Updated: Oct 17, 2020
If you like eating anything at all, you'd best start loving bees. According to the United Nation's FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), 75% of the world's food crops depend in part at least, on pollination. If ROI floats your boat, that's about $577 billion US dollars worth of food production annually. Personally, I am gobsmacked by our dependence on pollinators, bees chief among them. Saving bees should rank right up there with achieving world peace.
I've always loved bees and they seem to love me. Thousands of native and non-native bees and other pollinators populate our urban permaculture garden, buzzing in and around the lavender bee berm, the banks of heather, heath and honeysuckle, the fruit and vegetable beds, and the septuagenarian laurel hedge. I move among and through them, I stroke their silky, fuzzy bodies while they forage and snooze, and I have never been stung, not once.
The bees and other pollinators seems to know me, at least they know that I care about them and do what I can to make their short lives better and more delicious. Traditional beekeeping and beekeeping for honey are fundamental to permaculture. In urban permaculture environments, to my way of thinking anyway, beekeeping refers primarily to the support, care and keeping of native and non-native bees; to creating diverse bee-friendly habitat, and maintaining a more-or-less continuous supply of living food rich in essential nutrients. Apartment and home dwellers alike can do this, in small or large measure.
I consider myself a keeper of bees.
I learned something very important about bees last fall, initially from my well informed friend Bruce, and then officially from our mutual friend and world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. What I learned about bees did not surprise me, rooted as it was in the permaculture principle that all things are connected and interdependent, but it did absolutely delight me, and it gave me hope.
In 2014, Paul Stamets, Dr. Steve Sheppard (Chair, Department of Entomology, Washington State University) and the Washington State Beekeepers Association teamed up in a research initiative called BeeFriendly™ to help reverse devastating declines in the global bee population that are critically threatening the world’s food security*. In 2015, experiments began where honey bees drank different mushroom mycelium extracts. Research is indicating that mushroom mycelium extracts provide essential nutrition that confers an immune benefit to bees. This nutritional support then translates into improved hive health*. Due to the increase in mono-cultured landscapes and loss of biodiversity, bees have lost access to many sources of nutrition that they might have benefited from in the past. Mycelium extracts may prove to be a powerful support for bees as they endure more challenging conditions in our ecosystems*
Research efforts have resulted in ground-breaking peer-reviewed research, published in Nature: Scientific Reports where you can search “Stamets” to read the article about Extracts of Polypore Mushroom Mycelia, which documents the benefits of mushroom mycelium extracts for supporting health in honey bee populations* *source
The short of it is that, Paul observed bees foraging in the wild on mushroom mycelium suggesting that they may be deriving medicinal or nutritional value from fungi. After conducting research with extracts from the mycelium of multiple polypore fungal species known to have antiviral properties, and conducting field trials, they reported that colonies fed Ganoderma resinaceum extract exhibited a 79-fold reduction in deformed wing virus (DWF) and a 45,000-fold reduction in Lake Sinai virus (LSV) compared to control colonies. These findings indicate honey bees may gain health benefits from fungi and their antimicrobial compounds** source
One year after the research report appeared in Nature, I was gifted a prototype BeeMushroomed Feeder™ to use and observe in our home garden. I made a syrup similar to what one would make for hummingbirds, but instead added an immune-boosting reishi polypore mushroom extract to the sugar water. I hung the feeder in part shade, out of reach of ants and such but near to where bees could find it easily. And they did. They still do. Happy bees.
Shortly after I received the feeder, I was fortunate to attend a four-day 'Mycology of Consciousness' educational retreat for just 30 people at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, BC, hosted by Paul Stamets and his team of mycologists and scientists from Fungi Perfecti. But it gets better. My shroom-loving friend Bruce who was flying to and from the retreat in his crazy amazing Cessna 206 turbo amphibian, let me hitch a ride. Upon reflection, there is no more perfect way to journey to Cortes, than VFR through a very low ceiling of westcoast cloud cover, in the driving rain.
A visit to Hollyhock is like tripping back to the '70s. Had I not spent four days at an authentic permaculture village (a.k.a. commune) on Vancouver Island, BC as a UBC Permaculture Design initiate, I might have been shocked by Hollyhock's rooming arrangements. As it was, I was delighted to stow my backpack on a non-stacking bed of my own, and share a bathroom with just one other person. The fact that the bedroom doors didn't lock and there was no wine and beer on the menu, or a menu for that matter, did not faze me in the slightest. I was just happy to be there, communing with nature and at least 29 other fungi fanatics.
The days were very long and packed with learning and amazement, fungi forays into the temperate rainforest, cultivation workshops, lectures, and fantastic organic vegetarian cuisine. The rain and the wind were ferocious, but we were so into the whole experience that we didn't really feel the cold. Paul Stamets and his extraordinary life partner Dr. Pam Krystkow are incredibly knowledgeable about fungi, their habits, habitat, and healing properties, but first and foremost they are truly humble, beautiful people committed to sharing everything they know with the world. I have many stories and gorgeous photos from that Cortes visit, but they are for another day. For now, we are celebrating bees.
Being on remote and legendary Cortes - known to west coasters as the 'hippie island' - hyper-informed my permaculture education. The ancient rainforest with its super-oxygenated air rich in phytoncides combined with the energy of the ages to heighten my awareness and understanding of nature's perfect logic; confirming that all we really need to do to save the planet and ourselves, is observe and emulate. Review Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles.
It's really that simple. Not the doing perhaps, but the idealogy. Observing and emulating is what Paul and his team did with the bees. Observation of feeding patterns and habitats inspired the research, which resulted in emulation of a natural system, supporting a hypothesis which could in fact save the bees. Research is ongoing, but certainly promising.
On our final night, after a Hollyhock feast for the group and about 50 cortes residents, the lot of us trudged through the woods to the Cortes Island Community Hall. We were treated to the premiere of Louie Schwartzber's film 'Fantastic Fungi', which has since become a cult phenomenon. I've seen it three times, and I'd gladly see it three more. Paul figures prominently in the film which is a descriptive time-lapse journey about the magical, mysterious and medicinal world of fungi and their power to heal, sustain and contribute to the regeneration of life on Earth that began 3.5 billion years ago. See it, if you haven't.
Before the screening, Paul shared his bee research with us in chronological detail, explaining in depth the connection between bees feeding on mycelial extracts and a corresponding reduction in DWF and LSV. Once again I was struck by the simplicity of the solution to our world on fire. Take 'care' of our planet. Restore nature's balance and she will restore ours.
Earth care, people care, fair share; it's that simple. Each of us can and should do something to help save the bees. Plant flowering herbs in pots on a sunny balcony, hang a native bee house in the shade, replace lawns with microclover, support local organic farmers and orchardists, share what you've learned about bees at your next dinner party, or donate to Paul's Save The Bees research.
I have much to learn about bees, but what I do know is that they need me. They need all of us to pay attention and to mitigate the damage we've done. While there are thousands of bees buzzing in and around my garden, my focus for now is on the native bees that are endangered due to pesticides and loss of habitat and diversity. They pale in numbers compared to honey bees, which were brought to North America from Europe and South America. Honey bees are popular and mythical, and yes they produce honey, but they are not super-pollinators. Native bees pollinate at 75 - 80 times the rate of honey bees and they are better suited to our climate. I have three small native bee habitats in my permaculture garden, and a special relationship with their residents. Bees are truly remarkable creatures.
I have no idea whether the mushrooms growing in the organic compost that fills my raised garden beds are important to bees, but I believe they are. Native and non-native bees seem to spend more time in the veg beds than I've ever seen them spend on other soil. I recall reading that the decomposition of wood like that found in compost and forest leaf litter, and the micro organisms it supports, are critical to the gut health of many creatures - insect and otherwise.
As far as I know, compost does not support the bracket type polypore mushrooms that research indicates are important to bee health, and that we typically see growing on trees and fallen logs, but there apparently some polypore species that occur in soil and form mycorrhiza networks (below ground) with trees. My mushroom-clogged part-sun bed has been top-dressed-only with organics for 20 years now. I have never dug or otherwise disturbed its mycorrhiza, and it sits below mature cedar and hemlock. Perhaps there is more going on there than meets the eye.
I have no proof, but my intuition tells me that my veg beds and bees, as with everything in nature are connected - especially way down at ground level.
For this reason, and for many others, not the least of which is biomimicry of nature's top down method of composting undisturbed soil, I leave the garden beds un-dug and un-tilled. The mushrooms, the bees, the worms, the rich unseen biology, and the beautiful produce they support, prefer it that way.