Permaculture, bees, & people
Some of the main problems permaculture aimed to solve were (and still are) the large monocultures and the affiliated loss of biodiversity, the massive use of chemicals and mineral fertilisers polluting water bodies and destroying soil life, and the massive soil loss from the erosion of barren soils (1). Hence, the intrinsic goals of permaculture are effectively the same ones that are important to create healthy and abundant landscapes for bees and ecological beekeeping.
So given the threats to bees, which are as many challenges to beekeepers and apitherapists, and since the needs of these three actors and permaculture principles fit so well together, an important part of the work we would like to do as permaculture designer is to create systems benefitting bees as well as people. This objective for us started back in 2016 in Canada together with Yann Loranger, co-founder of the Canadian Apitherapy Association and with us, co-developer of the ReBeCa project: Revitalizing Beekeeping in Canada. As beekeeper and apitherapist, Yann was very aware of the threats that bees are facing and of the dire need for high quality bee products in therapy. So began our vision of using permaculture principles to create healthier environments to save the bees while producing higher-quality bee products for everyone…
Permaculture is a practical framework of regenerative and productive land-use that is perfectly suited to the task. It promotes exactly what bees, beekeepers, and apitherapists need and it encompasses all the knowledge and techniques required to bring the necessary changes to reality. The great strength of this approach is that i) the principles apply as well to a small balcony garden as to complete landscape designs, facilitating a large-scale change of land-use, and ii) unlike some ecological practices, human needs, especially regarding local populations, are fully part of the equation which is vital to engage in shift of consciousness with the whole of society. In permaculture we aim indeed at creating ecologically sound and economically viable systems.
A very good example of this is a permaculture farm in Cyprus producing olive oil (2): In a place where hardly any vegetation was growing and where soil erosion was a huge problem, they started building their soil up while favoring diversity, cooperation, and water conservation using permaculture principles to grow their olive trees. The results were astounding for everyone: after only three years, their olive oil had a world record concentration of polyphenols, which is what makes bee products or olive oil so healthy. The key reasons for permaculture yielding higher contents in bioactive compounds than conventional agriculture are the creation of species networks all supporting each other and, above all, the creation of healthy soils.
We present permaculture in more details elsewhere on this website and though any permaculture design will take into account the bees (at least as wild pollinators), in the following examples we will focus on the relationships among permaculture principles, bees, and people.
The first objective in a permaculture system for bees and for apitherapy is to place the elements of the system so that bees naturally fulfill their many functions and services with a minimum of stress. In other words, we make sure that we take advantage of all that bees offer (pollination, super food, top-quality medicinal products, wax, etc.) and in return we make sure that all their needs (protection, water, clean environment, abundant and diverse amounts of nectar, pollen, and balsam throughout their active season) are covered by other elements in the system. This is how we can support healthy and sustainable living: promoting cooperation and multi-functionality among the elements of a system. Basically, it is through the quality of design that we’ll meet our objectives.
So this work started in 2016 with the objective of promoting the extra value of apitherapy in the beekeeping culture, with three important expected results in mind: 1) Helping small beekeepers to survive by adding extra incomes to their occupation. 2) Because of the obligatory high-quality of apitherapy products, awareness of the need for cleaner and more diverse bee habitats will greatly increase, as well as the motivation to realize such habitats. 3) This in turn will increase the health and survival of not only honey bee populations but also those of wild insects and other animals and plants.
Such bee landscapes could also be tailored to produce specific products that beekeepers would like to specialize in, or that apitherapists particularly need. Again if we take the example of the very valuable thyme honey, we can make a design ensuring that thyme dominates the system at its blooming peak and that it produces nectar optimally – the nectar flow of a plant depends on if the conditions, e.g. water availability, are optimal for the plant’s needs. In effect, due to the universal approach of permaculture, its fields of application are very diverse. Most popular at the moment are probably permaculture home gardens or urban gardening projects, because people love growing food and many have a need for natural beauty and harmony in their backyard. Enthusiasm for a better use of public spaces is also gaining momentum with permaculture projects aiming at increasing food security and life quality in the cities (3). Such projects are also important to support the ever growing number of beehives within cities, which also need good sources of food (4).
But of course, if we are to generally improve the landscape on a broad scale, we need the collaboration of farmers and large landowners in general, even if they do not have hives and do not plan to have some. To achieve this, we must diversify our strategies to make it worthwhile for landowners in general to transform their landscape while benefitting the bees. This application is still the least explored so far, but recent climate extremes like the 2018 summer drought through most of Europe and the resulting economic difficulties have arisen the interest of many farmers for alternative methods such as permaculture. It is indeed time for people to re-discover the fact that we do not need industrial harmful chemicals to grow food in the garden or in the field. Indeed, there are plenty of alternatives to what is now conventional gardening and agriculture. These alternatives are economically viable, sometimes even more so than conventional farming, also on large farms (2,5).
And again, our bee landscape designs can be suitable for anybody wanting to do his/her part. For example, for people with a relatively small piece of land and who simply want a nice flowering garden, we can use our plant list to create nice bee-friendly flower arrangements that will take advantage of the different microclimatic conditions that could occur in each individual garden, adding diversity to the broader landscape. Other obvious small garden designs are vegetable gardens where we can add ornamental edible plants as extra diet diversity for both bees and people. Cross-referencing between our detailed plant list and the local conditions allows the creation of plant communities with the highest chances of success. Successful plant communities are further aided by favoring plant guilds, i.e. groups of plants that not only can live together but benefit from each other. These are aspects we carefully address for any bee landscape design.
As we get on larger properties, more and more techniques are at our disposal to improve the landscape for people and bees – e.g. diversely flowering windbreaks or sun traps. On very large properties where agriculture represent the livelihood of the landowners, many techniques and alternatives are at their disposal to improve the agricultural landscape both for farmers (more resilience) and for the bees and beekeepers (cleaner and higher diversity of nectar and pollen sources). A well-known technique is agroforestry which include alley cropping and sylvopasture and basically uses trees to support main crop cultures (6).
Of course, though there are always small steps that any farmer or landowner can take towards helping the bees while improving his/her system, permaculture on large-scale farms brings with it a whole new set of challenges, often related to the necessary equally large-scale mechanization of the work. Hence, any technique is not always adapted and any design must remain practical for the farmers; otherwise it is just not a good design. Still, those challenges can be overcome and impressively successful examples are already emerging in many places (2,5,7,8).
A very good example is again the permaculture farm of olive oil on Cyprus (2). This example is very important for beekeeping since the content of bee products obviously depends on the content of vegetal sources they come from. This farm thus not only supports bees and beekeepers with food sources that are clean and diverse; it gives the potential for bee products with higher content of bioactive compounds. This can increase the hives’ health (9) but also open a whole new market with the use of bee products in apitherapy, which require such high standards. Integrating permaculture principles in large-scale agriculture is thus a great cooperation opportunity between farmers and beekeepers, where they can be mutually beneficial to each other, like any element of a permaculture design.
As already mentioned, public landscaping is another great opportunity to improve the landscape for bees, either in restoration projects or in the design of parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces. Advising city councils and governments on the need to diversify their landscape and to plant relevant and adapted flowering species is indeed a very important step towards improvement. Naturally, public landscaping is already often done with an ecological approach and for pollinators. But what is really important to understand is that ours is not simply another wild pollinator project, though they too can fully benefit from it. Through a thoughtful permaculture design, we can address the specific needs of apitherapy, beekeepers, and the community which can be partially different than those of wild pollinators. For example, the goal is not to sow a pre-determined list of bee plants; we aim at determining a list of species tailored to each plot and at creating a system that support these plants, thus insuring the necessary conditions to produce large amounts of high-valued sources of food.
In conclusion, permaculture principles can be applied by everybody from a balcony garden to a large-scale commercial farm and each step in this direction will increase our quality of life and, by default, that of bees. For the bees specifically, a broad-scale success of this endeavour will require the collaboration of many players: those are beekeepers, apitherapists but also landowners implementing the designs, organisations supporting projects through subventions or recommendations, and universities and researchers to produce more data and research about the actual effects of permaculture designs on bees and bee products. This is a vision for a future network, working together towards abundant and healthy living.
Mollison. 1988. Permaculture: A designers' manual. Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Australia. 601 pp.
Weiseman et al. 2014. Integrated forest gardening: The complete guide to polycultures and plant guilds in permaculture systems. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, USA. 312 pp.
Interview Miracle Farms Orchard, Southern Quebec, Canada:
Greening the Desert Project, Geoff Lawton
Mao et al. 2013. Honey constituents up-regulate detoxification and immunity genes in the western honey bee . PNAS 110: 8842-8846.