The hive heist
In the Victoriaville office of Miel Labonté, a family-owned apiary, a photo of the thief, handcuffed and under escort by police officers, still hangs in plain sight on the wall.
“I want to be sure I’ll recognize him if I run into him somewhere,” says beekeeper Francis Labonté with a fierce look in his eye.
“The police told us not to get involved,” cautions Frédérick, his 22-year-old son, who possesses the same piercing blue eyes as his father, his grandfather, and his uncle Mathieu.
It’s been four years since the biggest bee theft in the history of the country — the Labonté family’s hives. Their anger simmers still.
On the morning of 24 April 2016, Mathieu Labonté was doing the rounds of his hives when he discovered that the small clearing along the edge of Highway 955 in Saint-Albert had been decimated: 184 hives were missing. Just the previous Sunday, everything had been fine; Mathieu’s father, Jean-Marc, had done the rounds after eating his first soft serve of the season. The colony of nine million bees was ready to be transported to Lac-Saint-Jean, where it would pollinate blueberries throughout the month of June.
The Labontés quickly alerted Québec’s provincial police. Francis, the eldest brother, could no longer sleep at night. The family offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could find the thief, and even rented a helicopter to scour the surrounding area. Jean-Marc eventually spotted the hives near Mandeville in the Lanaudière Region, but without a warrant he was helpless. And by the next day it was already too late: the hives had disappeared again. Even though the thief, Marco Beausoleil, ended up pleading guilty to possessing stolen property, the hives were never found. “They were probably sent to Gaspésie, or to the blueberry bushes in New Brunswick,” says Jean-Marc Labonté. His sons still hope to find the wooden frames engraved with the company initials, MLI.
“I can’t understand it,” says Frédérick, still outraged. “You can’t steal a cow, so why steal a hive? It’s the same thing. You just don’t do it.”
Young Frédérick tried several careers before donning the familial blue shirt — and cigarette — a few years ago. “I tried other things, but I always come back to this: working outside, with nature. We’re not just beekeepers: we do maintenance, and mechanics . . I call that the work of life!” In his opinion, the role of the honeybee is fundamental in the food chain. And he’s got a point.
The honeybee is single-handedly responsible for nearly a third of what we eat: there’s honey, of course, but also apples, pears, blueberries, canola, buckwheat, cucumbers, and melons, to name just a few things that depend on the pollinators.
In the 1970s the Labontés produced kilos of honey. But the business has changed, and the job of the beekeeper with it. The flowers, which came largely from livestock pastures like clover and alfalfa fields, have disappeared. “Those crops are cut before they flower, because people have realized they contain less protein for the animals once they bloom,” explains Pierre Giovenazzo, director of the Research Chair in apiculture services at the Laval University, whose work is partly financed by the blueberry industry.
No flowers means no pollen, and no pollen means no nectar. No nectar means no honey and no food for the colony, needed to lay their eggs and to survive the winter.
So beekeepers compete for territory, which is becoming rarer and rarer. Now, add “frequent theft” to this already-tough business. At 70, Jean-Marc Labonté has seen all kinds. He remembers punishing a thief who robbed him of a few bee frames by sitting him down on a hive; he plays hardball. “My boys aren’t as tough as me,” he says. “I told them: keep a 12-gauge in your truck, then, and keep it loaded with salt shells!”
At the end of this year’s spring heat wave, the bees are hard at work in the clearing where the theft took place four years ago. Little buckets sit atop the hives, full of syrup made from white sugar, which compensates for the lack of nectar nearby.
“The honey we make doesn’t even pay for the sugar we need to buy,” says Francis Labonté, showing me the sacks piled up to the ceiling in the warehouse. Using white sugar as food for honeybees has become commonplace.
The Labontés were the first to rent their hives to blueberry producers in the 1990s, a decade when it was proven that this practice could multiply fruit yield tenfold. The demand has only gone up since: requisitioned in June for blueberry bushes in Lac-Saint-Jean and Côte-Nord, their bees then head on to pollinate cranberry bushes in Centre-du-Québec. Today, 95 per cent of their revenue comes from their pollination services, and only 5 per cent from honey sales. The honey they sell in grocery stores primarily comes from the Canadian West. And they are not alone. Many beekeepers in Québec are following a similar path.
Hives used for pollination in Québec
2005 to 2018
Source: Statistique Québec, 2019
Before leaving the clearing, Francis locks the thin wire with a padlock: a rinky-dink fence that blocks access to the apiary. A signboard warns trespassers of electrocution.“Careful not to get a shock!” jokes Frédérick.
According to the Labontés, the police had no idea of the value of a hive when they reported the theft. As I head back to my car, I realize that I don’t either.
And how would you guess that 350 km away, in the heart of the boreal forest, honeybee colonies ensure the production of 77 million kilos of blueberries? After all, we rarely see the evidence of them on Québec’s market and grocery store shelves.
The great blueberry race
It’s getting dark in Saint-David-de-Falardeau in Saguenay. The blueberry field is lit only by the moon and the headlights of the 53-foot-long tractor-trailer loaded with hives. The motor revs. Four men in astronaut suits are busy in this rolling expanse of blueberries, which seems to stretch out for miles. The further we go, the more cargo is unloaded from the truck. But the path is bumpy. The driver has to take it extra slow on a number of occasions to handle the tight turns.
David Lee Desrochers is stressed. He’s transporting the lift in his pickup, and he can see the truck struggling ahead of him on the dirt path, shaking the hives. Several queens won’t make it.
“Transporting them is the part I hate the most,” he grumbles.
And yet everything has gone smoothly since our departure from Portneuf around 10 p.m. The beekeeper who was in the blueberries before us wasn’t so lucky. Likely as a result of fatigue and bad handling, his hoist crashed into the ditch. Desrochers won’t let that happen. He turns down the heat and opens the windows to let in the fresh air on this June night. He sips his coffee continuously. By two in the morning, if all goes well, we’ll be heading back.
This is the seventh year that Desrochers has carted the hives for the blueberry and cranberry pollination — a second career, after he spent eight years in the army, wrecking his body in military training facilities in Valcartier and New Brunswick.
When he started, at 24 years old, his first step was to acquire 50 hives. His company, Des Ruchers d’Or, hasn’t ceased to expand since. And neither have the challenges he faces. After flash frosts and a late spring, the beekeeper lost 60 per cent of his colony. “We would open the hives and find nothing left. Empty, dead!” He was intending to rent 1,600 hives this season but had to cut that down by half.
The samples taken by the Québec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ) revealed severe spinosad poisoning. Spinosad is an active substance present in Entrust, the pesticide used in organic cranberry plantations, and increasingly in organic blueberry plantations — it’s also extremely toxic to bees. “You might think that organic was better for bees. But the majority of the problems we have [with these insects] are linked to this product,” explains Nicolas Tremblay, agronomist and provincial apiculture advisor at the Animal Sciences Research Centre (CRSAD) in Deschambault.
Over the last few months, in spite of the pandemic, Desrochers has had a few strokes of luck. He was able to get packages of bees from Australia, ordered at the last minute, and he has also taken on his first two foreign workers: two Mexican labourers who already had experience with beekeeping in the canola fields in Alberta. His girlfriend, whom he met on the local farming reality TV show L’amour est dans le pré, is also making her first trip with us tonight.
Since his colony was decimated, Desrochers drives the hives at night — bees can’t be moved during the day — to honour his contract with the blueberry producers and to replenish his bank account. Until last night, he was still 128 hives short of the 432 that were promised. (At the last minute he managed to buy the remaining hives from another beekeeper, but had to stay up all night before heading to Saguenay.)
It’s a race every year: to pollinate all the blueberry bushes in Québec and get a full harvest, blueberry producers hope to get 95,000 hives. But the colonies have been ravaged by sickness, pesticides, and fungicides.
Last year they only managed 35,000. In Ontario, nearly half the hives are destined for the pollination of blueberries in the Maritimes and in Québec. Ontario could have passed along at least 5,000, but the Québec government has partially closed its borders in fear of the spread of the small hive beetle (SHB), which has ravaged hives in other parts of Canada. This didn’t stop the illegal entry of a load of mini-hives at the beginning of the summer, however. Since then the MAPAQ has documented cases of SHB in the colonies of five Québec beekeepers.
To make up for the lack of hives, the company Bleuets Sauvages du Québec [Québec Wild Blueberries], which owns the majority of Québec’s blueberry fields, brings in colonies of bumblebees from Detroit and raises leafcutting bees, pollinating insects used for alfalfa in the American West. In the blueberry patches, populations of bumblebees are placed here and there in in cardboard boxes while the leafcutting bees are hosted in miniature yurts.
Of course, indigenous pollinators are more efficient. But there aren’t enough to meet the needs of a commercial field. In any case, blueberry producers have no choice: if they don’t rent hives, they don’t have enough pollinators and can’t get crop insurance.
Of the 35 million kilos of blueberries produced here, 85 per cent are destined for export. The blueberries are frozen and sent primarily to the U.S., Germany, and Japan.
I should note that we’re talking here about so-called wild blueberries, which are smaller than the highbush blueberries grown in southern Québec and British Columbia. In Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, the “blue pearl” has found fertile ground after the fire that ravaged more than half the region in 1870. The cultivated area of Saguenay is equal now to the area of the Island of Montréal. This little fruit grows naturally, but the favourable conditions there are maintained by regular controlled burns.
Companies have developed the market since the blueberry was named the antioxidant par excellence some 15 years ago. Canada has become the second leading producer of blueberries in the world, after the United States. In 2016 the supply was so high in Maine, the Maritimes, and Québec that the price of the fruit dropped drastically, throttling producers.
Fruit crop area in Québec in 2018
International fruit trade in Québec in 2018
(including blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and apples)
Desrochers has felt it too. For him to get full price for renting his hives — $150 each, on average — they have to contain a minimum of 12 frames. A difficult standard to meet in early spring when the cold prevents the queen from laying eggs.
With the losses that happen each year and a series of late springs, Desrochers can’t meet the demand. “I feel like I’m constantly living on borrowed time,” he confides. Following behind the truck full of hives — which, along with the equipment, are valued at around $600,000 — he wonders aloud:
“What is the solution? Stop growing and have just 200 colonies? But you can’t live off that. And I don’t even live expensively… I have a little house I bought for $130,000, and an old Mazda that I lend to the Mexicans.”
The truth behind our almond milk
In the United States, in California’s monoculture almond plantations, the game is played on a whole other level. No other place in the world requires as much pollination — from 1.5 to 2 million hives annually. Our collective appetite for almond milk, almond flour, and other by-products hasn’t lessened in the past 20 years. It’s a fad that’s largely been determined by The Almond Board of California, including Blue Diamond, a co-operative of producers who grow, transform, and market more than half the almond harvest in California. Blue Diamond “did a really good job marketing outside the U.S. and within the U.S.,” explains Brittney Goodrich, Assistant Co-operative Extension Specialist in Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.
Let’s not delude ourselves. If blueberries have topped blackberries and elderberries as antioxidants, and if almonds have outpaced hazelnuts or cashews as vegan alternatives to cow’s milk, it’s because the harvests have buyers, and because the markets have been developed.
Result: 80 per cent of the world production of almonds is concentrated in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. Fruit and milk producers have traded in their orchards and their cows for more profitable almond plantations. And the trees are still being planted.
Nut and fruit production in California
1985 to 2015 (in acres)
Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2015
Market shares of almond production in the world
(in metric tons, 5-year average)
Source: International Nut & Dried Fruit (INC), 2017/2018 Statistical Yearbook
Annual sales of plant-based milks in the United States
(in millions of dollars)
Source: Nielsen, juillet 2018
“I don’t think all of California will convert to almonds,” says Goodrich. “The cost of almond production has been increasing substantially over the last decade due to the price of land, and we have this water scarcity issue,” she adds. “It’s going to level off eventually. It’s just a matter of when that happens.” But the landscape has already been transformed. The almond tree monocultures, sprayed with glyphosate, have taken precedence over biodiversity.
In February the spectacular blooming of the almond trees kicks off the season for beekeepers. The colonies are sent across the United States, from producer to producer, to end their journey in Southern States in November where they will spend the winter. There, too, the bees are prey to parasites and sickness.
It’s a reality few consumers are thinking of when they order their almond milk matcha latté. Thefts, such as the one that happened to the Labonté family, are recurrent. Some beekeepers even negotiate their pollination contracts against better protection for their hives on the plantations. Bee brokers make the link between beekeepers and producers.
The orchard without bees
“Leave it!” Stefan Sobkowiak orders his dog, Bow, who’s about to eat a wasp. “It’s probably a queen, and they’re precious at this time of year,” he adds, turning toward me. He points out another wasp that’s chewing dead wood to make its nest. Like birds, these insects eat tent caterpillars, which ravage the orchards, leaving the trees “as bare as in January.”
When Sobkowiak acquired this 4,000–apple tree orchard 25 years ago in Cazaville, in the western part of Montérégie, he couldn’t eradicate the caterpillars. Since then they have become a synonym for biodiversity; their presence shows that his ecosystem is healthy.
In the early days Sobkowiak — a landscape architect and biologist by training — worked to convert the conventional orchard to organic, while his wife brought in a steady income. He eventually realized that a monoculture, whether it’s organic or not, “makes no sense.” Now he has turned toward permaculture, which consists of “reducing basic problems by the design of the space.” His farm has since become autonomous and profitable:
“It’s staggering to see the extent to which fruit farms, apple farms especially, are only cost-effective because they get subsidies or membership insurance. It’s sad. I could take subsidies, but I don’t, for the simple reason that that would hide the real picture.”
Here at Fermes Miracle Farms, everyone has their role, from the snakes that eat the mice to the eastern kingbird softly nested in an old apple tree. Beneath the tall pines that border his property, Sobkowiak has seen morels spawn for several years now — unthinkable in a conventional orchard, which is constantly sprayed with fungicide. Locusts and acacia, those leguminous trees planted between the apple trees, fertilize the soil and serve as living stakes for the vines and kiwis.
Beneath the nest box he’s built for indigenous pollinators, two empty hives serve as “mice cottages.” Sobkowiak got rid of his (domestic) honeybees four years ago.
“I liked the bees, I liked having hives and collecting honey, but I don’t want to do it anymore,” he says, resolute. The bees actually overloaded the apple trees — their pollination was too effective. The trees would bend and break beneath the weight of the fruit. In conventional orchards, a chemical thinner is used to eliminate the surfeit of pollinated flowers, destroying part of the bees’ work. But Sobkowiak refuses to use it. And the manual labour is time-consuming.
Honeybees, introduced to the Americas by colonizers, also weakened the local ecosystems. “They were housed and fed,” he says. During this time, indigenous pollinators worked extra hard to make their nests, feed their larvae, and look for nectar, which was becoming more and more scarce — especially in an apple monoculture, where there was nothing to eat once the flowering was over. That’s what happened to solitary bees that nest in the ground of orchards and pollinate the apple tree flowers more efficiently than domestic bees, who are not as specialized. Research in biology has trouble demonstrating this competition, since the challenge is to isolate a single subject in a context of biodiversity.
“Honeybee pollination services should be a red flag telling us our ecosystem is fragile. It just means we’re dependent on them, because we don’t have enough biodiversity to maintain a healthy population of indigenous pollinators.”
At Sobkowiak’s place, the periods of flowering follow each other all summer, ensuring a food supply for the insects. Now, in early June, the acacia fill the orchard with the scent of their long white clusters of flowers. Stefan holds one out to me. “Taste it, it’s so good!”
Before I leave, he gives me a present: a bag of apples frozen last season. Every autumn, he and his wife freeze 50 bags, which means they can eat their own fruit all year round.
Fresh fruit, frozen fruit: the paradox
On the way back the apples slowly melt in my non-air-conditioned car. The thermometer reads 36 ºC. I’m thinking about the excuse that often serves to justify the lack of local fruits on our shelves and in our organic baskets: “The season is too short.” Fair enough — but how is it that even frozen fruit is so hard to find? Every year, I have to freeze rhubarb and berries harvested at the neighbouring farm in order to have enough provisions.
A quick glance in grocery store freezers takes us on an international trip: strawberries from Chile, raspberries from Peru. At the back of a shelf, a little bag of apples from the United States. Only the wild blueberries from Lac-Saint-Jean alter the picture.
“‘Eat local’ applies for fresh produce, but for frozen, you have to go international,” explains René Morissette, principal buyer for the Montréal company Nature’s Touch, which provides 80 per cent of all the frozen fruits and vegetables in Canada’s grocery stores. “We don’t reach the critical mass of production of strawberries or raspberries to justify the infrastructure for freezing fruits here,” he tells me. Québec is simply nowhere near the agricultural output of California, Mexico, or Chile, who freeze their surplus once the fruit market is saturated. Only cranberries and blueberries justify Québecois infrastructure for freezing. “No one does cranberries as well as we do,” he says.
Even for fresh fruit, there are several contradictions. A quick glance at our apple imports makes my eyebrows go up. If there’s one fruit we produce in large quantities, this is it. How is it that we import 29 million dollars’ worth of fresh apples and 50 million dollars’ worth of apple products every year?
Québec produces an enormous amount of apples — 115,000 tons annually. It could conserve them for 12 months in temperature-controlled warehouses.
Part of the answer is that our climate doesn’t allow us to cultivate Granny Smith and other popular varieties that grow in the sunny valleys of the United States. “They’re brands,” Sobkowiak explains. “People tend to return to what they knew in their childhood.” Are we ready to sacrifice green apples for a local option? “After having had access to such a wide variety of products, I’d be surprised,” says Sylvie Senay, co-owner of Avril, a chain of eight organic grocery stores across the province.
25 years ago, the available local organic crop at Avril came down to carrots alone. Today, 25% of the fruits and vegetables available in summertime are grown here — a percentage that falls to 10% in winter. “It’s not so much the variety but the volume that’s lacking in Quebec in terms of organics,” explains Maxime Lachapelle, Senior Category Manager for fresh and frozen products at Avril.
“Currently, farmers produce several varieties for organic baskets. Some offer me 12 cases of shallots every week. But 12 cases stretched over eight stores doesn’t go very far. When I meet small producers who don’t really know what to do, I tell them, ‘Produce three winners in large quantities, and then I’ll be able to do business with you.’ But the more variety you have, the less efficient you are, the higher your prices and the less you’re in the game,” he says.
As I leave Maxime and the air-conditioned aisles of Avril, I can’t help but wonder whether we might one day supply our grocery stores with local fruit — and aspire to a greater food autonomy — without resorting to intensive monoculture.
The fruit farm of the future
I meet the farm-school students of the Institut National d’Agriculture Biologique (INAB) in Victoriaville. Eleven of them are part of a new program in organic fruit growing, started two years ago in response to growing interest. Between a permaculture forest, an orchard, greenhouses, gardens, and hives, they are experimenting and reflecting on all they’ve learned.
“What they tell us is that there’s a demand in Québec for organic fruit, and that we’re capable of meeting it,” says Maya Boivin-Lalonde, a teacher in the department of agriculture at INAB. Fruit trees are perennials that survive year after year “thanks to the Québec winters that cut the cycle of sickness,” she adds. “It helps us do this organically.”
The students, aged 20 to 40 years, know that you have to have a solid backbone to start a fruit farm, if you consider that the trees won’t produce fruit for the first three years.
They don’t all want to become entrepreneurs. Some simply dream of self-sufficiency and know that buying local and organic begins with education. “I’ve already converted a few people!” says Elisabeth Christopherson proudly. On the day we speak, the 31-year-old is responsible for preparing floral strips that will serve to concoct jellies.
“I like the idea of building something that will survive me,” adds Valentin Mohy, 23 years old. Mohy is not in a hurry. A decade might well pass between the pandemic spring and the moment when he’ll drink the first glass of cider in his organic orchard in Saguenay — a Nordic region, where he dreams of agroforestry — and he’s okay with that.
Here, the model proposed by Stefan Sobkowiak is either completely unknown, or it polarizes the students. “I have a lot of trouble with permaculture, because I want to make a living some other way than writing books and taking on unpaid employees,” blurts out Simon Jalbert, a 34-year-old student.
Jalbert picked cherries out west for 15 years. Now he wants to offer sweet organic varieties of cherries to consumers without resorting to monoculture. He also wants to acquire a freezer to make provisions.
When they’ve finished their course, the graduates will be eligible for subsidies to help them start up their businesses: sums of up to $50,000, accessible under certain conditions. These, however, are meagre amounts for a farm that won’t produce fruit in its first years, and which will require investments of land and equipment.
For the moment, the government programs mainly favour large-scale crops, focused on volume — a profitable model that represents less risk for the Financière Agricole du Québec. Diversified organic farms don’t fit easily into the business models of MAPAQ and financial institutions, which don’t often take exceptions into account.
Mohy and Guillaume Bélanger are among the students, researchers, and marginal farmers who are thinking about the role of bees in fruit production. Last year the bees at the hive-school were stressed from a lack of food. “We’re trying to rebalance the ratio of domestic bees and indigenous pollinators,” explains Bélanger, 23 years old.
So how long will it be before we can see a greater offering of local organic fruits on the shelves?
“Five years from now!” answers Lalonde, optimistic.
I spoke to David Lee Desrochers about the model proposed by Stefan Sobkowiak. He listened closely to my explanations about permaculture and the reconsideration of the role of domestic bees in our agriculture. Our discussion turned to our paradoxes, between our desire for self-sufficiency, our lack of understanding of food issues, and all those times when, individually and collectively, we bet on the wrong horse.
“People want to save the bees and buy hives without training . . but there’s no more feeding-ground to feed them. If you want to save them, you won’t do it by buying hives. It’s not easy to make everyone understand this.”
Since my visit to Sobkowiak, I’ve been thinking differently about the aphids that attack the plum tree in my garden. “Everyone has their role,” I repeat to myself as I watch them. The key may indeed be to welcome what the land gives us, rather than trying to force things in the name of a trend or one of our many desires.
Young farmer-beekeepers will undoubtedly put forward new models for food autonomy that are capable of rebuilding our biodiversity. We need to be ready. This means befriending the elderberry in summer and frozen blueberries in winter. Accepting that the green apples of our childhood lose their lustre. And planting flowers. Lots of flowers.
A story by Eugénie Emond
PHOTOS & VIDEOS
Intro: Nicolas Gouin (video)
Chapter 01: Nicolas Gouin
Chapter 02: Drowster & Nicolas Gouin (video)
Chapter 03: Ilona Szwarc
Chapter 04: Eliane Cadieux
Chapter 05: Eliane Cadieux, Niklas Hamann & Jason Leung
Chapter 06: Nicolas Gouin
Epilogue: Daphné Caron
Original idea and editorial direction: Catherine Métayer
Editing: Caroline R. Paquette & Casey Beal
Reviewing: Liette Lemay & Shanti Maharaj
English translation: Jessica Moore
Fact checking and research: Guillaume Rivest
Creative & artistic direction: Eliane Cadieux
Programming & integration: Olivier Chan Kane
Graphic design: Gabrielle Deronde
Digital strategy: Camille Monette
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