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.”