The Great Hive Heist

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It’s difficult to imagine a group of criminals creeping around after dark for the snag of entire colonies of bees, yet this bizarre reality is a growing threat to some Californians.

California almond farms—the primary targets to this kind of robbery—rely on bees to pollinate their trees on a large scale from late January to early February. The bee process impacts the production of the nuts, determining whether or not a grower will harvest in any given year.

Since the livelihoods of nut-based farms necessitates bees around, those who lose their hives are forced to rent new bees last minute at a very steep price. Anyone aware of this need can take advantage of their position by renting out stolen bees.

“Someone can fetch up to two hundred dollars per colony, which makes this a very lucrative business for a thief who evades capture,” says Carlen Jupe, secretary/treasurer of the California State Beekeepers Association (CSBA).

Thieves don’t worry about the investment of money and time needed to properly raise bees. Instead, their cost amounts to, perhaps, a single transportation cost for a hefty profit. The most challenging aspect of the process is the acquisition of equipment to heist bee colonies.

Jupe explains that pollination bees are loaded with four, six, eight, or twelve colonies to a pallet, which is “way too heavy” to call for anything but heavy equipment.

Those attempting to steal more than a few tens of colonies will use forklifts and flatbed trucks in order to relocate the hives, which are already contained in easy-to-transport pallets. Thieves that manage to successfully transport hives stay in the clear and emerge freely. The farmland they target is often so expansive and isolated that they are safe from any unwanted witnesses.

The risk these thieves have been willing to take has gone on for many years, according to Jupe.

“I’ve been a CSBA member for about 10 years,” says Jupe, “and our reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of bee colony thieves was already enforced long before then.”

Jupe says that these offenses tend to occur every year before almond pollination begins, as this specific type of pollination pays well in comparison to others. Honey is the only similar, expensive product that requires this type of pollination process, but it’s not targeted because honey takes much more work to obtain.

A major contributor to the ongoing almond problem lies in the lack of information available and the underwhelming level of overall public awareness of this crime. In other words, it’s just not being taken as seriously as it should be taken.

This surprisingly easy crime happens more frequently than most would think possible, and yet the majority of the population still hasn’t heard about the stolen bee phenomenon.

While Jupe believes statistics regarding the prevalence of this issue aren’t comprehensive enough, he is personally aware of at least six thefts documented over the last year that resulted in the kidnapping of around 2,000 colonies.

“What started out as a small issue has grown into a huge problem, and our industry is going to have to adapt to address it,” says Joy Pendell, media director at CSBA.

Pendell continues that the crisis is growing exponentially with the rising value of bees, especially in a time when the planet is experiencing a decline in bee populations.

Beekeepers suffer the most as a result of hive theft. Farmers usually pay a beekeeper after a completed pollination, so the beekeeper often takes the biggest financial hit.

According to Pendell, the CSBA encourages beekeepers to take preventative measures.

“The law requires that some sort of sign or stenciling with the beekeeper’s contact information be visible on the beehives, but this law is not usually enforced and many beekeepers do not follow it,” Pendell clarifies, explaining that those who ignore this rule make tracking down their bees that much more difficult.

In a case that took place this year, the presence of brand numbers on specific hives assisted in the capture of a bee thief.

Another beekeeper was moving his hives into pollination, and noticed some hives nearby bearing familiar brand numbers and stenciling. By chance, knowing that the owner of the hives didn’t pollinate so far south, he called the owner who confirmed that the hives had been recently stolen.

According to Pendell, the man responsible for the theft was apprehended and turned out to be a mechanic who had worked for the beekeeper.

This case represents only a small number that result in the capture of perpetrators. Many almond growers who recognize branding on hives may feel reluctant to report their suspicions and lose a chance at pollination.

Pendell expresses hope that, as in this specific case, the use of brand numbers and other identifying markings will “help spread information of hive theft throughout the industry, encouraging people to look for stolen hives.”

In order to help with this process, the CSBA offers a $10,000 reward for the capture and conviction of anyone found stealing CSBA members’ bees or equipment.

Meanwhile, they encourage the public to spread awareness of this issue and save both beekeepers and farmers from the damages that result from stolen hives.

“Our industry is absolutely going to have to think up new means of addressing this problem, perhaps in legally mandating hive registration,” Pendell explains, “and if we purse legislative action, it will be very helpful to have the backing of the public to help pass it.”