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WSU’s Green Times: All about Bees and More

Posted by | January 28, 2015

Bee Illust Banner

For Washington state, bees mean business. That’s why improving bee health and habitat is vital for keeping the state’s agriculture successful. This month’s “All About Bees” issue of Green Times highlights research at WSU to help preserve the not-so-humble honey bee. First, entomologists have teamed up with mushroom researchers to study how fungus can give bees a boost. Then, read about how a partnership between commercial beekeeper Eric Olson and Washington State University jump-started field research and is exploring innovative ways to keep hives strong through the winter. Throughout this edition, find infographics showcasing the economic importance of bees and some of the factors behind colony collapse disorder.

Bee Illustration 1


Research sneak peak: Can mushrooms save the honey bees?

Bees in cages feeding on fungal extracts. Photo by Paul Stamets.
Bees in cages feeding on fungal extracts.
Photo by Paul Stamets.

WSU entomologist Steve Sheppard has teamed up with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti to see if extracts from mushrooms known to have antiviral properties can give bees an immunological boost. They’re also investigating whether parasitic fungi could control mites that carry the viruses that threaten bees.Mushrooms are under investigation in the honey bee lab at Washington State University.

Winter hive losses and colony collapse disorder are complex, multifaceted problems that threaten the U.S. food supply and the $15 billion agricultural industry that depends on bees for pollination. Winter hive losses can be attributed to many factors including lack of food, too many mites and deadly viruses.

Sheppard said it’s normal for commercial beekeepers to lose 5 to 10 percent of their hives in winter. But, he said, not long after the Varroa destructor mite arrived on the scene in 1987, losses rose to an average of 15 percent, and since 2006, the rate of loss has doubled.

“With a 30 percent loss, commercial beekeepers can still make it, but it’s very tough,” he said. “Imagine losing one third of your cattle each year.”

Sheppard and fellow WSU entomologist and the manager of the WSU apiary and bee laboratory, Brandon Hopkins, believe their research could lead to less toxic and more effective solutions to control diseases and pests that have commercial and hobbyist beekeepers alike struggling to keep their bees alive.

“What’s most exciting is the possibility of a sustainable way to control mites and viruses,” said Hopkins. “Commercial-scale beekeepers are getting backed into a corner because mites have developed resistance to synthetic pesticides.”

Existing chemical control methods for mites are coming to the end of their effective usefulness, Sheppard said, because mites have a short life span that allows them to quickly evolve and develop resistance.

A full story about this emerging research will appear in in February. Crosscut is an online daily news magazine for Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

– Sylvia Kantor

Bee Illustration 2

Partnership for WSU bee research endures

Eric Olson with pallets of empty hive boxes.  Photo by Darrell Kilgore, WSU.
Eric Olson with pallets of empty hive boxes.
Photo by Darrell Kilgore, WSU.

When Steve Sheppard arrived at Washington State University in 1996, he had a donation already lined up without any solicitation: 100 beehives.

“I got a phone call from a beekeeper, Eric Olson, that I’d never heard of,” said Sheppard, who leads the WSU Department of Entomology. “It was a great welcome to the university and a big jumpstart to our field research on bees.”

Olson, a commercial beekeeper, donated the hives for just that reason.

“I wanted to entice Steve to get into applied research,” Olson said. “We needed help right away, so I thought I would do everything I could.”

Olson and his wife Sue own Olson’s Honey, an operation based in Yakima that had more than 17,500 hives at its peak last summer. They pollinate fields all over Washington, Oregon, and California.

The initial 100 hives he gave to Sheppard and WSU were Olson’s first donation to WSU, and he’s continued his support ever since.

“That saved us about a year in getting our program started,” Sheppard said. “We didn’t have to build our own hives and wait around. He loaded the hives on our trucks with a forklift himself.”

The relationship between Olson, 71, and WSU will continue even after Olson sells his company and transitions into retirement later this year.

“It’s an irreversible partnership,” Olson said. “They need dollars to make a difference with their research.”

Surviving setbacks

Olson started beekeeping in 1978, when he bought 10 honey bee packages, or startup hives, to help pollinate his orchard. Later that year, he purchased another 150 hives, which allowed him to rent out his hives.

“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Olson said. “I thought my wife would kill me if we got any more, so for four years I didn’t tell her how many hives we had.”

Olson, who retired from the Air Force in 1987, and his wife Sue survived mite infestations that devastated the honey bee population in the U.S. throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. But even after 30 years of experience, Olson learned in 2010 that it’s impossible to know everything about bees.

That winter, he lost more than 9,000 hives. Sixty-five percent of his entire business was dead, and he was devastated.

“That was the worst experience of my life,” Olson said. “I knew we needed to try something different.”

Until then, Olson’s Honey had always wintered their bees in California. They’d routinely experienced losses, but nothing like the devastation that year.

Experimenting with his hives

Olson had a friend and fellow beekeeper, Tom Hamilton, who had been telling him to try indoor storage for all of his bees. Hamilton used potato sheds in his Idaho business, which don’t exist in Yakima.

“But we do have atmosphere-controlled fruit sheds,” Olson said. “I was scared to death that first year, but our losses dropped to practically nothing.”

He worked with WSU researchers throughout the planning and implementing of the indoor storage, and they may have stumbled on an exciting discovery.

Watch this video featuring Eric Olson on why research is important to him.
Watch this video featuring Eric Olson on why research is important to him.

“It seems like the increase in CO2 may be killing the Varroa destructor mites,” Olson said. “If it turns out we can kill the mite without using synthetic pesticides, that would be fantastic.”“My first call after I made the decision was to Steve Sheppard,” Olson said. “They had some data on indoor storage, but the climate-controlled aspect was a great new wrinkle.”
In the climate-controlled storage units, Olson can control how much carbon dioxide is in the bees’ environment. Raising the CO2 level seems to put the bees into a deeper hibernation, with another benefit.

More research needed

Now Olson is working with Sheppard and other WSU entomologists to raise money for a new bee research building that would contain an indoor storage facility with climate controls. Researchers hope to use the facility to confirm the varroa mite-CO2 hypothesis and make other discoveries that can protect the U.S. honey bee population into the future.

For Olson, he’s excited to help the university and run his 150-acre cherry and pear orchard. But the bee business has become too much work, even though it’s difficult for him to let go.

“I enter retirement with trepidation,” he said. “I’ll have to teach myself how to have free time, it’s something I’ve never had before.”

Learn more about WSU indoor wintering research here.

– Scott Weybright

Bee Illustration 3
Data sources for all three infographics: Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington State Beekeeper’s Association, and Washington State University Dept. of Entomology.
Written by Seth Truscott, WSU. Illustrations by Gerald Steffen, WSU.

Find more stories about honey bee research at WSU here.
Interested in supporting honey bee research? Call 509-335-2243 or email for more information.

Scholarships available for Women in Agriculture Conference, Feb. 21

The CHS Foundation is offering scholarships for women and students who want to attend the fourth annual Women in Agriculture Conference, to be held Saturday, Feb. 21.

The conference helps women farmers learn, network and be inspired. The one-day gathering takes place simultaneously at 28 locations in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska.

Registration fee is $30, or $25 in advance before Feb. 13. Learn about the conference at
To learn about the scholarships, or download a form, visit

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On Solid Ground features news and information about ways WSU researchers, students, and alumni support Washington agriculture and natural resources. Subscribe here.

Voice of the Vine
Each issue of Voice of the Vine brings you stories about viticulture and enology and WSU researchers, students, and alumni working in Washington’s world-class wine industry. Subscribe here.