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Can mushrooms protect bees from viruses? These scientists aim to find out (with your help)

Updated: Feb 22, 2023


a furry bee is on a yellow flower in a tinted black and white image
Photo credit: Unsplash / KP Bandyopadhyay

"Mushroom expert” and chemist Yngvar Cramer and molecular biologist Rachel Aronoff are on a mission to see if mushrooms can save the honey bees.


In the past decade, beekeepers have experienced record numbers of losses in their colonies, averaging over 30% according to this Nature study.


And while scientists are still unclear why bee populations are continuing to decline, researchers and technologists are racing to find solutions.


Some, like Dalan Animal Health have received FDA approval for bee vaccines to inoculate the bees against illnesses, while others, like BloomX, are using robots to replicate the pollination work of bees.


These efforts are important because bees are critical to our food systems and contribute over $15 billion annually to the U.S. agricultural economy. When bees are susceptible to viruses, crops are put at risk, but if they can be protected the food system gets an extra layer of biosecurity.


That's why Cramer and Aranoff are exploring whether there's a fungus among us that can protect our buzzing bees.


Why fungi? Aside from the fact that fungi are fundamental to the production of bread, beer, and cheese (aka, the building blocks of society), fungi are also the building blocks of many living networks. They’re essential for many antibiotics and vitamins and outside of medicinal uses, more than 95% of the world’s plants rely on fungi to survive.


Scientists routinely discover new benefits of fungi, whether it be to replace animal meat with mushroom roots or plastic packaging with mycelium, but when there are approximately 3.8 billion species of fungi on Earth and less than 150,000 identified, there are new fungi bio-tools and unknown interactions waiting to be discovered.


That’s the basis for the FootPrint Coalition Science Engine Mycological Innovations category. Led by Science Lead and fungal biotechnologist, Antoni Gandia, the project enables citizen scientists, mycologists, and fungal innovators to explore the limitless possibilities of fungi from biopesticides and bioelectronics to alternative food sources and ecosystem restoration.


And there's already research illustrating that honey bees are protected from viruses by mushroom extracts.


It's why Cramer and Aronoff launched their own Science Engine project, which aims to study fungal biodiversity and the importance it may have on bees.


With the project, Cramer and Aronoff will extend work at Hackuarium, a community lab association in Switzerland. Along with investigating biodiversity, they will share methods to grow, identify, and feed mycelia to bees, cultivate mycelia to make inserts into bee hives, and monitor its effects on their health.


And readers can help them. Right now, the two researchers are at 53% of their funding goal with 50% provided by the Science Engine. Cramer and Aronoff need nearly 5,000 to reach their goal over the next month to make this research possible.


On February 8, the project launched and the duo already has 10 beehive inserts for growing mycelia. “I know that this project will make an impact. We can't afford ignorance on connections between fungal diversity and bees. Take Cordyceps and The Last of Us as a literary example,” one of the project’s endorsers Chris LB Graham said referencing the zombie parasitic fungi from the apocalyptic video game and new HBO show The Last of Us.


“Bees support ecosystems, (and us) and like us likely rely on intricate webs of dying species to thrive. This work on fungi's role in entomology is essential for new conservation policy in a world where fungus aren't protected,” he said in a statement. “I fully endorse this project.”


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