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Bee thieves find sweet rewards in California's almond groves

Honey bees a sweet target for thieves
  • Surging almond production means bees are more in demand than ever, proving a lucrative opportunity for thieves who want to make a quick buck. 
  • Bee theft is the perfect inside job: A thief making off with hives looks no different from the owner with a bee suit, flatbed truck and forklift. 
  • Pollination income for commercial beekeepers increased 8% to reach $302 million in 2018, according to the USDA. 

Orin Johnson, a second-generation beekeeper based in Stanislaus County, California, considers himself the poster child for bee theft. He has had his hives stolen four times over the past 15 years, a haul worth nearly $25,000 in total.

Johnson, 71, was able to recoup about $19,000 worth of his bees, but only after enlisting his neighbors to search for the missing hives and help catch the robbers. "Most people think that bees just sit out there, making honey and making you money," Johnson said.

In many ways, bee theft is the perfect inside job. For anyone scanning the colonies housed in the California foothills, a bee thief — often a beekeeper himself to have the knowledge and equipment for moving bees — looks no different from the owner with a bee suit, flatbed truck and forklift.

Thieves need only load up a couple hundred beehives before driving down the road to the next almond farmer for a quick transaction, often making tens of thousands of dollars in the process. One California man in 2017 was caught after stealing thousands of hives worth nearly $1 million — one of the biggest bee thefts ever. "It's more lucrative than selling drugs," said Kim Flottum, publisher of trade magazine Bee Culture.

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That's because honey bees have become serious business in the past five years after a surge in California almond demand drove prices up for pollinating crops. California, the only U.S. state that commercially grows almonds, produced $5.6 billion worth of the crop in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Almond Board of California also found the Golden State in 2017 was responsible for 80% of the nut's total global production. 

Without honey bees, which are transported from as far as New York and Florida, to pollinate nearly 1.4 million acres of almond blossoms in February, almond production in the U.S. would come to a halt. "It's the largest pollination event in the world," said Butte County Deputy Rowdy Freeman, who investigates bee theft in California.

Two hives per acre

And demand is only getting higher. Almond trees require about two hives for every acre, and California growers have been expanding acreage every year to meet the global appetite for almonds and nut-based milks. However, beekeepers lost about 40% of their colonies just this past winter, according to a survey from the Bee Informed Partnership.

Bees can die from just about anything, including mites, malnutrition, adverse weather — even "colony collapse disorder," when hordes of bees inexplicably abandon their queens and hives. A single misstep can require beekeepers to tally up their losses and start over.

For beekeepers like Johnson, whose father once loaned bees to farmers for $2 per beehive, surging growth in the almond industry means he can rent his 400 hives for $200 each, reaping a minimum of $80,000 for a month's worth of busy bees. Nationwide, pollination income for commercial beekeepers increased 8% to reach $302 million in 2018, according to the USDA.

However, that top-line figure disguises the amount of labor and capital beekeepers pour into their colonies year-round. Johnson worries that this is attracting amateurs into the industry who are less likely able to keep their colonies and healthy through winter.

"Start with a large fortune"

"There's a saying for those young beekeepers," Johnson said. "If you want to make a small fortune in beekeeping, start with a large fortune."

In response to the thefts, beekeepers are wising up by sequestering beehives behind locked fences, installing hidden cameras to watch over equipment or tucking GPS trackers into beehives. Deputy Freeman said some beekeepers have hired private security to watch their property, adding that several technology companies have approached his department about electronic solutions to bee theft.

Freeman also said he typically recommends beekeepers mark their hives, so they can be identified if they're stolen. But he admits it's difficult to track thieves once they're gone. Said Freeman: "It's a tough crime to investigate."