The next threat to bees? Organized crime.

As bee numbers decline while facing increasing demand, hive thefts ravage California’s Central Valley and beyond.

 

Beekeepers are seeing larger die-offs of their supplies than in previous years. At the same time, the growing almond industry requires pollinators. Together, these forces can drive up bee prices to over $200 per hive.
This story was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here through the Climate Desk partnership.

Mike Potts was aware he was at risk of being a victim of crime, he just didn’t think it would happen to him. But Potts is an owner of an increasingly valuable commodity that thieves are targeting with growing sophistication in the U.S.: bees.

A booming demand for honeybees for pollination drew Potts, owner of Pottsy’s Pollination in Oregon, to load 400 hives of his bees on trucks and drive them down to California’s agricultural heartland last month. He unloaded them to a holding area just outside Yuba City and returned just a few days later to find 92 hives had been whisked away by thieves.

“I pulled in the yard and noticed that there was some stuff missing,” said Potts, who estimated the theft cost him $44,000. Police subsequently pulled over three suspicious beekeepers traveling late at night, to no avail. “I’ve heard that there had been some stealing but didn’t think it would happen to me. It’s frustrating because it’s getting harder and harder to keep bees alive. And then you transport them down and they just get taken.”

The theft is the latest in a string of beehive heists, often undertaken at the dead of night using forklifts and trucks. Hives are regularly split open or dismantled, interventions that can kill tens of thousands of the kidnapped bees. The problem has become severe enough in California that certain police officers now specialize in hive crime.

The problem has become severe enough in California that certain police officers now specialize in hive crime.

“Hive theft has always been an issue but it has definitely increased over the last eight years,” said Rowdy Freeman, a Butte county police officer who is commonly referred to as “bee theft detective”. Freeman has compiled figures showing there was an explosion in California hive thefts in 2016, with 1,695 being taken, compared with 101 in 2015. In 2017, the figure was 1,048 hives.

“The number fluctuates but it is definitely something that will continue and that will require resources and advancements in the use of technology to help prevent and deter theft.”

The center of beehive thefts is California’s Central Valley, a fertile stretch of agricultural land responsible for about a quarter of all the produce grown in the U.S. This huge output – of lettuce, grapes, lemons, apricots and more – requires pollination from far more bees that naturally live in the area.

The main driver of the demand for honeybees is the almond industry, which has doubled in size over the past two decades. There are currently 1.17m acres of almonds in California that require pollination which, at a standard rate of two beehives an acre, means the industry somehow needs to conjure up 2.34m beehives for a short window of time each February, when almond trees start to blossom.

Beekeepers from across the U.S. congregate in the Central Valley in a sort of annual almond jamboree; more than two-thirds of the nation’s commercially managed honeybees sent on trucks to a 50-mile-wide strip of fertile land. Unlike native, wild bees like bumblebees, honeybees are carefully marshaled in hives and are now more valuable as contract pollination workers than as honey producers.

But the almond industry’s growth is heightening the demand for more bees at a time when even maintaining current numbers is a struggle. Due to the ravages of deadly mites, diseases and toxic pesticides, beekeepers now typically lose 40% of their colonies each winter, only making these numbers up through splitting hives and using various treatments and supplements to boost reproduction rates.

“Normal people can’t just go steal 500 hives with a forklift and a truck."

This dynamic – growing demand for pollinators at a time when supply is under pressure – has seen the typical cost of a hive for pollination shoot up, from just $35 a few years ago to $200, and upwards, now. Pollination has become big business, causing some desperate beekeepers, or organized gangs, to be drawn to beehive crime.

While the number of hive thefts fluctuates each year, 2016 saw a boom, with at least 1,695 stolen.

“Normal people can’t just go steal 500 hives with a forklift and a truck,” said Charley Nye, a beekeeper researcher at University of California, Davis. “So it’s a pretty small pool of people that are able to steal them. But the reward is so big that I think it can be tempting to people to do that.”

Lloyd Cunniff, who has been involved in beekeeping since he was 13 years old, never intended to bring his bees to the Central Valley, where endless rows of almond trees stretch out across the landscape in almost every direction.

But Cunniff, now 59, had seen his third-generation apiary in Montana decimated by colony collapse disorder – a mysterious syndrome where the worker bees vacate a hive en masse – and needed the income. In January 2017, he loaded 488 beehives, each handmade in distinctive pine and cedar, and headed west.

Through a trusted intermediary, Cunniff set his hives down to rest in a remote area near a levee. As is typical in the beekeeping world, there were no fences or other security systems to protect them. The next day, amid heavy fog, Cunniff went back to find them.

“We had a GPS reading and we drove out there and my hired man said: ‘There’s your turn.’ And I turned in there and I said: ‘This can’t be the right turn.’ And he said: ‘Why?’ I said: ‘Because there’s no bees sitting,’ ” Cunniff recalled. “And I thought, ‘Uh-oh.’ ”

All 488 boxes had gone, quickly and skillfully loaded onto a truck and spirited away, costing Cunniff not just the $100,000 in pollination fees but also the basis of his livelihood. He wasn’t to know, but he was just one of many victims of a well-orchestrated operation.

Not long after the theft, police were called to a scruffy field near Fresno where they saw something akin to bee carnage. Beehives were scattered randomly across the land, some open with their innards torn out, others scratched and daubed in paint. An irate swarm of bees made officers wary of exiting their cars.

“It was like a chop shop for bees,” said Andres Solis, a Fresno detective who specializes in agricultural crime. “None of the boxes matched, it was really untidy. And there were a lot of aggressive bees.”

Police called in beekeepers who estimated there were 2,500 hives belonging to a variety of legal owners. A nearby man, Pavel Tveretinov, was arrested under suspicion that he was hacking up the hives in order to multiply them and sell them on to needy growers.

An alleged accomplice, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, was also arrested and both now face trial. “Victims started coming out of the woodwork after we started putting it out there,” Solis said. “We looked at what we saw and thought none of these beehives belonged to these gentlemen.”

The overall number of thefts dropped following the arrests but beekeepers are concerned that the ballooning demand for honeybees is only going to spur further criminal enterprises. The fallout from the ecological crisis in the bee, and wider insect, world is likely to include more and more bee rustlers.

“There’s a shortage of bees this year, again,” Cunniff said. “You watch in this next week or two, there’s going to be stealing of bees like crazy down here.

“It was just my turn. That’s how I look at it because it happens to somebody every year down here. They’re stealing them all the time. It’s just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.”

Oliver Milman is an environment reporter for The Guardian. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.