Mushroom extract might rescue bees from deadly virus

Life is tough for the honeybee, but new research may save colonies by using mushroom extracts as feed additives to combat a devastating virus.

Researchers from Washington State University are working on a field experiment with 72 hives this month in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where beekeepers have hauled their hives for the annual almond orchard pollination.

Honeybees, worth almost $20 billion to American agriculture, are dying at alarming rates, threatening honey production and crop pollination. According to the Bee Informed Partnership, from 2018 to 2019, U.S. beekeepers lost 40% of their colonies.

Researchers call this “colony collapse disorder” and attribute much of it to the deformed wing virus, so-named because of how it disfigures bees’ wings. The virus, according to entomologist Laura Lavine of Washington State University, undermines a bee’s immune system, robs it of flight and halves its lifespan.

“It’s a tragedy for our bees,” said John Jacob, a beekeeper at Old Sol Apiaries in Rogue River, Ore.

The deformed wing virus is transmitted by a parasitic mite called the varroa destructor, a tiny, button-shaped, eight-legged creature that latches onto bees and feeds on their tissues.

Scientists say their California experiment may offer a solution to the virus: mushrooms.

Walter Steven Sheppard, lead researcher on the project and an entomologist at WSU, said the fungi he’s using are classified as Ganoderma lucidum, also called lingzhi or reishi. These are rust-colored, kidney-shaped “shelf” mushrooms that grow like fans on trees. Sheppard said he has also experimented with the genera Fomes. Both belong to the fungi order polypores, and their extracts have long been prized in Asian medicine for supposed antiviral properties.

The researchers say the idea of using mushrooms to cure bees was the brainchild of Paul Stamets, a prominent mycologist and founder of Fungi Perfecti, a medicinal mushroom business in Olympia, Wash.

In 1984, Stamets noticed bees from his personal hive landing on mushrooms and sipping droplets of liquid from each mushroom’s mycelium, the delicate web of filaments. Decades later, around 2016, he had an epiphany: perhaps the bees had not just been seeking sugar, but were self-medicating.

Sheppard, one of the world’s leading bee experts, said Stamets approached him with his theory a few years ago and a partnership was born. They soon collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WSU.

The researchers dosed sugar-water feeders with mycelium extracts from several mushroom species, analyzing the effect on bees.

In field and lab studies, treated bees fared better when infected by the virus. In cages, treated bees had an 800-fold decrease in virus level; in the field, the decrease was 44- to 79-fold, still significant.

Sheppard said it’s not yet clear how the extracts reduce virus levels. He said the mushrooms are either bolstering the bees’ immune systems or restraining the virus directly, and it will take more lab work to find out.

The field work, Sheppard said, will last until mid-March.

“We’re down here today feeding some of the bees one type of mushroom extract, some another type and the control group just sugar syrup,” Sheppard said Monday. “This experiment is keeping us pretty busy. It’s exciting.”

After field tests, the team will bring back samples and analyze them in the lab for another month or longer. Nick Naeger and Jennifer Han, pollinator researchers at Washington State, will lead lab work.

Sheppard said mycelium extracts might become available for beekeepers to use in 2020. His team, he said, is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other groups to get the extracts registered as a feed additive for bees.

“I’m encouraged,” said Sheppard. “I think what we’re doing has the potential to be commercial soon. Beekeepers I talk to are really looking forward to using the material. I think we’ll get approval this year.”

Jacob said, as a beekeeper, he’s honored to be part of the experiment.

“The beekeeping industry is in deep trouble right now,” said Jacob, “and I think this is going to make a big difference.”


All about dairy goats

The Northwest Oregon Dairy Goat Association’s Goat Education Conference will be Feb. 29 at the Clackamas County Fair & Event Center.

“Northwest Oregon Dairy Goat Association invites you to a fun filled day of goat education & learning,” according to the event website.  “A wide variety of classes for goat owners of all kinds! Whether you are a beginner, a 4-Her, or an advanced goat owner, there is something for everyone!”

The daylong event will include educational sessions on a variety of topics ranging from pasture management, animal care, marketing, and soap and cheese making. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m., and orientation begins at 9 a.m.

Pre-registration closes at midnight on Feb. 26, and can be completed on the event website. Adult registration is $40, and youth registration is $20.

The Clackamas County Fair & Event Center is at 694 NE 4th Ave., Canby, Ore.

Sponsors for the event are Coastal Farm and Ranch, Dark Horse Solutions,  Karmadillo Press, Simple Pulse, Twin Pear Farm, and Union Mills Feed.

 


Learn advanced high tunnel management techniques

There’s still time to register for a workshop offered Feb. 24 by Oregon State University Extension and the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance on high tunnel management.

The workshop will be conducted Feb. 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Deschutes County Extension Building 3, 3800 SW Airport Way, Redmond. Lunch is included. Registrations, at the event website, must be completed by Feb. 21.

Andrew Mefferd, the editor of Growing for Market magazine, will present the workshop. Topics will include: Getting the most out of your hoophouse vegetable production; crop management strategies; advanced protected growing considerations; and an introduction to no-till agriculture.

For any questions contact Clare Sullivan at 541-602-2009, or email clare.sullivan@oregonstate.edu.


Bee researchers draft new weapon in fight against deadly varroa mite

Honeybees, worth almost $20 billion to American agriculture, are worth protecting — and a new biological weapon scientists discovered may help combat honeybees’ main enemy, aptly named the varroa destructor.

The varroa destructor is a parasitic mite responsible for decimating honeybee hives. Now, in an effort to save bee colonies, researchers are tapping into an unlikely ally: the bacteria that live in bees’ guts.

In a January 2020 experiment, scientists engineered gut bacteria that occurs naturally in bees. The results, they reported, were astounding — the mites died after ingesting the manipulated bacteria, while the bees’ own immune systems were strengthened.

Outside the lab, researchers say they hope the technique can be scaled up to rescue full colonies.

But there’s a long road ahead.

Since the 1940s, the number of hives in the U.S. has nose-dived from 6 million to 2.5 million. From 2018 to 2019 alone, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

A combination of colony-killing foes are blamed, but researchers say varroa mites pose the greatest threat.

“Varroa mites are the worst,” said Laura Lavine, entomology department chair at Washington State University. “They’re the most imminent threat to beehives in North America today.”

The mites kill bees by feeding on their fat stores, said Tim Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper and member of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. They also carry the deadly “deformed wing” virus, which they transmit to bees.

To put this in human scale, molecular biology researcher Sean Leonard said to imagine a mammoth tick clinging to you and feeding off your body.

“It’s like having a giant tick the size of your face sucking your blood,” said Leonard.

Leonard is a graduate student at the University of Texas studying cell and molecular biology. He is part of the research team that discovered the potential solution to combating varroa mites.

Leonard and his colleagues engineered double-stranded RNA to use as ammunition against varroa mites and the virus they carry.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, exists in all living cells. Its main role is to act as a messenger, carrying DNA’s protein-coding instructions to a cell’s reproduction machinery. But RNA can also be used to shut down invasive genetic materials.

The team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin used two similar but distinct techniques, one for killing the mites and another for combating the virus.

To attack the virus, the scientists used a preventive technique similar to vaccination in human or animal medicine. Using double-stranded RNA, they introduced a small portion of the genome into the bee, which strengthened the bee’s immune system against the later invasion of a full-scale virus.

“If you could compare it, it’s almost like getting a vaccine,” said Leonard.

To kill the varroa destructors, the research team attacked the mites’ immune systems directly.

Leonard figured out how to genetically modify Snodgrassella alvi, one of the bacteria in a bee’s gut, so it would produce RNA that matched the genetic material he wanted to dismantle.

The team then put the engineered bacteria into sugar water and fed it to honeybees. Later, when the mites fed off the bees, they ate the engineered bacteria — and died. The mites, which were forced to dismember some of their own genes, had been tricked into killing themselves.

Mites were 70% more likely to die on treated bees, and bees infected with the virus were 36% more likely to survive, the team reported.

“When we got those results in, we definitely started to get excited,” said Leonard. “I think this is such a promising technology. But we don’t have a marketable product yet.”

The techniques, though exciting, won’t immediately be available to beekeepers.

Critics are concerned about the use of engineered bacteria outside the lab, since bacteria in the wild are not easy to contain. Leonard said caution is crucial, but because the bacteria are not known to exist outside bees’ guts, he is not worried about cross-species infection.

Experts agree that more experimental work needs to be done on hives in controlled settings before testing the effectiveness on a mass scale.

It will take time, research, industry partners and funding to make this work, said Leonard.

Through his research, Leonard has developed an appreciation for bees.

“I’ve come to love these fascinating creatures,” he said. “There’s something amazing about opening a hive and seeing thousands of bees crawling all over and working together.”

When he completes his Ph.D., Leonard said, he hopes to join the ranks of U.S. beekeepers — hopefully in a world with fewer threats from varroa mites.


Registration still open for Small Farms Conference

Registration for Oregon State University’s popular Small Farms Conference is still open.

The day-long event will be held Feb. 22, 2020, at OSU’s Corvallis campus at the LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Hill Alumni Center.

“The Oregon Small Farms Conference is a daylong event geared toward farmers, agricultural professionals, food policy advocates, students and managers of farmers markets,” according to the event’s website.  “Twenty-seven educational sessions are offered on a variety of topics relevant to the Oregon small farmers. Speakers include farmers, OSU Extension faculty, agribusiness, and more.”

Registration through Feb. 7 is $85. Registration is not available at the door.

In addition to three seminar sessions, the conference includes a networking session, “Think With a Drink,” which will allow attendees to confer with other small farmers over beer, wine or cider.

For more information, go to the conference website.

The conference is sponsored by Northwest Farm Credit Services.


University extension offers succession planning

The University of Idaho Extension Service will offer a four-class course on succession planning at the Gooding County extension office.

The classes will help farmers and ranchers identify a successor, evaluate financial viability to transition, develop transfer strategies and determine the next step in the process.

The classes are set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 26 and March 4, 11 and 18.

Cost is $100 per farm or ranch for the four-day course. Lunch and materials are included.

The registration deadline is Feb. 21. To register or for more information, call (208) 934-4417.


Blue gold: Put water rights to good use

SALEM — The most important asset farmers own is not the land, said Peter Mohr, a natural resources attorney. “It’s the water right.”

Because water is considered blue gold, it provokes disputes across the U.S.

“Water rights are a serious business,” said Mohr. “I came from the intermountain West in Colorado, where people bludgeon, kill and maim over this stuff.”

Mohr was speaking to a crowd of farmers at the Northwest Ag Show Jan. 16 in Salem, Ore.

Know your rights
Mohr said he gets numerous calls from landowners who don’t understand their water rights.

Farmers who inherit land, said Mohr, don’t always know the historic water use for their property. Those who buy land, he said, often don’t understand the water rights connected to the property.

“Realtors don’t know jack about water rights,” said Mohr. “I’ve seen people buy properties and set up operations just to see that the water right is nowhere near what they thought it was. Farmers need to know the rights.”

‘Use it or lose it’
Because water is a precious resource, legally, a farmer has to put the water to beneficial use or lose the right to it. Irrigation, for example, can be approved by the Oregon Department of Water Resources as an official “beneficial use.”

According to ORS 540.610, one of Oregon’s statutes regarding water rights, if a farm fails to use all or part of its water right for five successive years, the farm can forfeit its right.

“What about me?” asked an Oregon sheep farmer who did not wish to be identified to protect his water rights. “I have an 85-acre sheep farm. When I had 180 head of sheep, I used the water all the time. But I’m getting older, so now I’m down to 30 head with just 35 acres of irrigation. If I irrigated the whole 85 acres, I’d have to make hay, sell it, buy fertilizer. It’s stupid for me to irrigate. So how can I keep my water rights?”

To keep the rights, answered Mohr, farmers like this one have to get creative.

Turning water into money

If you decide to sell or lease out your water right, Mohr advised, get a true appraisal first. He said too many farmers accept an undervaluation of their water rights.

But more often, farmers have had the water rights to their property held in the family or business for generations, and are unwilling to give up the rights. This is when farms need to strategize how to monetize their unused water.

One option, said Mohr, is for a farm to temporarily transfer its rights to another user. This cannot just be done by casually inviting a neighbor to use the excess water. To keep the right, the farmer who holds the deed to the water must apply to get the transfer approved by the state.

A farm can even temporarily transfer water rights to the state in exchange for payment.

Another option is for a farmer, working through an attorney, to set up an agreement with a water conservation agency that benefits the agency, the farm and fish.

One of Mohr’s clients in John Day, Ore., did exactly this. The water supply was insufficient to sustain the local fish population during dry seasons. The farm did not always max out its water rights. So Mohr negotiated an agreement in which Oregon Water Trust, a conservation organization, would pay the farm to release a portion of its water to the fish when the flow reached a specific low point. The payment, said Mohr, was enough not only to compensate the farm for any lost crop profits, but to outfit the farm with “a real slug of money” every year.

Mohr said he hopes other organizations, such as Bonneville Power Administration, set up agreements like this — using monetary incentives to help both farmers and the environment.

“Ag has all the marbles,” said Mohr, addressing the farmers. “You guys own the most important asset in the West. Know it and use it well.”


Asian giant hornet, a nemesis of honeybees, appears in Washington

BLAINE, Wash. — As if life wasn’t hard enough for the honeybee, things just got worse with the appearance of a new hornet that can decimate hives.

While honeybees in North America face many foes such as lethal varroa mites, a new nemesis buzzed onto the scene in Washington state — an invasive species capable of killing honeybee populations, reducing crop pollination and stinging humans.

The pest is the Asian giant hornet. According to entomologists, it is indigenous to Asia, where it has many names: commander wasp, yak-killer hornet and tiger head bee.

The hornets are distinguishable by their yellow heads, long bodies and three-inch wingspans.

The hornets prey on other insects, feeding pulped bugs to their larvae.

Where similar species of hornets are established in Europe, they have wiped out 30% of beehives, reduced honey production by two-thirds and dramatically slashed crop production due to lack of pollination, according to Washington State Department of Agriculture public engagement specialist Karla Salp.

A typical Asian giant hornet is five times the size of a honeybee and can kill up to 40 bees per minute, according to Tim Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper and member of the Washington State Beekeepers Association.

“No one knows what triggers it, but sometimes they literally go into slaughter phase, decapitating bee after bee and eating their bodies,” said Salp. “It takes 20 hornets to kill an entire hive in one to six hours.”

Probable sightings
The first Asian giant hornet sightings recorded in the U.S. were Dec. 8 by a resident of Blaine, Wash., just south of the state’s border with Canada. They had previously been confirmed at three sites in British Columbia.

Since then, WSDA has received 80 new sighting reports, three of which they deem probable. One was from a Bellingham beekeeper.

“Since these hornets are normally dormant in the winter, it’s unusual to find them active this time of year,” said Salp. “It’s probably because the winters are milder here, so they’re surviving better. It seems the Pacific Northwest is their ideal environment.”

Hitchhiking hornets
All it takes to establish a new colony is one mated female, said Salp. And to invade a new location, a queen hornet just needs to do a little hitchhiking.

“Honeybees are mobile,” said beekeeper Hiatt. Bees are shipped across the U.S. to pollinate crops. Three-quarters of all managed beehives are shipped to California in February to pollinate almonds.

At the border, California Border Protection Stations, or as Hiatt calls them, “bug stations,” inspect for pests. In summer, finding stowaway hornets would be easy, said Hiatt. But in winter, when hornets are dormant, finding one tucked inside a pallet is nearly impossible.

Experts say it will take everyone working together to stop the spread.

“This is a good citizen-scientist moment,” said Laura Lavine, chair of Washington State University’s entomology department. “Everyone can pitch in.”

If you’re a beekeeper
According to entomologists, Asian honeybees have developed natural defense instincts. When a hornet invades, honeybees clump together around the invader in tens or hundreds, creating a giant ball and suffocating their attacker.

North American honeybees, said Salp, appear not to have this instinct.

“I think there’s a need for panic,” said Lavine. “I’ve heard anecdotes of beekeepers in Asia standing around with badminton rackets, smacking the hornets to the ground and stomping them. I know that sounds totally insane, but that’s what it can come to.”

Hobby beekeepers, said Hiatt, should consider putting a so-called robbing screen, which hornets can’t enter but bees learn to navigate through, in front of beehives.

Robbing screens, however, aren’t feasible for commercial-size operations. Hiatt suggests all beekeepers restrict the entrance size of hives, making it harder for hornets to enter.

If you’re a farmer
Farmers, Hiatt said, should watch for the hornets, which nest in the ground.

However, he warned against flushing out any ground nest indiscriminately. He said some native bees nest in the ground — many of which pollinate crops, especially alfalfa.

Be alert
Experts say everyone should be alert — especially in port cities, where there is ongoing trade with Asia.

If you think you’ve found an Asian giant hornet, report it immediately to WSDA’s pest program via email at pestprogram@agr.wa.gov. Send a photo if possible.

Put safety first. In Asia, according to Salp, dozens of people die annually from stumbling into hornet nests. If you get stung and have an allergic reaction, call 911 and get medical help.


Pole barn a versatile building option for farmers

Pole barns may be the most versatile buildings in agriculture. Farmers, ranchers, wineries and processors can modify them to suit their needs.

Long Brothers Building Supply in Woodburn, Ore., offers pole building kits that allow farmers to do most of the work themselves, at their own pace.

Depending on its intended use — usually farm storage or animal shelters — kits for pole buildings range from a 24-by-24-foot livestock shelter all the way up to a 72-by-240-foot building.

One of the nice things about pole buildings is they can be completed in leisurely stages and can often be converted to different applications without too much trouble.

“My dad has had a shop for 30 years and he finally retired,” Kelly Long, owner and vice president of operations, said. “He went through and insulated everything and put in a metal ceiling.”

Pole buildings can be built in stages, she said.

“A lot of people build the shell in the summer and then in the winter they’ll work on electrical and insulation and interior wall-type stuff — some people get fancy and sheetrock the building or a part of it.

“Depending on what you’re doing you might need lighting or maybe some plumbing; we’ve got the parts, toilets and utility sinks for all those things,” she said. “We had one barn that got turned into a doggie daycare, which is pretty cool; we actually take our pets there.”

Because of the agricultural nature of their clientele, Long Bros. also does a brisk agricultural fencing business.

“A lot of the people that are putting up barns, especially if they’re using them for horses or other animals, are also putting in fences,” Long said. “They can get their agricultural fencing posts, wire, gates — all of that here.”

In fact, Long says, the extensive inventory offered in both their hardware section and lumberyard make them a “one-stop shop.”

Part of their customer service is being on hand to help customers through small homeowner projects to complicated remodels.

“We have a huge senior citizen population at Senior Estates and sometimes they just need someone to come fix something for them,” Long said. “We have quite a variety of individuals on the lumber side of things and another group that works on the agricultural applications.”

The Long Bros. Facebook page offers ideas for projects that customers can do with the things the store stocks. Hardware stores can often be overlooked by crafters as an economical spot for hobby supplies. Long, a crafter herself, teaches sign-making workshops from time to time at the store.

“We have been here for 45 years now,” Long said. “Our grandparents started the business here in Woodburn in 1974. They retired and our dad took over. My cousins are here now; we are the fourth generation; our great-grandfather started in Keizer forever ago.

“We pride ourselves on being family owned, and if we didn’t have our customers, we couldn’t do what we do,” she said. “We try and just help our customers from start to finish and make sure that they come first.”


OSU has a new small farm book

Oregon State University’s Small Farm Program has published a new book to help new farmers get their start and sustain their new operation.

“Whole Farm Management: From Start Up to Sustainability”  is a comprehensive guide developed by the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University to help aspiring and beginner farmers make smart business decisions to ensure lasting success.

“Drawing on the experience and insights of 12 contributing authors and 16 farmers from across North America, the book offers a holistic approach to farm management for small and medium size farms that use sustainable and organic methods, and sell their products through local and regional markets.

The book is available from Powell’s City of Books, Indie Bound — Community of Independent Book Stores, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.