Francis Labonté has spent his entire life caring for the 4,000 bee hives his family depends on for a living. He was shocked when he discovered thieves stole 184 hives containing more than five million bees from their apiary in St. Valère, near Victoriaville.

“It’s the first time I’ve heard of such a massive theft of hives,” says Labonté, who suspects a competing beekeeper may be to blame.The value of the stolen bees is estimated at $200,000.

Labonté says his bees are normally rented to farmers at this time of the year to pollinate blueberry fields in the Lac St. Jean region.

“We have to build new hives and rebuild the colonies,” Labonté says, and it can take up to three years before they become productive again.

Each fall, Labonté harvests the honey for the other family business, Miel Labonté, which is found in most Quebec supermarkets.

Company president Jean-Marc Labonté isn't amused by the theft. The family is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the bees.

“It’s a big loss because first you lose the pollination in Lac St. Jean, you lose the pollination for the cranberries, then you lose the honey crop, and you have to build new hives. It’s costly. It’s a loss of a few hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

Eyewitnesses say they saw what looked like a couple of pickup trucks with a trailer and several people milling about in the area Monday evening. That information has been passed on to the Sûreté du Québec.

They say bee hives are not easy to hide because they require a large open field and are also hoping the special markings on the hives will make them easily traceable.

“You make your living with these bees. My sons will work very hard to recuperate this summer, but I don’t think they will be able to this year,” Jean-Marc Labonté said.