A small native bee could help make Quebec's north less dependent on fruit and vegetables flown in at high cost.
Researchers at the Boreal Forest Experimentation and Development Center in Baie-Comeau, Que. are studying whether the Osmia Tersula bee could help grow food in greenhouses in northern Quebec.
If the project succeeds, it could be a game changer for food security in the region, said Mathilde Bouchard, a research associate at the centre.
"Producers will be able maybe to have a bigger yield of their crops, and it's going to be easier to produce vegetables in isolated parts of Quebec," she told Quebec AM.
Bouchard said the goal of the project is to create pollination systems in greenhouses in northern Quebec, which would make it easier for communities to grow their own food.
"The more food we can produce locally, the better it is I think for the community."
A hairy bee that's well adapted to northern climates
Bouchard and her team are studying the Osmia Tersula bee, a solitary bee that lives in the boreal forest. It doesn't live in a hive but rather nests alone, often in small cavities or dead wood.
Unlike honeybees, this species doesn't sting. It is hairy and smaller — about eight or nine mm compared to 15 mm — than its honeybee counterpart with blue-green colours on its head and abdomen.
Bouchard said it was chosen for the experiment because it is well adapted to the northern climate and shows good potential for living in a closed environment as it stays very close to its nest.
The bee has also demonstrated its strong ability to pollinate local plants such as blueberries.
It's very common to use bees in greenhouses because plants need to be pollinated to grow fruits or veggies, according to Maggie Lamothe Boudreau, the vice-president of Quebec's beekeepers association.
While pollination can sometimes happen through the rain or wind, that's not possible in a greenhouse because it's a very controlled environment, she explained.
So without bees, "you would have to use a little paintbrush or a feather and go to each flower and pollinate it by hand," she said, adding that using bees also led to better crop yields.
Greenhouse farmers normally use bumblebees, which don't live in the boreal forest. But Bouchard told Radio-Canada that using native bees for their project is better because it is less disruptive to the local ecosystem.
"The Osmia has characteristics that are very similar to bumblebees, but the advantage is that they are a native species," she said. "We therefore avoid bringing a foreign species into northern communities."
If the researchers had used bumblebees, it would've created a risk of some insects escaping into nature and competing with the region's local pollinators, said Lamothe Boudreau.
She said that if the project succeeds, it could help Osmia Tersulas prosper. "I think it can be beneficial for this species and contribute to protect it."
Researches will study impact on crop yields and fruits
The first step for Bouchard's team is to evaluate how the Osmia Tersula bee reacts to being enclosed in a greenhouse, and how it fares in hotter and more humid temperatures.
Then, they will study the impact of the bee on the flowers and the crop yields.
They will look into what part of the flower the bee touches when it pollinates it, or whether the fruits produced are bigger, Bouchard said.
The first crop to be tested is tomatoes, as it's one of the crops that needs pollinators to have a better yield, Bouchard explained. If that works well, they'll expand to peppers and eggplants.
Her team installed nesting boxes for wild Osmia Tersula bees in different sites on the North Shore, so that the researchers can breed the bees and bring their larvae into the greenhouses at the end of the summer.
Part of provincial plan to tackle food insecurity
The research centre received a $90,000 grant from the Quebec government for this project, which ends in 2023.
The funding is administered by the Société du Plan Nord, a government agency charged with planning sustainable development in northern Quebec.
One of the government's priorities is to ensure that people in the region have a good quality of life, which means ensuring access to fresh and affordable food, said Julie Simone Hébert, director of programs and territorial relations for the agency.
"When your food basket costs more, it's harder for families to prosper and feel good on their own territory," she said.
Food is very expensive in northern communities, because most of it has to be transported there.
To tackle this issue, the province created a program dedicated to greenhouse farming in 2017. That's why it is investing in projects like the one Bouchard is working on, Hébert said.
"Greenhouse farming is almost unavoidable if we want to really work toward food autonomy," she said.