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.