Bee Rustlers Are Stealing California’s Beehives in Annual Agricultural Crime Spree

Each year, beekeepers from across the nation converge on California for almond season, and the bee thieves always follow

With 80 percent of the world’s almond supply coming from California, the nuts are the Golden State’s most valuable crop. This naturally attracts thieves. But it’s the billions of bees brought here from around the country each year to pollinate the precious commodity that the criminals are after, so savvy beekeepers are going high-tech to protect their priceless source of labor.

As the Associated Press reports, while beehive theft occurs elsewhere—such as three hives containing 60,000 bees nicked from a Pennsylvania grocery outlet’s fields earlier this month—the problem reaches epidemic proportions in California, where it takes 90 percent of all the country’s honeybees to pollinate the almond crop. As the beekeepers converge on California for almond season around this time each year, the poachers come, too.

Just in the past few weeks, 1,036 beehives worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were stolen from orchards statewide. In the most brazen case, rustlers made off with 384 beehives from a field in Mendocino County. California’s beekeepers association offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to their recovery, in what has become the Lufthansa Heist of bee thefts.

To get the word out about the reward, Claire Tauzer of Tauzer Apiaries and Honey Bee Genetics said on Facebook, “It’s hard to articulate how it feels to care for your hives all year only to have them stolen from you.”

A day later, an anonymous tipster led authorities to recover most of the hive boxes and a stolen Tauzer family forklift at a rural property in Yolo County, 55 miles away—where one suspect was arrested. Cops also discovered honeycomb frames belonging to beekeeper Helio Medina, who lost 282 hives last year.

Hoping to prevent further looting of his apiary, Medina placed GPS trackers inside the boxes, strapped cable locks around them, and installed cameras nearby. He also began patrolling his orchards after dark, when the criminals usually strike because the bees have returned to their hives and the hives are left unprotected.

“We have do what we can to protect ourselves. Nobody can help us,” Medina told the AP.

The poachers are usually beekeepers themselves, and familiar with the transportation of bees, but with hive-rental prices skyrocketing from $50 a pop 20 years ago to $230 per hive this year, they don’t bother to safeguard the insects.

As Rowdy Jay Freeman—a Butte County sheriff’s detective who has been keeping track of hive thefts since 2013—tells AP, “More often than not, they steal to make money and leave the bees to die.”

Denise Qualls, a pollination broker who connects beekeepers with growers, has joined forces with a tech startup called Bee Hero to protect hive boxes with GPS-enabled sensors. Additionally, Rowdy Freeman advises beekeepers to use security cameras and put their names and phone numbers on the boxes. Some beekeepers, Detective Freeman said, have also tagged their boxes with SmartWater CSI, a clear liquid visible only under UV light that police use to trace stolen property.

Even without the annual beehive crimewave, rearing the insects for profit can be a gamble.

“For every $210 paid to rent a beehive, we put close to that much into it the whole year feeding the bees because of drought,” Tauzer told the AP. “We do all the health checks, which is labor intensive, and we pay our workers full benefits.”

Yet, while almonds are the state’s leading crop, producing the nuts is also perhaps the most wasteful agricultural endeavor on earth. As Bill Maher noted on Real Time last year, despite decades of drought, the number of almond growers have doubled in that time.

“Almond production alone uses more water than all the humans and businesses in San Francisco and Los Angeles combined,” Maher said. “Oranges, tomatoes and strawberries all take about 11 gallons [of water] to make one pound. Almonds? 1900 gallons.”

So how much do you really want that nut?

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