started running experiments with bees. First we do a stress test. A hundred bees in a cage are given extracts of the mycelium (the MycoHoney) of different species. We have 500 strains of species in our cultural library, but I focused in on a particular group of polypore mushrooms because I knew from agarikon and from amadu that they had anti-viral properties.
When we started doing this research, it dawned on me that many of these polypores grow on birch trees, and so we have the amadu at the very top, we have chaga, and we have reishi. Now, bees go to scratched trees, only of willows and birch trees and young firs, which the bears also scratch. The red-belted polypore grows on firs, and these three other species grow on birch trees, but that’s specifically the trees the bees goes to sip on the sap and to collect their resins for population — for propolis.
Our preliminary results of a stress test show the effects of the red-belted polypore and the amadu mushroom in being able to increase longevity, which is extraordinarily significant. It means that more of the bees are living and that worker bees can do their job. The nurse bees are not prematurely recruited.
So with Dr. Steve Shepherd and Dr. Brandon Taylor, who I’m working with and as entomologists with 39 years of experience studying bees, I’m unaware of any reports that extend the life of worker bees more than this.
Then we decided to look at the viruses being vectored by the mites. The bees in captivity only live for about four weeks before they succumb to the viruses vectored by the mites. With the absence of access to these fungal constituents that help the detoxification pathway, the viral counts skyrocket. But when feeding them our extracts compared to their sugar control, the viral counts plummet.
A massive amount of viruses will reproduce within the bees without the exposure of the MycoHoney. But as the MycoHoney increases, there’s a radical decline in the viral pathogen payload.
How weird is this? The same mushrooms that can limit bird flu, H5N1, and herpes, can also positively affect bees by controlling the viral burden and reduce them. I think this points to a larger picture. And looking now at the bees in captivity and the survival rate, the red reishi also—and this is significant here in this part of the life span—again, the worker bees were able to do their job, the nurse bees, they don’t have to be prematurely recruited, the colony then is better able to survive.
We have confirmed that we can increase longevity, we can confirm that we reduce the viral payloads, and we know that the varroa mites can be controlled by Metarhizium fungi. Now, we are going to go into thousands of bee hives next fall to try to demonstrate this across many states in the United States and hopefully in many countries.
I really believe the solutions are literally underfoot, and they’re also endemic to our culture. How many of us who read Winnie the Pooh to our children, or some of you young people here, knew about Winnie the Pooh going to rotted logs to go after the bees? I’m thrilled that I made this discovery, and I’m also frightened. How is it today that I’m the first one to have made this discovery? We scoured the scientific literature. We had mycologists, entomologists that have gone to hundreds of conferences, but no one’s ever mentioned this — even a whisper of it. Bees are attracted to rotting logs, specifically for their immunological benefit and ability to up-regulate their immune system, allow them to detoxify toxins, and they allow them to be better pollinators.
30% of our food is directly pollinated by bees. 70% of our food is controlled by pollinators. We are suffering a collapse of our ecosystems, but we can do something about this. I’m proposing we be mushroomed. I’m calling out to all of you as citizen scientists to join in a mycological revolution — to go out and be able to help wild bees as well as the honey bee, and to be able to engage in permaculture practices to return carbon back into the soil, and to build the mycelial networks… because we are far more interconnected with mycelium in nature than we even have a glimpse of being possible.