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- Susan Rockefeller
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Spotlight On:

BeeMushroomed Feeder

What's the Story?

By now, many of us have heard that bees are under stress. But it’s hard to know how to help. That’s where the BeeMushroomed Feeder comes in. Like the bird feeders that may already dot our gardens, the BeeMushroomed Feeder creates an optimal environment for bees to congregate and nourish themselves—giving them a better chance to pollinate and contribute to our ecosystem, just as nature planned. It’s an offshoot of research first conducted by mycologist Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti, in 2015. Stamets began experimenting with mushroom mycelium extracts as food for honey bees, to great results. He then teamed up with product specialist Paul Taylor to develop the unique BeeMushroomed Feeder. When it comes to market, it will allow anyone to support pollinator health: a worthy goal.

How are they different?

Few—if any—products exist that are proven to extend the life of bees, but the BeeMushroomed Feeder is specifically designed to provide the exact nutrients bees need to thrive longer. This “mycotechnology” bridges the gap between nature’s needs and human intervention, with the end aim of improving bee population health so that our global food supply remains secure.

What inspires us?

Co-creators Taylor and Stamets have funneled funds, materials and attention to the plight of the bees through Washington State University’s Honey Bee & Pollinator Division, helping raise nearly $5 million through awareness efforts and direct donations to academic research. Their commitment to our pollinators isn’t about profit; it’s about creating the technology that will help solve our ecological problems, whether that’s by supporting research or by giving each of us at home a way to extend the lives of bees.

Q&A

Paul Taylor

Co-Creator, BeeMushroomed Feeder

The humble bee is, we know, one of nature’s hardest workers. It’s also currently one of its most vulnerable. Bees are responsible for as much as a third of our daily food supply, but they’re in danger: honeybee populations dropped 40% last year in the U.S. alone. The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization points to a perfect storm of threats that have sped up bee decline, from harmful farming practices to the use of agricultural chemicals and the effects of climate change. With bees on the brink, crop production—and the simple fact of food security—is at risk around the world.

Enter the BeeMushroomed Feeder, a first-of-its-kind product intended to help support bee health. Developed by the visionary mycologist Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti and his co-creator Paul Taylor, the feeder is both scientifically complex and deceptively simple. It’s like a bird feeder for bees, but instead of any old substance, it delivers a proprietary “fungal extract” that actually helps extend bees’ lifespans and bolsters their immunity.

It’s this kind of work, which Taylor described to Musings as a bridge between technology and ecology, that inspires us and gives us hope about what humans can do to solve our environmental problems. “It’s a way to enable non-beekeepers—regular people—to have an interaction that’s helpful to the bees,” Taylor explained. “With this, anyone can get involved immediately.” Bees can cross-pollinate up to 1,000 flowers a day: every small action we can take to improve their health has an exponential effect on the planet’s health—and ours, too. It’s the least we can do.

You didn’t always work in the environmental space. How did you become involved with Fungi Perfecti and the BeeMushroomed Feeder?

Early on, I was at a video game company and interned with the Solo Living Institute. I got involved with local agriculture and the community in Mendocino with the Mendocino Time Bank, but after several years I started to work for Apple in an engineering position. I focused on web technologies and computer science, working my way up through customer service. After about five years, the need became more and more at Fungi Perfecti. [Paul Stamets, the founder, is Taylor’s stepfather.] Over the years, I had picked up Paul’s social media: Facebook came out about ten years ago as a business tool and he had an entity there, so I started to manage that and we began working closer, and I helped him with technology around the farm. I assist with the website and web presence to a small degree—but we are cultivating that into something larger.

What helped you make the leap from corporate technology to environmental action?

I’ve always been interested in the ecological and technological aspect of things—whether it be sensors or solar panels—just the idea of technology working with nature. My efforts try to combine that; that’s always been present for me. It was really the day-to-day lack of impact in that sense that furthered my departure from Apple and transition to Fungi Perfecti.

So what exactly is the BeeMushroomed Feeder, and why is it important?

Principally, it’s a delivery system for the fungal extract: the fungal food that Paul discovered through his past work of photos of bees interacting with mycelium. It’s a way to enable non-beekeepers—regular people—to have an interaction that’s helpful to the bees without getting into beekeeping or investing in donations to some sort of bee research and development. With this, anyone can get involved immediately.

The fungal food has been shown through tests with Washington State University (WSU) to extend the length of a bee’s life. It’s been found that bees’ lives are getting shorter and shorter because of all the current ecological stressors: pollution, viruses, mite issues. These extracts help lengthen their lives, therefore allowing them to pollinate more flowers.

How does the BeeMushroomed Feeder work?

We have a little kit that comes with a bottle of fungal extract. The instructions are simple: you make a sugar water mix with white refined sugar—oddly enough, brown or organic sugar is not good for the bees; the sucrose or mineral content is not something they’re used to. You make the sugar water mix, you dump in the extract, and you have a master to supply your bee feeder. For now, you just fill up your bee feeder and hang it from a tree. It takes a few days for the bees to discover it. Typically, wild bees discover it first; we are here to help all pollinators, so wasps may visit it! We’re working on a few ways to keep them out a little more, but the design of the labyrinth on the inside keeps them out to a large degree. Wild bees, bumblebees, regular bees, wasps—all these insects are affected by wing viruses. So if we can help them all at this point, we see it as a blanket benefit.

Why should we want to help the bees? Why should we be concerned about things like Colony Collapse Disorder?

As we all know, bees are a part of our food system. The one thing that’s not obvious, though, is the way that the environment and their ecology has become so fractured, and the natural access that they have to fungal foods is not necessarily there. It’s a great benefit that somebody can provide an ecological niche to be able to feed the bees this food and improve their lives, therefore improving the pollination of flowers, foods, and the general environment around us. Reducing the stress on those organisms is the aim.

What’s the best first step each of us can take?

In general, we should support natural fauna and flora. Support the natural species that would be popping up in your bio region. There’s a lot of pollinator groups that help with seed selection or even provide seed mixes that are a good start to that.

Besides buying and setting up a BeeMushroomed Feeder, what are the broader habits we should be considering to help offset ecological collapse?

Reduce chemical use as much as possible. Reduce the amount of energy you use, whether it be electricity or fuel or just maybe even your own energy—become more aware of efficiency. Plant native species and flowers. And there are a few organizations worth supporting; those that come to mind include the Xerxes Foundation, BeeInformed.org and the David Suzuki Foundation, which has been doing a lot for pollinators. We’re working with a large company right now to make this equitable for everybody, and make it something that’s accessible for everybody, too. We’re really excited about sharing this in the most accessible way, so everyone can take advantage of it and help the bees.

When people think of bees, they usually think of flowers—not fungi. What’s the connection between fungi and bees?

Traditionally, I think we see the way that bees interact with the environment, but we don’t necessarily understand what’s happening. Bees build their homes in logs and rotting tree stumps. They take advantage of the decomposing wood. Think about, say, Winnie the Pooh, who would always go to the hole in the tree and stick his arm in there to try to get the honey out! There is a very dynamic landscape out there that’s not necessarily visible, but we can share it through these bridging technologies.

What’s a common misconception about bees that people should reconsider?

People think they’re aggressive. The fear around them about the aggression is based off of a reaction of not knowing enough about them. Plenty of people can even handle bees without suits and masks and smoke, which are the traditional pieces of equipment you see beekeepers using.

What excites you about the work that you’re doing with Fungi Perfecti? Why do we need to pay attention?

There is a definite interest around food security. Fulfilling an ecological niche that was removed by humans, or at least providing some sort of alternative to the current situation, is a big positive. There are a few other things that Paul [Stamets] has baked into the possibilities of the bee feeder itself that also are intriguing, such as an ecological-based cryptocurrency based on the length of the bee’s life and the number of flowers they potentially visit. Also, I’m excited about the potential for this becoming a node for communication and collecting data from around the world about the environment.

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Spotlight On:

Tess Felix

What's the Story?

Born and raised by the beach in California, artist Tess Felix always had a love for the ocean. In 2010, after weeks of severe storms, she noticed constant plastic pollution washing up on the shore. The beach was covered. She began collecting bags of plastic to bring home and create pictures with, which led to her journey creating beautiful portraits from ocean plastics.

How are they different?

Felix’s portraits contain hidden messages that are often only known by her and the subject—a poem, a quote, a mantra. It’s her own version of a practice she learned while studying Tanka painting with a Buddhist priest.

What inspires us?

Her talent and drive to advocate for ocean health. The Ocean Eco Heroes series features a variety of subjects, some of which are unknown to most people, but whose work is so important for us all to learn about. She celebrates them and hopes to bring attention to how they are making strides to protect our planet.

Q&A

Tess Felix

Artist

“Little Tessy,” 2011, 24 x 18 x 1.5 inches, a self-portrait of Felix as a young toddler

Artist Tess Felix grew up by the sea in California. She built forts out of sand and driftwood as a child; enjoyed beach volleyball and bonfires as a teen; and raised her children on picnics and sandcastles before watching them become surfers. She now spends much of her ocean time walking along the shore, collecting plastic pollution. Over the years, this harmful debris has become the color palette in her portraits. Blue bottle caps, silver flip-flops, white utensils, peach doll arms, yellow rope and red combs—each artwork tells its own story yet presents us with the same daunting truth: look at how much we consume and blatantly discard. Look at how much marine life is suffering. Tess wants viewers to think about this, but she also wants them to know about the many environmental advocates and change makers she depicts like Captain Charles Moore who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1999 and Richard James, author of The Coastodian blog and avid beach cleaner who gifts her with his finds. Tess sparks a conversation in her work that is so crucial for us all to have, from consumers and educators to influencers and legislators.

When did you begin painting with plastic? What initially inspired that?

“Captain Paul Watson,” 2018, Eco Hero Series, 24 x 30 x 2 inches

I began in the winter of 2010 when we experienced a few weeks of severe storms and high tides. I believe the rivers and delta flushed all the plastics out into the San Francisco Bay, and the storms brought plastic in from as far away as Japan. Stinson Beach, where I live, is located 20 miles north of the Golden Gate. The beach was completely covered in bright colors of plastic pollution. I had never realized the ocean had so much plastic in it until this day. The beach looked like a colorful mosaic. I picked up a few bags of plastic and took it home to make a picture out of it, using plastic as my color pallet. The results were not too favorable so I left the picture I made in a small driftwood shelter on the beach. The next morning it was gone so I made another one, and another one…thus beginning my journey of discovery in ocean plastics.

What is your relationship to the ocean? Did you grow up near the ocean?

Yes, I’ve been near the ocean my whole life. My family lived in Muir Beach California. As a child, the beach was my playground. I’d build forts by digging the sand out from underneath driftwood logs, carving out a space and using the logs as a center beam to add smaller pieces of driftwood to make a roof. I’d spend hours constructing miniature driftwood stick houses with pebbled patios and ponds. I’d make rafts out of washed up wood pallets to float in the lagoon. I swam in the cold ocean and rode my horse along the shore. I’d collect seashells and beach glass and climb on the rocks and day dream. At night, I fell asleep to the sound of the fog horns drifting over from San Francisco. Later as a teenager, we lived for a hot summer day at Stinson Beach—park side hamburgers with fries and a chocolate shake, bikinis, baby-oiled skin, volleyball, bonfires and boys—the beach was the place to be.

I raised my children on the beach with picnics and sandcastles, worries of drowning and watching my children become surfers. I walked my dog on the beach almost every day for seventeen years after the school bus left. Now I spend time walking and collecting plastic that has arrived on the shore. I sit on the beach and watch sunsets, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, and on rare occasion, I’ll jump in the sea.

“Mr. Lucky,” 2012, 60 x 36 x 3 inches

Where do you source your plastic from?

I find most of my plastic on Stinson Beach. I have a friend who spends his days scouring the coast line of Point Reyes National Seashore, which is located just north of Stinson. He gifts me his findings. I collect when I travel to far away lands and ask friends to bring me back ocean plastics when they go away for a beach vacation.

“Beth Terry,” 2013, Eco Hero Series, 36 x 36 x 2 inches

What other materials are used?

I have wood panels made. I paint the backgrounds with either oil or acrylic paint, and use a marine adhesive to adhere the plastic to the board. Sometimes in addition to ocean plastic, I’ll use small pieces of found wood or rusty iron. Occasionally, I’ll pick something up off the ground if it’s an interesting object.

“Nayir,” 2014, 13 x 18 x 2 inches

How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

My work is comprised of marine plastic pollution which speaks for itself. It draws attention to the medium, bringing awareness to the viewer by recognizing all the plastic we use and discard in our daily lives. It’s a visual reminder that the oceans are in peril. This ties in with consumerism, fossil fuels, fracking and climate change. Coral reefs are dying and ocean temperatures are rising, causing acidification. Marine birds, mammals and sea life are dying from malnourishment and obstructed intestines due to feeding on plastic. Humans are at the top of the food chain, consuming fish, breathing plastic in the air, and drinking toxic chemicals in plastic bottled water. We’re all contributing to the decline of the planet with very little awareness of our part in the process. Dr. Sylvia Earle, marine biologist, explorer and author said, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” That pretty much sums it up.

“David Bowie,” 2019

Do you ever create hidden messages in your work by incorporating specific objects?

Absolutely. I look for pieces to add to the portrait that reflect the interest of the sitter. I ask the person I’m portraying for a secret message to add behind the plastic that only the subject and I know exists. This could be a poem, a quote, an affirmation—anything they choose. This gives me something to think about while creating a piece. I borrowed the idea from a Buddhist priest I spent time with learning to paint a Tanka. He told me that Tanka painting was accompanied with prayer, infusing the deity with prayers for the recipient. The last part to be painted is the eyes. When completed, the gaze bestows all the prayers onto the owner of the Tanka. I do my own version of this tradition.

“Stiv Wilson,” 2018, Eco Hero Series, 24 x 30 x 2 inches

Who are some of the people depicted in your Ocean Eco Heroes series?

My heroes and educators. I felt early on that these people had a louder voice than my own. They are the change makers—activists, writers, educators, filmmakers, artists and musicians. I hoped that by portraying them, it would encourage others to research them and learn about their mission. Captain Charles Moore of Agalitha Foundation in Long Beach, California, discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (North Pacific Gyre) in 1999. He was the first person to sound the horn of the ocean plastic crises. He’s an educator, a scientific researcher, a sea captain and a policy changer.

Other portraits include: Stiv Wilson, activist and producer of documentary film The Story of Plastic; Louie Psihoyos, photographer and documentary filmmaker; Beth Terry, author of Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, and the blog My Plastic Free Life; Manuel Maqueda, activist, author, speaker and founder of El Plástico Mata (Plastic Kills) and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition; Chris Jordan, photographer, artist and film producer behind Albatross; Richard James, avid beach cleaner (my collector) and author of The Coastodian blog; and more.

Who are your biggest influences?

My biggest influence in ocean plastic art is the Australian artist, John Dahlsen. I purchased his podcast on how to bring value to your art using marine plastic as a medium. His words validated my use of ocean plastic in my artwork.

“Daughter of the Sea,” 2017, 48 x 48 x 2 inches

In what ways has technology and social media changed the art world?

Technology and social media have created a platform for sharing images and ideas that reaches around the world, connecting people and stories. It has enabled artists to showcase their work without representation from a gallery. For me, it has been a place to find resources, communication and information.

“Richard James (The Visionary),” 2013, Eco Hero Series, 24 x 18 x 2 inches

What helps stimulate your creativity?

Travel is number one; people who interest me; and artists.

“Yannick,” 2013, 48 x 48 x 3 inches

What is the greatest lesson you have learned thus far in your career?

The greatest lesson I have learned in my career as an artist is that showing up and sharing myself through my art has brought me rewards I never dreamed of. I’ve met many interesting people and established lasting friendships. It has opened up travel opportunities, taking me to Chile, China, Azerbaijan and Italy. The energy behind the making and the feedback continues to fuel my creativity. It propels me to continue on this creative journey.

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Susan Rockefeller