Sovereign Among the Queens
In the heart of the Québec Appalachians, Maggie Lamothe-Boudreau raises queen bees and sells them to beekeepers across the province. Her little-known work is crucial to our food sovereignty.
Nestled in the verdant hills of Irlande and Saint-Adrien-d’Irlande, Maggie Lamothe-Boudreau’s multicoloured beehives have a beautiful view. Their beekeeper tends them with the utmost care.
People travel a long way to the Chaudière-Appalaches Region of Québec just to meet the warm and indomitable Lamothe-Boudreau. On the spring morning of my visit, I meet Jean, who has driven two hours from Islet to buy queen bee cells.
Lamothe-Boudreau delicately places her “darlings” — queen cells coated in beeswax — in a small box filled with sawdust. You could almost mistake her for a pastry chef selecting her finest cream puffs.
“This time, I’ll hold the box upright on my knees,” promises Jean, who lost several cells when they were crushed during transport last year.
Each queen cell contains the pupa of a future queen bee that the buyer will introduce into their own hive.
Lamothe-Boudreau is one of only two women who rear and sell queens in Québec. She’s been devoted to running her business full-time for four years now, after having studied with other beekeepers. From building a cellar for overwintering bees to meticulously grafting larvae, Lamothe-Boudreau seems to be up for every challenge. Scattered across the hills, her hives have been painted bright colours to help the bees find their home more easily: she thinks of everything.
Beekeepers need queens in early May to start new hives or to replace those that died over the winter due to pesticides or temperature fluctuations. They ensure the pollination of blueberry plants first, then of the crops that follow: cranberries, cucurbits, buckwheat, apples, and more. Though few of us know it, a third of what we eat depends on bees. Each hive contains a queen bee, whose sole task is to lay eggs, ensuring the renewal of the colony. “Though we call her the queen, she doesn’t hold a managerial role. The work is done collectively,” explains Lamothe-Boudreau.
There’s just one little hitch: Lamothe-Boudreau’s queens aren’t ready until June.
To get a queen in May — in time for the pollination of blueberry plants — beekeepers have to turn to international sources. Canada imports approximately 250,000 queens each year.
“The problem with foreign queens is that they’re genetically not adapted to our climate,” says Lamothe-Boudreau. “We make do with a hybrid — a local queen mated with a foreign drone — that tolerates our winters poorly. By using local bees, we ensure a measure of food sovereignty.”
As part of her master’s in beekeeping at Laval University, Lamothe-Boudreau is exploring whether several queens can be overwintered in the same hive. “Banking” queens like this would yield more of them come spring. “We’ve had pretty good results so far,” she notes.
A woodland laboratory
On her brother-in-law’s land, Lamothe-Boudreau has installed 46 of her best hives — her breeders — among the spruce trees. These hives produce queens that, once they’re ready, will help pollinate later-season crops.
At first glance, a forest environment might seem hostile to honeybees, but Lamothe-Boudreau explains: “Spruce pollen is a good source of protein. And you have to keep in mind that each bee can travel as far as three kilometres to get its food.” Near the beehives sits a white trailer that serves as a grafting room. Dressed in her spacesuit, Lamothe-Boudreau enters with frames full of broods to conduct a delicate operation, prompting these eggs to become queens and not worker bees. To do so, she has to graft tiny, newly born larvae in wax queen cell cups. She then places the queen cells in a new hive.
The queen cell is placed upside down, so that the colony knows she’s a future queen that has to be fed only royal jelly. “I make use of the hive’s instinct to get what I need,” Lamothe-Boudreau says.
She sells the royal cells as well as mature, mated queens, which go for $40 each. Lamothe-Boudreau currently sells 4,500 queens per year; she’d like to get that number up to 10,000 and dreams of making her apiary an agri-tourism destination.
She chose this branch of beekeeping six years ago, knowing that local queens would generate excitement. Starting up her business was nevertheless difficult: the Financière Agricole du Québec, the province’s farm credit body, hesitates to lend money to beekeepers because they have so few assets. “If you go bankrupt, a box of hives is very difficult to sell, because it can contain diseases and parasites,” explains Lamothe-Boudreau.
Between starting up her business, building her house with her husband and in-laws, and caring for her two young children, Maggie has had her hands full. While she has no regrets about going into business, she admits it would be a lot less demanding to work for someone else. As a result, Lamothe-Boudreau has employed two foreign workers to help her in recent years.
She remains in contact with other beekeepers, receiving news from each passing client: from poisoned colonies to frustrations with farmers’ use of pesticides at levels beyond the limits set by Québec’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. At the end of the season last year, five beekeepers informed her that they were retiring early, exasperated by the arrival of a new parasite; for them, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Lamothe-Boudreau, however, remains optimistic. She has chosen to get involved in key issues, such as better insurance coverage for beekeepers who lose their colonies. She is also the only woman to sit on the Canadian Honey Council.
“When I bring facts to the table, they listen to me,” she attests.
I watch her busy herself among her multicoloured hives. Surrounded by her “girls,” Lamothe-Boudreau doesn’t seem to need anyone else. She holds her place, sovereign and self-sufficient among the queens.
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Eugénie Emond is a freelance journalist. She works with various media outlets, including Radio-Canada.