Bee Shortage Threatens Quebec’s Cranberry Industry

Cranberry grower Luc Decubber has finally found enough bees to pollinate his vines this year. It was no simple feat, he said, and he fears it will become even more difficult to achieve in the years to come.

“We talk to the beekeepers and they say [they] a lot of deaths during the winter, and especially this year,” he said.

The beekeeper who usually rents from Decubber expects to lose about half of his hives this year.

Decubber puts it simply: without bees, his Cranberry Bécancour farm cannot survive.

“If there is not an animal or someone to pollinate [the flowers]we won’t have any fruit,” said the former banker, who now devotes all his time to his farm of around 160 hectares.

Luc Decubber, Quebec cranberry grower, picks up a cranberry left on a vine during the winter. The plants start flowering in June and the tart berries will be ready for picking in October. (Radio Canada)

The farm, which is located in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec, a small town about two hours northeast of Montreal, depended on native pollinators when it started nearly 30 years ago.

But there aren’t enough native pollinators left to cover the farm’s growing footprint, so like many other fruit growers, Decubber has been forced to hire bees to pollinate the little white flowers that eventually turn into in cranberries.

Each summer, he rents some 1,000 hives that he sets up around the bogs where the cranberries grow.

Bees are an integral part of supplying the food chain

The region where Decubber is located is sometimes called the cranberry capital of Canada and is one of the largest fruit producers in the world.

The industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars and provides hundreds of jobs. But if the bee population continues to decline, it could be in peril.

Low bee populations worry Canadian farmers

Canadian farmers fear that bee populations damaged by mites, climate change and pesticides could lead to crop failures this season. 2:06

“If we don’t have bees, I don’t think we’re going to survive,” Decubber said. “We absolutely need it.”

Paul Kelly, director of the University of Guelph’s Center for Bee Research, echoes this concern.

Honey bees are crucial to agriculture in Canada, he said. “About a third of the food we eat, and it’s the most nutritious and delicious component of our diet, is pollinated by bees.”

“Fruits, seeds, nuts, berries, vegetables – all those sorts of things benefit from bee pollination.”

But in recent years it has been harder for farmers like Decubber to find beehives to rent.

Honey bee losses have been increasing since about 2007, according to Kelly. This is a trend that worries Decubber.

“It’s going to have an impact, you can already see this year it was difficult to have the hives we need,” said the cranberry producer.

Paul Kelly said honey bees are very important to agriculture as they fly from flower to flower, pollinating fruits and vegetables along the way so they can produce crops. (Radio Canada)

Decubber said cranberry growers will have to find alternatives, such as using bumblebees. But even that is not ideal because bumblebee hives have far fewer bees than honey bee hives, he said.

A long-term solution that Decubber is working on is to try to attract natural pollinators by planting native bushes around cranberry bogs.

But in the short term, Kelly expects fruit and vegetable growers to face a shortage because so many beekeepers have lost their bees this year.

He said those beekeepers will have to borrow hives from other growers to meet demand.

“It will be a big challenge for the beekeeping industry and it might affect the pollination service as well,” he said.

A devastating winter for many beekeepers

Quebec beekeeper Sébastien Laberge lost 70% of his bees over the winter. (Radio Canada)

Sébastien Laberge is a third-generation beekeeper and honey producer who runs La Miellerie St-Stanislas with his family in Saint-Stanislas-de-Kostka, Quebec, about an hour southwest of Montreal.

Laberge lost 70% of its bees during the winter. This has been devastating to his business, as half of his income comes from renting his bees to blueberry, apple and vegetable farms for pollination.

“We get calls every day for blueberry or cranberry. We just don’t have any bees to outsource right now,” he said.

Laberge isn’t the only beekeeper feeling the sting this season. Many other bee producers in the province and across Canada had some nasty surprises when they opened their hives this spring.

Varroa mites, a parasite that kills bees, are believed to be the main culprit in bee losses in the country this year.

Monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop, also weakens the health of bees because it provides them with only one source of nutrients.

Quebec beekeeper Sébastien Laberge said his bees were not killed by verroa mites and suspects environmental issues are to blame for their deaths. (Radio Canada)

Laberge thinks other reasons may contribute to their decline: pesticides, fungicides and climate change.

“It’s a bunch of different environmental issues that probably killed our bees.”

Laberge says he was lucky because he was able to get bees imported from Australia to rebuild his hives.

But he estimates that in Quebec alone, there will be a shortage of about 10,000 hives this year.

“At the end of the day, we will all be losers if nothing changes,” he said.