“Did you hear there’s a new vaccination for foulbrood?” my husband called from his perch in the den, gaze fixed on his computer. “How do you vaccinate a bee?” I wondered. But I was almost out the door, a tote bag dangling off my left arm, its contents clanging together as it bumped my knee with each step. Thick mittens and a mug of tea in my right hand, I finagled the garage door knob open without spilling. “Bookmark it,” I called as the garage door closed behind me.
I was heading out to Connecticut College and in the tote bag were supplies for the Sprout Garden’s year-end meeting, held in December in the interlude between the end of classes and the beginning of finals. Part of the college’s Sustainability program, the Sprout Garden is a student-managed organic garden providing hands-on experience in small-scale sustainable farming techniques. Fruits and vegetables grow from raised beds while chickens mill about eating the insect pests that these plants attract. This is where they hope to have an apiary come April. They’d been learning beekeeping essentials all semester and preparing for their new colonies. A bee-based product was on the list of natural body products and snacks that was the focus of this meeting . . . pure fun and relaxation, celebrating gardens and pollinators. My bag was packed with supplies to make beeswax lip balms.
I found my way to the Steel House, once faculty housing with a small kitchen, where core Sprout Garden members Eric, Hannah and Margaret, were busy. Eric was peeling mangoes, a blender at the ready to render Orange-Mango smoothies. Margaret was whipping up guacamole with fresh avocados and tomatoes, rummaging in the cupboards for the odd salt and pepper shakers hidden there. Hannah was writing product instructions on the whiteboard at one end of the room. A card table held the ingredients she listed: coffee grounds, raw sugar, honey, essential oils, and Castile soap, alongside the guacamole and a mighty bowl of corn chips for dipping. The blender whirred. A jar of coconut oil was softening in simmering water on the stove. I set up the beeswax as its twin on the burner to the right and added shea butter, Vitamin E oil and lip balm containers to the cluster of supplies. Students arrived and searched the cupboards for mixing bowls and measuring cups. They concocted body washes and facial scrubs, ate guacamole and drank smoothies, and made a happy mess.
Also tucked inside my bag was an article by Evan Bush, a Seattle Times staff reporter that highlighted Paul Stamets and his work with mushrooms and bees. Mushrooms and bees? It seems that scientists are trying all angles to help them thrive and survive, from vaccines to mushrooms. A number of years ago, this mushroom farmer, beekeeper, and astute observer noticed that bees were attracted to mushroom mycelia, the branching fibers that look like a lacey cross between root hairs and cobwebs. Facing the near-epidemic virus attacks of many beekeepers, he wondered if there was something about mushroom mycelia that was beneficial. In controlled experiments, it was shown that bees fed sugar water and mycelia extract were more resistant to the viruses carried by mites than those fed sugar water alone. This mycelia extract with its antiviral properties could easily be added to food supplements and work is underway to make this type of antiviral therapy available to beekeepers. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this new product.
Esteban, one of the Sprout Garden managers had described this to me briefly at our last meeting so I wanted to share the article with him. And just as bees might benefit from mushrooms, it turns out that mushrooms can benefit from bees. I had brought beeswax not only to make lip balms but also for Esteban’s mushroom inoculation experiment. Esteban’s eyes widened at the chunk of beeswax I handed him. “Whoa, this is awesome,” he said, reaching for it. I showed him a bucket of raw beeswax too, the mixture of older brown beeswax and newer blond wax I had scraped from some frames, brimming with bug parts and sticky with nectar. Looking between the two, I could see he appreciated what he was holding.
“So tell me about this inoculation process,” I said.
His plan was to inoculate logs with the spores of different species of mushrooms, using the wax as protection for the growing fungus. He told me that beeswax is breathable, allowing gas exchange with the environment, yet is also a natural barrier to water and contaminants. He hopes to add mushrooms to the Sprout Garden’s bounty next season.
In the end, each student had created jars of body products, to give away as gifts or use themselves, working with natural products to make things we use every day without any additives or unpronounceable names in them. Esteban had his beeswax to naturally coat spores that would grow to mushrooms. I don’t know what scientists are using for foulbrood vaccinations (I haven’t gotten back to that bookmark yet), but finding ways to work with natural products seems like a good idea. Observing and experimenting, we just might find a way to help the bees, and people, and other organisms. I’d like to see the feathered mycelia protected under that coat of beeswax sprout tiny mushrooms in the spring, right alongside the new honey bee colonies.