Quebec bee thieves made off with some of the best in the biz

When thieves stole 30 honey bee hives from the Miels D'Anicet apiary in Ferme-Neuve, Que., in June, they got away with some of the best bees in Canada, used

Stolen bees part of $7.1M research project aimed at identifying genes capable of resisting disease

Four of the stolen hives were part of a Laval University-led research project looking into the recent upswing in bee deaths in Canada and internationally. (Submitted by CRSAD)

When thieves stole 30 honey bee hives from the Miels D'Anicet apiary in Ferme-Neuve, Que., in June, they got away with some of the best bees in Canada.

Among those 30 hives were four bee colonies being studied as part of a four-year, $7.1-million project led in part by Laval University researcher Pierre Giovenazzo.

The four colonies were among 1,000 in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec that researchers have identified as strong performers in terms of breeding and honey production, said Giovenazzo, a specialist in honey bee nutrition and colony performance.

For stats, for research purposes, these thefts are a big loss.- Bee researcher Pierre  Giovenazzo

Whereas a typical colony may be worth $1,000 when it's high season for honey and pollinating crops, the project's colonies have a value of around $10,000, Giovenazzo said.

"A colony for research purposes is multiplied by 10 because we've done samples on this, we've worked on it, the genetics are known. So losing a colony like this is a major downfall for us," he said.

Research aimed at bee preservation

The project aims to identify genetic markers within these colonies that will help beekeepers build high-producing colonies capable of resisting disease and surviving Canadian winters.

According to Giovenazzo, between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of Canadian bee colonies perish during the winter.

That's an improvement from the dark years of 2002 and 2003, when bee colony deaths in Quebec shot up to around 50 per cent due to a mite infestation.

But 25 per cent remains a heavy toll that the project hopes to improve.

"Just imagine, a beekeeper winters 1,000 colonies and when he comes back in spring, he has 750 colonies. That's a major throwback for an industry," he said.

The Ferme-Neuve theft followed another incident at the end of April in which 180 hives were stolen from a beekeeper in Saint-Valère, in the Eastern Townships. (Submitted by CRSAD)

The destruction of wild bee habitats through urbanization is also fuelling a higher demand from Canada's agricultural sector for beekeeping services.

"It's growing very fast because of the agricultural industry that needs bees to pollinate their crops," he said.

"The most important part of honey bees now is the services they give to agriculture, for blueberries, cranberries, cucumbers, apples, almonds (in the California), citrus (in Florida) and all the canola seed in Western Canada."

Why steal bees? 

Giovenazzo said crop pollination is now the real bread and butter for Canadian beekeepers, much more so than honey, and he believes the recent thefts in Quebec are indicative of the beekeeping industry's rapid expansion as a result.

While they may not derail the project, the thefts are a set-back for a project that ultimately aims to make beekeeping a more sustainable agricultural industry.

"It's out of this world when you look at the all the impacts of honey bees on the agricultural industry," he said.

"For stats, for research purposes, these thefts are a big loss."

While police have identified suspects in the theft, there's little hope the stolen hives will be found.