This is part of Dossier Extreme Pollination

Chapter 01

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

Number of rented colonies

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.

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