ReBeCa Project

Revitalizing Beekeeping in Canada through plants
(The ReBeCa project)

Medicinal Bee Plants in Canada: their multi-functionality for health, environment, and local economy

Yann Loranger, Hannah Loranger, and Jessy Loranger

Introduction of the project and the main goals

We are developing an innovative permaculture project integrating the vital aspects of health, environment and local economy with the help of honeybees and medicinal bee plants. This project aims to promote and support a more efficient, environmentally sustainable and profitable beekeeping for local beekeepers across Canada in general, especially in the East Kootenay region where the first pilot site will be implemented. This will be particularly important in the current context of declining bee populations worldwide linked to intensive agricultural practices and climate change and will be facilitated by the emergent interest in apitherapy (preventative and therapeutical use of bee products such as propolis, honey and pollen) in Canada and worldwide.

In this context, the more specific main goals and expected results are manifold:

Environmental goals:

The aim is to support the development of healthier and stronger honeybee and native bee populations. This is an essential step to secure the numerous and precious ecosystem services (e.g. pollination, bee products for both alimentation and apitherapy) provided to people by the bees. Using the concepts of permaculture, our design will ensure the availability of a diverse and natural diet for the bee populations year-round by a self-sustaining system. This improves the hives’ health, decreases their chances of collapsing and increases the quality of bee products.

Another important aspect is that we will strongly encourage the use of various native plant species and limit the use of more traditional exotic bee plants. This promotion of a high native vegetal diversity instead of monocultures will not only help the conservation of native plant species, but also improve the resilience of the resulting ecosystems to varying climatic conditions. This is essential for bee populations as well as for other insects, birds and plants, increasing biodiversity in general.

Educational goals:

An important goal is to educate beekeepers and the broader public about i) various bee products, their uses and high therapeutical value, ii) permaculture concepts creating highly productive self-sustaining systems that fully take bees into account, and iii) how to conduct healthier beekeeping practices. Importantly, the vision of this project is to make all this information accessible for as many people as possible. An extensive demonstration site will be located on the grounds of I.D.E.A.L. Society in Jaffray, East Kootenay. This first site is intended as a model for educational purposes, facilitating the reproduction of this work elsewhere. This process will also be facilitated by the Canadian Apitherapy Association, through which people will be able to freely access the necessary information to start a locally adapted “ReBeCa site”.

Furthermore, the validity of the developed designs will be assessed through long-term monitoring of the demonstration site and eventually more in the future. This will educate ourselves in the process and allow us to adjust our methods in order to continuously improve the applied designs. We will then be able to freely communicate these invaluable results to the broader community through our educational site in Jaffray, the webpage of the ReBeCa project “http://www.canadian-apitherapy-association.ca/en/rebeca-project/”, and scientific publications.

Economical goals:

The design issued from this project will be tailored to develop and support small to medium-sized local businesses. This is usually the size at which providing a healthy food supply throughout the year and focussing on high-quality bee products for apitherapy is manageable. Moreover, this is ideal for many rural regions at lower population density in dire need of an economical boost. Here, prospering local economies will be supported through two main avenues: 1) a more efficient use of local natural resources by applying permaculture principles and a higher native plants diversity, and 2) encouraging the production of various, innovative and high-value bee products that are used in natural health care practices.

The promotion of native vegetal diversity over (exotic) monocultures has numerous economic advantages. First, it allows an optimal production of several bee products without having to feed the bees with artificial food that diminishes the hives’ health. Second, it decreases the chance of losses when unpredictable climatic events (e.g. droughts) occur, because a variety of well-adapted species creates microclimate niches and is more resilient than any monoculture. Third, having a wide array of different native plant species at our disposal (with all their different properties) allows us developing the best possible design for every beekeeper, i.e. a design specifically adapted to the local conditions and the products a given beekeeper wishes to produce while ensuring that all environmental advantages remain.

However this is not what makes our project unique – even though the tools we are developing are unique; making more money using intelligent methods is not new. The unique aspect of our project is the combination of an intelligent permaculture design with the production of apitherapy products. Economically speaking, bee products (pollen, propolis, honey, venom, royal jelly) have many exceptional medicinal uses of interest. This market is emergent and generates a lot of enthusiasm among natural health practitioners. In Canada, the recent foundation of the Canadian Apitherapy Association with the contribution of Dr. Stefan Stangaciu – President of the German Apitherapy Society and of the Romanian Apitherapy Society and General Secretary of the International Federation of Apitherapy – contributes to enlarge this market, with an already high demand for apitherapy products. With an increasing demand and a relatively small production of apitherapy products, the ReBeCa project creates a great economic opportunity. A good foreign example is the Manuka honey from New-Zealand, recognized as a great medicinal product and now a very lucrative business – five to ten times the selling price of regular honey. Within our project, and keeping in mind our environmental and educational goals, the aim would be to explore and develop similar products from a variety of Canadian native plant species. Altogether, this combination of small-scale economic opportunities, intelligent permaculture design and apitherapy products englobes a vision of holistic community development, which is what really makes this project innovative and gives it a worldwide potential.

Methods

Plant lists

The first step of the project is to create a list of potential plant species to be used in our design. The target species i) are native to Canada, ii) have known medicinal properties, which will be important to test and develop Canada-specific medicinal bee products, and iii) constitutes an important food source (nectar, pollen, or both) for the bees. The work thus consists in combining lists of bee plants and of medicinal plants – for which the aboriginal knowledge is an invaluable source of information – with all the necessary data per species: its distribution, habitat preferences, quality and quantity of nectar/pollen production for the bees, flowering period, medicinal properties, and any other relevant information. The creation of such a list necessitates a comprehensive review of the existing literature on every plant species considered, allowing to develop the optimal design for any specific region. The goal is to have a natural, abundant and diverse food source for the bees all along their active season and to optimize the production of high quality medicinal bee products. Using native plant species is also an advantage because native species are already well-adapted to the regional year-to-year climatic variations.

Permaculture design

For each design, the concepts of permaculture will be applied to ensure that the system is i) resilient to unexpected climatic changes and ii) as autonomous as possible with regard to water availability and soil fertility. Indeed, the concept of permaculture is to design a landscape so that the system is protected against abiotic stresses (e.g. drought, wind) and to assemble a synergic community of plants, that is a community where each species plays an important role, increasing the quality and resilience of the whole system. To do this our team will call upon the help of professionals in the domain of permaculture and facilitate access to such professionals to others who would like to participate in the ReBeCa project.

Long-term monitoring

Long-term monitoring is important because it will help us to assess the validity of our designs and to adjust them accordingly, if needed. There are many variables that can easily be recorded and give an index of the success of the design. These variables include year-to-year native bees’ abundance surveys, honey/pollen/propolis/beebread production per hive, percentage of hives with illnesses or collapsing, and the amount of work needed to maintain the whole system.

Education

The educational side of the project will be supported by organized tours at the demonstration site in Jaffray. There will also be presentations of the site and ReBeCa project to local monthly beekeeping meetings, provincial beekeeping, permaculture and apitherapy events across Canada, as well as at the International Bee Event coming: « Apimondia 2019 » (http://www.apimondia2019mtl.com) which will be held in Montreal, a second time in Canada. All information collected through the ReBeCa project will be available through the Canadian Apitherapy Association website, allowing everyone to access the fruit of our work.