How mushrooms might save the honey bee

In the fight against one of the honey bee’s nemesis, the varroa mite, scientists have found an ally in a widely-distributed mushroom.

Pity the honey bees. Between toxic pesticides, habitat change, disease, and stress, they’ve got the ol’ blood-sucking varroa mite to contend with as well. Is it any wonder that these workhorses of the insect world are struggling?

As honey bee (Apis mellifera) populations around the world are declining thanks to the mysterious phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) – the cause of which is not exactly known, but assumed to be a combination of the aforementioned conditions – scientists are frantic to help. While the losses have stopped their quick ascent, they persist – the current average rate of 30 percent annual mortality is still nearly double the average rate reported prior to 2006, notes the California Academy of Sciences' magazine, bioGraphic. This is obviously worrisome for the bees, but for us humans as well since these mighty pollinators tend to one-third of all the agricultural crops we rely on for food.

While some of the causes of CCD are more nebulous and hard to target, the mite – with the suitably Harry Potteresque name of Varroa destructor – is an obvious place to start. Again, from bioGraphic:

These tiny parasitic arachnids weaken adult and juvenile bees by sucking their blood. They also transmit a number of viruses that can spread throughout a colony like wildfire. To make matters worse, the mites reproduce quickly and, because of this, can rapidly evolve resistance to traditional chemical pesticides.

Egads, and what to do? More pesticide seems a fool’s errand. But scientists from Washington State University might have struck gold with a sustainable strategy employing compounds produced by a widely distributed mushroom (Metarhizium anisopliae) that is known to parasitize a number of different insects. And the best part is, bees thus far seem immune to its powers, meaning that the spores and extracts that can devastate the mites are leaving treated hives healthier than not-treated ones.

Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg produced the short film below, diving deep into the hive and exploring this new hope for the bees. It's a fascinating look at how nature could come to the rescue to help one of its own.

For more on this and other fascinating science stories, visit bioGraphic.

Tags: Agriculture | Bees | Colony Collapse Disorder | Insects

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