Fungi Fascination

person outside in front of trees by MycHotel
Katy Ayers stands next to bee hotel made from mycelium on the Columbus Campus.

Katy Ayers is not one to let a pandemic get her down. In fact, you might say the pandemic actually gave her a spark to keep her fascination with fungi moving at full speed ahead. 

Ayers is the Columbus Campus student who created a canoe made entirely out of mushrooms in 2019. Her story went national and international earlier this year with several interviews with the likes of NBC News, Toronto-based Cottage Life magazine and London-based Daily Mail Online. Ayers was also approached about making Zoom presentations to companies as part of employee enrichment activities. 

MycHotel sits on pole. Sign with the letters "CCC" hangs on structure.
MycHotel in pollinator garden on the Columbus Campus.

After the interviews and presentations, Ayers started her next fungi project, The Bee MycHotel Project. It’s a first-of-its-kind project where mycelium – the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments at the center of a plant’s crown – is brought to bee hotels. Ayers said the mycelium provides more than just nourishment for honeybees; it could be critical in prolonging life. 

“There has been a connection between honeybees and the exudates, or digestive juices that this particular mycelium excretes; the bees actually drink the juices from the mushrooms” said Ayers. “Washington State University did a study and found that the mycelium was boosting the bees’ immune systems.” 

Ayers is hoping to place 30 bee hotels throughout Nebraska. She said another goal of the project is a more large scale one. 

“Being able to use bee hotels made out of mycelium would enable farmers to bring these onto their properties and then after two or three years in use, actually till them into the land as a soil amendment,” said Ayers. “That would feed all sorts of microorganisms in the land as well as break down more nutrients to feed the land and crops.” 

Ayers is a Project GPS (Growing Pathways to STEM) scholar at the Columbus Campus. Project GPS is a National Science Foundation-funded scholarship program that targets high-achieving students with financial need and who represent underserved populations in the STEM fields. Each scholar receives two years of educational costs paid in full, including tuition and fees and room and board. 

Over the last two years, 19 CCC-Columbus students have been named as Project GPS scholars. Ayers is working with several other GPS scholars on the Bee MycHotel project, which has been a great help particularly during the pandemic. 

“We’ve been able to stay in touch and communicate and that has really helped keep our spirits up,” said Ayers. “We’ve adjusted by having our meetings online or joined in smaller groups with masks on, but we’ve still managed to pack bee hotels and be a support system for each other. It’s all about community.” 

Ayers credits Project GPS and the other programs at CCC that have given her financial assistance, and which have greatly enhanced her scholastic experience. She also credits Dr. Lauren Gillespie and Steve Heinisch, co-principal investigators of Project GPS, as well as instructor David Cassidy for helping her take her fungi fascination to new and unprecedented heights. 

“Being able to learn from them and to be able to navigate in an academic environment is so valuable,” said Ayers. 

Gillespie said that working with Ayers on the mycelium project has been inspiring and that her passion for sciences and fungi is contagious. In fact, Gillespie calls Ayers a “formidable young scientist.” 

“Being a scientist is partly a way of thinking and her curious and creative mind are exactly what we need in up-and-coming young researchers to tackle the challenges of the future,” said Gillespie. 

Ayers will graduate from CCC in 2021 and she wants to transfer to a four-year university with a strong fungi program. Some of the schools on her list include Columbia, Cornell and Stanford. 

“Katy is one of the best prepared students for transferring to a four-year university that I have worked with in my entire career,” said Gillespie.