Bee thefts mount as the pollination season intensifies

It happens every year. As soon as pallets loaded with honeybee colonies hit the soil in California orchards to pollinate the almond crop, they are targeted by thieves. Authorities and others in the business say the culprits tend to be other beekeepers.

Thieves are after the pollination rental income, which this year is $200 to $220 per hive, according to beekeepers.

“Unfortunately, it’s other people in the beekeeping industry who are desperate during almond pollination, and they steal from other beekeepers to fulfill their contracts, and it’s disgusting,” said Claire Tauzer of Tauzer Apiaries. “It’s a horrible violation of our industry and all of our hard work. The majority of our industry are honest, hardworking people, and there is a small, desperate minority who steals from people this time of year, and it’s got to stop.”

Tauzer Apiaries, a family beekeeping business in Northern California, reported that 384 of its hives were stolen from the Hopland area in Mendocino County between Jan. 19 and Feb. 1. Those hives are valued at $150,000, plus $80,000 in pollination rental income.

A day after the hives were reported missing last week, a tip led law enforcement to a residence in Yolo County, where they recovered the stolen colonies. The suspects were allegedly transferring the frames of Tauzer’s bees into their own boxes, Tauzer said. Law enforcement also located the company’s custom, $50,000 forklift, stolen a year ago in Woodland. An arrest was made in connection to the alleged theft of the forklift. The investigation is ongoing.

“I’m just tired of this happening to our community,” Tauzer said. “I don’t care if it’s five hives. These are our livestock. We have invested a year, at least, in every hive.”

With California almond orchards buzzing with activity between now and bloom, Butte County Sheriff’s Deputy Rowdy Freeman said of the thefts, “It’s difficult, because it’s the perfect crime—it is beekeepers stealing from other beekeepers, and it’s very difficult to tell the owner from the thief.”

“Someone that comes in and steals 144 hives overnight, they know how to do it. They’re most likely beekeepers and have the right equipment,” said Freeman, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force. “If you think that something might be out of place, make the phone call and let authorities check it out.”

Tauzer Apiaries wasn’t the only victim last week. South Dakota beekeeper Ryan Maxwell of T&D Honey transported colonies to California to pollinate almonds. His placed bees sat in a Kern County orchard near Wasco for about a day and, in a flash, they disappeared.

“We went through all the bees on Friday and when we went back to check them on Sunday, they were gone,” said Maxwell, who added that the theft is significant for their family-run business. “We’re a small operation, and 12% of our hives were stolen.”

Maxwell said his family fell victim to a theft of 144 hives, of which he said the pollination income alone is valued at $29,000. He said the company’s hives are painted white and olive green and stenciled with the company name “T&D Honey.”

Another 160 hives were reported stolen from a Madera County almond last week.

Theft of honeybee colonies, Freeman said, is often difficult to prove.

“The problem that we have is that it’s always after the fact, whether it’s a few days, a week or two weeks,” Freeman said. “The longer it goes before it gets reported, the harder it is to track down people and preserve evidence.”

The sheriff’s deputy also happens to be a beekeeper and is renting his honeybees for almond pollination. Freeman said he just moved all of his bees into the orchards, adding, “Even though I’m law enforcement, the theft of my hives is always in the back of my mind because it would affect me just like anybody else.”

With any theft of bees, an almond grower is out the pollination services provided by the bees, Freeman said.

“Now, the farmer doesn’t have those bees, and they have to try to scramble and find some more at the last minute if they’re able to,” Freeman said.

Butte County beekeeper Buzz Landon, president of the California State Beekeepers Association, said it is important for “all beekeepers and almond growers to be very cautious and aware of what is going on in the orchards.” Also important, he said, is that beekeepers and growers develop a good relationship and maintain good, open communication.

Where cost-effective, beekeepers may strategically place GPS trackers in certain hives as a theft prevention measure. “We’ve used trackers, but you just never know which load they’re going to take,” Landon said.

Many beekeepers mark their hives with personal identifiers, Freeman said, and they must also register with the BeeWhere program, which tracks and safeguards hives using mapping tools. Beekeepers must register annually with the county agricultural commissioner, clearly mark hives with name, address and phone number, and notify the county within 72 hours of hive relocation.

Freeman said BeeWhere will not prevent theft, but it will allow law enforcement and the California Department of Food and Agriculture “to keep track of where hives are.” He added, “If they find hives in a location that aren’t registered, it gives them a reason to look into it a little bit more.”

Tauzer Apiaries announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the missing hives. CSBA offers up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of persons responsible for stealing bees and/or beekeeping equipment; information may be sent to [email protected].

California and out-of-state beekeepers move some 2.5 million honeybee colonies to pollinate the state’s 1.3 million bearing acres of almond trees before bloom in late February. California beekeepers supply about 500,000 honeybee colonies, and the remainder is trucked in from out of state.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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