Feral apple trees abound in Isle Madame - dotted through the woods, standing gnarled in deserted fields, adorning the edges of roads. They include several different varieties - probably heritage strains, since they apparently descend from orchards planted by French settlers in the 18th century. In October, they should be groaning with apples. But this one, growing beside a long-abandoned road, bore not a single fruit.
Later that day, I drove the five miles from the bridge at Lennox Passage to my house in D'Escousse. Apple trees grow along that road as closely as schoolchildren waiting to cheer a parade - so many, in fact, that I would like to see the dull name "Route 320" replaced by Route des Pommiers/Apple Tree Road.
But I saw no pommes on Route des Pommiers either.
By now I was curious, and rather alarmed. What about my own fruit trees, the ones that grow around my boat shed, and carpet the ground with little sour apples at this time of year? Local deer-hunters generally phone me in the fall to ask if they can have the apples to set out as deer-bait. But nobody had called this year.
No wonder. Five trees, and between them they had barely produced enough apples to make a pie.
My buddy Edwin DeWolf, who built the shed, drove up beside me.
"No apples this year," I said.
"No apples anywhere," said Edwin. "No bees, that's why."
That evening I saw Farley and Claire Mowat, who last month donated 200 stunning seaside acres to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. This splendid gift includes 35 years' worth of the Mowats' careful records and observations on the site and in the area.
"We saw almost no fruits of any kind this year,"" said Farley. "No plums, no cherries, nothing. And it affected all kinds of things. It was a cold, wet, late spring, and we had so few insects this year that the insectivore species of birds didn't reproduce. The tree swallows and the barn swallows live on flying insects. They made nests, but they didn't lay eggs and they didn't stay around. I've never seen them behave that way before."
Was it truly just a cold, late spring - or something more alarming? Bees, I remembered, have been dying off in record numbers right across the United States and Europe, and nobody knew why.
Honeybees are not native to North America, and indigeous North American plants didn't need them for pollination - but the species that do need them are the ones in the supermarket, the products of industrial agriculture: apples, almonds, cherries, tomatoes, zucchinis, cantaloupes. Theories about the cause of their decline ranged from new pesticides, mites and genetically modified crops to climate change, fungi and even radiation from cell phones.
Whatever the reason, the U.S. problem was serious. Every third bite we eat, says one expert, "is dependent on a honeybee." In the U.S., the crops pollinated by honeybees are valued at something like $15 billion. The California almond crop alone is worth $1.5 billion.
With money like that at stake, agribusiness doesn't leave pollination to nature. Bees have been bred to work both earlier and later in the season - and they migrate to where they're needed. Huge semi-trailers packed with hundreds of millions of bees rumble through U.S. agricultural districts, renting the bees' services to farmers.
These bees make money, not honey. (Believe it or not, American honey is being undercut by cheaper honey from China.) Industrial bees don't eat nectar, either. Their food arrives in tanker trucks full of protein supplements, sucrose and corn syrup. It costs $12,000 per load.
"I don't think the situation in the States is related," said Farley. "We had extreme conditions this year, including the most rain we've seen in 35 years, nearly 40 inches. We also had a lot of fog, and flying insects can't handle fog." A biologist from the Nova Scotia Museum later confirmed a "patchy" die-off of bees in some districts of the province.
"It isn't just the bees," said Farley. "We had minimal populations of butterflies and moths too, and they came late. It may be several years until insect populations recover, since there aren't many insects left to breed."
And what about the swallows?
"They would have gone to where there was more food," Farley said. "It might be just a few miles inland, out of the fog - but remember, these birds migrate 10,000 or 15,000 miles, so it would be nothing for them to fly a couple of thousand miles to find food."
The apples of Isle Madame have survived 250 years so far, so I guess they'll be back. But it's a very strange autumn without them.
Silver Donald Cameron's award-winning book The Living Beach is available at www.capebretonbooks.com.
© 2007 The Halifax Herald Limited