After the fires, farmers face long-term feed shortages

When wildfires painted West Coast skies orange in September, the nation’s attention was fixated on California and Oregon.

But experts say the aftermath of wildfires is often overlooked. Loss of forage and rangeland is extensive, and many farmers are struggling to feed livestock.

Researchers say feed losses are worst in California, where some forage lands may not reach pre-fire production levels for years.

In western Oregon, the climate is more favorable, but animals still face feed shortages. In both states, farmers are donating hay to help.

“I could hardly even begin to guess the scope of damage. About 5 million acres burned in (California). How much of that was grazing land? At least a million acres?” said Mark Lacey, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

Total losses remain unknown, but ballpark estimates are emerging.

According to a recent theoretical modeling study published by the University of California, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire alone, which burned 396,624 acres, likely cost farmers $68.2 million — $18.4 million in just forage damage.

“When you have these large fire footprints, it adds up,” said Sheila Barry, co-author of the study and UC Cooperative Extension natural resource adviser.

Forage loss this year was estimated at 200 pounds per acre, followed by 40% lower-than-normal production the next year and 20% the year after that.

Where the hottest fires burned, Barry said, there are now scorched seed banks and soils turned hydroponic — unable to absorb water. Some upper soil profiles are sterilized and in annual grass pastures where rain is scarce, chaparral shrubs may grow back faster than forage.

Groups across California are collecting hay donations, but experts say the donations won’t make up for lost rangeland. Lacey predicted some ranchers will have to sell animals early.

Oregon, too, faces livestock feed shortages.

Oregon State University staff said it’s too early to estimate the number of acres burned or animals displaced, but impacts are widespread.

Melody Larson, administrative assistant to the associate deans of Extension and Academic Programs, has been coordinating statewide hay donations since the fires. Larson has arranged transportation of more than 500 tons of hay bales to feed horses, cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, alpacas and llamas.

“When we did the initial call-out, it felt like this, this onslaught of hay,” said Jenifer Cruickshank, OSU Extension dairy management expert who has been managing donations on the ground.

Sam Angima, associate dean of the Extension Service, said the largest donations came from Union and Harney counties.

As winter draws near, the team said it’s harder to keep bales dry because many farmers’ barns burned. Cruickshank said some farmers are asking for smaller loads at a time. The Oregon Office of Emergency Management has provided ropes, tarps and equipment to protect hay from mildew.

Angima said pastures will likely suffer post-fire impacts, and farmers are donating straw to lay over burned land to mitigate erosion.

“It won’t be an easy recovery, but it’s not as bad as California. Our grass started coming back a month ago. We’re fortunate to have the climate we have,” said Angima.

Preparation was key to saving goat herd

The fresh corn that Dr. Lauren Acton and John Wright planned to preserve on Labor Day is still sitting in their kitchen at their farm near Molalla, Ore. They were sitting in a couple of beat up camp chairs on Saturday 300 miles east in Union, Ore., watching their dairy goat herd adjust to its new surroundings.

Acton and Wright own Tempo Farm, a family goat farm in the Willamette Valley. As fires raged in Clackamas County, they had to move swiftly to prepare to move their 100 goats from their farm all while keeping up with the milking schedule. They prepped the farm and packed their two trailers with supplies all day Labor Day hoping for enough time to make multiple trips to evacuate all the goats. But with fires bearing down on their farm Acton made the hardest list of her life.

“I had to play God,” she said. “I had to make a list of who goes in the trailer first, second, and who doesn’t get in.”

By 10 a.m. the next day the fire was miles away, but they began to feel its heat and knew it was time to go. They had put out an early call for help, and employees, friends, and family were driving toward their farm with trailers from as far away as Washington and California.

They struggled to pack in as many goats as possible, but they prepared to leave 40 behind in an open field with water. They hoped the fire wouldn’t come and the goats could survive if it did.

As they faced this hard reality, they got a welcome call from a friend from California — he had made it to the bottom of their driveway with his trailer. With his help they were able to evacuate all the goats from the farm. Some went to California, some to a friend’s place in Moses Lake, Wash., and rest stayed with Acton and Wright at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds.

Soon, however, the fairgrounds was also under threat. They decided to move again to Grande Ronde Dairy in Eastern Oregon owned by their friends Stephanie and Byron Rovey.

The Roveys were able to offer safety, hay, pens, a secondary milking barn, and even an employee to set up their milking operation temporarily.

“Stephanie and I are colleagues,” said Acton. “But the dairy goat industry is a big family. Stephanie is incredible, and she has saved our hides more than once.”

But Acton and Wright were also very prepared for evacuation. Acton is a veterinarian and has traveled the country showing her prize breeding herd. She’s accustomed to moving animals and she has had a long career managing animal-related crises. In her free moments in the last week, she wrote up a long list of tips for evacuating on her yellow legal pad, hoping to help other people.

“First,” she said, “Do not wait for a level 3 evacuation notice. You cannot evacuate livestock in one hour. Evacuate early.”

“Second, if you have animals, you need a way to contain them safely for loading.” For horses, goats and the like, this means having enough collars and halters on hand for every animal. Cattle should be gathered and ready to load near catch pens and chutes.

Acton said the natural human fear of fire makes it harder to think. She stresses that planning and packing ahead is key. She said medication with dosage instructions, boxes of halters, and some feed should be collected so it is easy to pack and go. She also emphasizes making that “hardest list of your life” ahead of time and marking animals to stay or go clearly with paint.

She suggests bringing everything you would need for your animals in 24 hours. “Hoses, hose splitters, buckets, medication, animal first aid kits, extension cords, portable fencing, tools, wire, and rope are key.”

She also said be prepared to keep your animals in the trailer if you break down or there isn’t room at an evacuation site. “Ventilation in your trailer is key. You also need tarps for shade and weather.”

Finally, she said, don’t forget the “human stuff” like sleeping bags, potable drinking water, a change of clothes, good shoes, medication, cell phone chargers, and most importantly, folding chairs. “Evacuation has meant a lot of waiting around,” she said.

 Evacuation tips

Planning for disasters from the American Veterinary Medical Association

• Assemble an evacuation kit.

• Develop an evacuation plan for all of your animals and practice the plan.

• Keep written directions to your home near your telephone. This will help you and others explain to emergency responders exactly how to get to your home.

• Identify alternative sources of food and water.

• Have well-maintained backup generators and a source of fuel for use in food-animal production operations.

• Keep vehicles well maintained and full of gas.

• Keep emergency cash on hand. (Remember: ATMs may not work.)

Oregon lawmakers approve state meat inspection to strengthen local meat

Insufficient livestock slaughter options in Oregon have convinced lawmakers to reinstate a state meat inspection program, but some experts say another approach would be more effective.

During the special legislative session that concluded June 26, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 4206, under which the Oregon Department of Agriculture can again regulate livestock slaughter and processing.

The idea is to expand the opportunities for small-scale processors who currently process meat that can’t be sold commercially, thereby reducing the need for livestock producers to ship animals to USDA-certified facilities.

However, even proponents of the program acknowledge it will be expensive for ODA to re-establish state meat inspection, which was ended in Oregon in the 1970s for financial reasons.

“Budget cuts came along and eliminated it,” said Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

There are 13 USDA-inspected meat facilities in Oregon where livestock can be processed for commercial sale, which means ranchers who want to sell to restaurants and retail outlets must often travel for hours to reach one, he said.

Meanwhile, in Oregon there are also 16 non-USDA facilities, where people can take livestock for processing for their own consumption, Rosa said. Oftentimes, consumers will join together to buy an animal and split up the processed meat.

Reinstating state meat inspection will hopefully strengthen connections between local ranchers and consumers who want to buy their meat, while also raising the demand for livestock among small-scale processors — thus increasing prices to growers, he said.

“We hope it will increase processing,” Rosa said.

Organic dairy farmers urge USDA to finalize ‘origin of livestock’ rule

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organic dairy farmers are again urging the USDA to clarify its rule for transitioning livestock under the National Organic Program, eliminating a loophole they say puts smaller producers at a severe economic disadvantage.

Regulators first issued the “Origin of Livestock” rule in 2015, allowing dairies to transition cows from conventional to organic over a 12-month period, when the animals are raised using only organic farming practices — such as eating 100% organic feed and managed without antibiotics or added growth hormones.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the national Organic Farmers Association, said the transition is supposed to be a one-time event. Some dairies, however, have a different interpretation of the rule.

Rather than raising calves as organic from birth, Mendenhall said dairies might use cheaper conventional farming practices during their first year before “re-transitioning” livestock in the second year. The result is cows are essentially cycled in and out of organic production, creating an uneven playing field for the rest of the industry.

“We’re asking for clarity within the rules to make it a one-time transition,” Mendenhall said. “Most farms have been held to the standard that they can do it once and it’s done. They can’t leave (organic production) and come back.”

Congress gave the USDA 180 days to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule, though the agency missed its deadline of June 17. In response, 70 organic farming groups including the Organic Farmers Association wrote a letter asking lawmakers to step up the pressure.

“Organic dairy farmers are suffering and continued delays in implementing this rule will prolong the dire economics facing organic dairy farmers, as well as jeopardize consumers’ trust in the organic label,” the groups wrote.

Oregon Tilth, an organization based in Corvallis that certifies organic farms and ranches in 49 states, also signed the letter. Chris Schreiner, the group’s executive director, said he is frustrated with the USDA for dragging its feet on finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule.

“The government is just not keeping pace with what the industry wants,” Schreiner said. “Certainly here in the Northwest, organic dairy has provided an opportunity for family-scale dairy farms to stay economically viable … This will help level the playing field, and will help dairies here in the Northwest for whom the organic marketplace has been a way to maintain economic viability.”

Organic milk makes up 5% of all milk produced in the U.S., according to a 2016 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. California leads the country in the number of certified organic dairy cows by a wide margin with 50,136, followed by Wisconsin, Texas and New York.

Around the Northwest, Oregon had 21,101 registered organic dairy cows in 2016, while Washington had 9,211 and Idaho had 7,434. The total value of sales across the three states topped $9.8 million.

By allowing dairies to inappropriately use the organic transition multiple times, they can grow their herd much more rapidly and at a much lower cost, Mendenhall said. One estimate shows it costs dairies $623 less per animal to raise calves conventionally for one year.

As a few herds continue to grow larger, Mendenhall said farms have flooded the market with organic milk, causing prices to drop. Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic cooperative, paid out an average price of $35.68 per hundred pounds of organic milk in 2016. That fell to $30.10 in 2017, and $29.52 in 2018.

“All dairy farmers have been in crisis for a number of years now,” said Mendenhall, who has an organic mixed livestock farm in Iowa. “Organic dairy farmers have especially suffered, in part because this rule has allowed inequity to happen. I know a lot of organic dairy farms that have gone out of business across the country.”

Mendenhall said she worries the Origin of Livestock standards will fall by the wayside unless the USDA acts soon, especially heading into an election year.

“We really don’t want that to happen,” she said.

Business booming at small meat plants, but some producers are in trouble

EUGENE, Ore. — At Mohawk Valley Meats, a small USDA slaughterhouse here, workers in  blood-splattered white smocks raced to package meats on a recent Friday.

Business is booming for small meat processors across the U.S. because of soaring demand for locally raised and processed meat and a glut of slaughter-ready livestock created when big slaughterhouses became hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks and had to shut down.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. In two days, we booked all of 2020. We have kill dates for September of 2021 for pigs that haven’t even been conceived yet,” said Denise Pohrman, the plant manager.

Many small processors say they are “thriving.” But some plant managers, including Pohrman of the Mohawk plant, say despite their gratefulness for increased business, they are concerned that their smaller-scale, already-existing customers have been swept aside by larger producers.

With some bigger slaughterhouses closed or slowing their production because of COVID-19 problems, many ranchers have turned to smaller processors. Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said even ranchers from the Midwest have sent truckloads of hogs to Oregon slaughterhouses.

Faced with new customers, processors say they have had to make tough decisions.

Some processors have dropped small-scale producers and accepted new, larger-scale customers — to make extra income, prevent wasteful livestock deaths and satisfy the nation’s demand for meat.

Other processors have remained loyal to their small producers, hoping to maintain long-term customers and keep them afloat.

“I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, but we have created victims in the aftermath,” said Pohrman of Mohawk Valley Meats.

Pohrman said she packed her calendar with new customers when calls flooded in and now regrets it because 20 to 40 regular customers call daily begging her to harvest their livestock. She said she will no longer accept new customers.

Many small-scale producers, she said, have already paid for slots at farmers markets for the year but will run out of meat before their next butcher dates.

Deck Family Farm in Junction City, Ore., which produces pasture-raised pork, lamb, beef and chicken, has worked with Mohawk Valley Meats 15 years but had its slaughter schedule “totally disrupted,” according to the farm’s poultry manager.

“I lay awake at night and don’t sleep,” said Pohrman. “I’ve apologized more than 10 times this week for allowing myself to become overbooked.”

Pohrman said her new customers, who are reacting to the crisis, are likely just temporary, while her existing customers will likely be with her long-term.

Bill Hoyt, a cattle rancher near Cottage Grove, Ore., and board member of the Oregon Beef Council, said he sympathizes with Pohrman’s dilemma but wonders if she’s making a mistake by turning away other producers.

“Denise (Pohrman) wants to help everyone and can’t say no to the little guy,” he said. “She’s got a heart as big as the plant. But the world has bigger needs right now.”

Thistlethwaite, of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said if small producers didn’t have slaughter dates lined up months in advance, that’s their problem.

“If you haven’t figured out by now when your animals are ready for harvest, then you have no business trying to be a midscale producer until you professionalize your relationships,” she said.

One Oregon meat plant owner who chose to remain anonymous agreed, saying many small growers call a week ahead expecting to get a slaughter spot.

Thistlethwaite said many small producers don’t know they have other options.

She encourages small producers to consider custom-exempt slaughter, enabling them to sell animal portions directly to consumers.

The USDA labels many small processors as “custom exempt,” meaning they are exempt from continuous federal inspections. Producers can sell portions of an animal — usually quarter, half or whole to customers. This is called selling live animals “on the hoof” as “locker meat.”

The other option, said Thistlethwaite, is “retail-exempt processing.” Retail establishments, such as grocery stores, may process and sell meat at the store. Limited meat can also be sold wholesale to hotels, restaurants or institutions. The animals must be slaughtered under USDA inspection but can be processed under Oregon Department of Agriculture inspection.

The catch is the producer must have a relationship with a butcher or know how to butcher. For that reason, said Thistlethwaite, this may not be an immediate solution.

Pohrman of the Mohawk plant said these exemptions fail to help producers selling to farmers markets, which require meat be both harvested and processed under USDA inspection.

In the past week, Pohrman has sent letters to the ODA, Gov. Kate Brown and others requesting an emergency exemption to help these producers.

Thistlethwaite said although big plant closures have caused disruptions, that’s not the driving force behind small processors’ sudden popularity. The bigger driver, she said, is demand. Consumers are eager for local food during the pandemic.

This craving comes after a long period of decline. Big meatpacking facilities have made meat relatively cheap in the U.S. and pushed smaller slaughterhouses out of business.

From 1990 to 2016, the U.S. meatpacking industry lost more than 1,800 slaughterhouses. The “Big Four” companies — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — came to dominate 85% of the industry.

Hoyt of the Oregon Beef Council said the nation’s meat infrastructure resembles an hourglass: on one end, producers and feedlots, on the other, consumers, with processors in the slender neck. Now, the neck is jammed.

“I think there’s a real need for more small processors,” he said.

But creating a local meat system isn’t simple. Industry experts say building and running a meat plant is expensive, regulations are complex and competition is tough.

Even so, Thistlethwaite said she hopes the pandemic will result in more consumers supporting local producers and processors.

“I suspect after this initial hoarding phase, the demand is going to slack off considerably, especially since we’re about to enter a massive recession,” she said. “But if people want local meat to last, I hope nobody expects any quick fixes. Consumer interest can’t just be a blip on the screen. That’s not the kind of long-term commitment farmers need.”

When crisis strikes, Americans buy chicks

EUGENE, Ore. — The weeks leading up to Easter are always the busiest for chicken hatcheries, but this spring, chicks are nearly impossible to find as sales spike during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“Sales went up — a lot,” said Tom Watkins, vice president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, one of the country’s oldest and largest hatcheries that ships nationwide.

Watkins said chick sales at McMurray are up about 400% from 2019. Most orders are for broilers, or meat birds, said Watkins, with the best egg-laying breeds a close second. The hatchery is sold out for the spring, and people are already placing summer orders.

Across the U.S., people are buying record numbers of chicks. Industry leaders say people fearing food shortages are raising chickens to produce their own meat and eggs in the months to come. Experts say people are also buying chicks to have a backyard activity while they’re quarantined at home.

“People don’t know what’s going to happen,” said John Monaco, president of the American Poultry Association. “I think there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about food. But stressed-out people are also buying chicks so there’s something fun to watch running around their backyards.”

He chuckled.

Americans have a habit of raising chickens during times of crisis and confusion. Industry records show chick sales spike during presidential election years and stock market downturns. The last leap in chick sales near this scale happened when the avian influenza killed more than 60 million U.S. chickens between 2014 and 2015, raising the price of eggs.

But the 2020 wave of chicken owners aren’t all newbies. In fact, Watkins said the majority of his buyers this spring are previous customers either returning to raising chickens or buying more than usual.

Across the West, hatcheries and farm supply stores are seeing similar trends and rushing to keep up with orders.

Pete’s Hatchery in Gervais, Ore., which ships nationwide, is experiencing “an unusually high volume of orders.”

Jenks Hatchery in Tangent, Ore., founded in 1910, is sold out until the end of April.

Leslie Pierce, who manages chick sales at Naomi’s Organic Garden Supply in Portland, Ore., said chick sales are up significantly and the waitlist grows every day.

Jen Maxwell-Muir, a customer of Naomi’s Organic Garden Supply, has kept backyard chickens for more than 20 years.

“Right now, we’re getting two eggs a day,” she said. “When you’re limiting your trips to the grocery store, they’re like gold.”

Sam Bugarsky, CEO of Wilco, a farm supply cooperative, said this spring’s in-store “chick days,” or clinics on raising chicks, had record numbers of participants in mid-March just before the lockdown. He said sales of meat bird chicks such as Cornish crosses are up 12% at Wilco stores, with future egg-layers close behind.

“Murray McMurray founded our hatchery in 1917,” said Watkins. “He saw world wars and the Great Depression, and he used to say, ‘In times of hardship, people turn to chickens.’ I think that’s still true.”

Court grants temporary stay in organic lawsuit

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted USDA’s motion to stay summary judgment proceedings in a lawsuit against the agency over its withdrawal of a new organic livestock rule.

USDA asked the court to grant a stay and a voluntary remand of the rule to correct a series of admitted flaws in the cost-and-benefit analysis in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, according to court records.

Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer granted the motion but set a deadline of 180 days for USDA to publish a final rule explaining its updated analysis to ensure timely action.

“This lawsuit represents the administrative process at its never-ending worst,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

She pointed out that USDA issued the final rule after 10 years of work, delayed implementation three times and then withdrew the rule.

The organic rule, finalized in the last days of the Obama administration in January 2017, included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

It was set to go into effect in March 2017, but implementation was delayed by an executive order from President Trump staying all pending regulations. USDA delayed implementation again in May and November of that year and withdrew the rule in March 2018.

At that time, USDA stated the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the National Organic Program.

The Organic Trade Association challenged the delays in court in September 2017, amending its complaint twice and challenging USDA’s withdrawal of the rule.

OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in October 2019 and, after two extensions, USDA was expected to file an opposition when it suddenly asked for remand, according to court documents.

OTA’s challenges to the withdrawal of the rule involve USDA’s conclusion the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and that the withdrawal rule contained errors in its economic analysis.

OTA urged the court to deny USDA’s motion for a stay and remand and address the fundamental issue of USDA’s authority.

“The court is sympathetic to OTA but rules (and cases) are best decided on a completed record,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

Any interim decision would be negated by USDA’s action in amending its reasoning, or action by USDA could render the issues moot, she said.

OTA said in a statement it welcomes the court-ordered deadline because of USDA’s willingness to drag out the rulemaking process and thwart the will of the organic industry.

The organization said it is confident the rule will be reinstated.

“At the end of the day and despite this delay, we are more confident than ever that our arguments will prevail and that the will of the industry will be served,” OTA stated.

New WSU pollinator center to address bee health

OTHELLO, Wash. — Two years ago, the Hiatt Honey Co. in Ephrata, Wash., lost roughly 10,000 hives to diseases and pests.

That’s about 53% of its hives, co-owner Chris Hiatt said.

It was the worst loss since 2004, when the company lost 8,000 to 9,000 hives, Hiatt said.

“This past year was only 33%, so that’s great,” Hiatt told the Capital Press. “Isn’t that crazy for me to say only? The national average was 40% last year. Everyone just expects to lose 30 to 40% through the whole year (to) mites, virus, pesticide pressure.”

Hiatt was one of the speakers during the March 6 ribbon cutting of Washington State University’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator research, extension and education facility. It is designed to help protect and improve pollinator health.

The university purchased the Othello, Wash., building, formerly owned by Monsanto and used for research and corn growing operations, for $2.5 million in June 2019.

No bees were yet at the center during the March 6 ceremony. They were in California pollinating almonds and will be moved to Yakima to pollinate cherries this week, said Brandon Hopkins, entomology assistant research professor.

The university has roughly 100 colonies, each with 40,000 bees. The center will eventually run 400 to 500 colonies, Hopkins said.

The new facility will scientifically seek solutions such as mite treatments or virus controls, any of which would be helpful, Hiatt said.

About six top universities for bee research, including WSU, are working to find answers for the hive losses, he said.

“Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply,” said Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “Bees are threatened by a host of challenges, and they need our help.”

Honeybees are “key to the existence of agriculture and, I guess you could argue, to the existence of humans on this planet,”  U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

Hiatt said it’s hard to measure how quickly the center’s effects will be felt in the industry.

The facility will allow researchers to collaborate with seed producers and other farmers, Hopkins said.

For example, WSU pollinator ecology professor Steve Sheppard is leading an experiment in which mushroom extracts are being tested as a way to help bees combat viruses.

Hiatt said bringing the extracts to market would be huge.

“It’s urgent, it’s super-urgent,” he said. “Honey price is down, (the price of) pollination is up, but these high losses just make it harder to stay in business.”

Finding a niche is important

Renard Turner, of Vanguard Ranch in Gordonsville, Va., said the primary challenge for small farms is to become profitable and sustainable in today’s marketplace.

It may be difficult, but it can be done, said Turner. His solution is to combine value-added products with direct-to-consumer marketing to increase revenue while cutting out the middleman.

Turner and his wife, Chinette, raise meat goats on organically managed pastureland, which they process into ready-to-eat meals such as burgers, curries and kabobs. The couple purchased a mobile food cart to sell directly at major events including the State Fair of Virginia.

That vertically integrated business model, Turner said, also allows them to avoid selling at slaughterhouse prices and guarantee the quality of their product from field to plate.

“Don’t give away the power that you have to the middleman. He’s not your friend,” Turner said.

For example, Turner said, the highest prices farmers can usually hope to get from the slaughterhouse is about $3 per pound. Those slaughterhouses will then turn around and sell the same meat to customers for $9-$10 per pound.

“That’s upside-down math,” he said. “I’ve learned to change the paradigm.”

Small farmers have to be creative and committed to earn extra money through niche markets and direct-to-consumer sales, but Turner said there are options out there.

“It takes more initiative on your part, but I think it’s exponentially more rewarding for me as a producer to do that,” he said.

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.”