When beekeepers try to prevent their hives from being stolen in California

Beekeepers install GPS trackers and surveillance cameras to protect their beehives from being stolen in California.

Beekeeper in almond tree farm in California
Beekeeper in almond tree farm in California | © California Almond

While the pollination period of almond trees has started in California, beekeepers try to respond to hive thefts by installing GPS trackers and surveillance cameras.

Although hive thefts have been reported elsewhere in the United States, they happen at a large scale in the state of California, the world’s largest almond producer.

It is especially true between mid-February and mid-March when almond tree buds burst into white and light-pink blooms. For a few weeks, billions of honeybees are trucked from around the U.S. to California to pollinate entire valleys of crops. Almond growers rent the bees to beekeepers.

And beehive thefts have become so prevalent that beekeepers are now turning to GPS tracking devices, surveillance cameras and other anti-theft technology to protect their precious colonies.

In the past few weeks, 1,036 beehives worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were reported stolen from Californian orchards according to authorities.

The state beekeepers association even offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of 384 beehives taken from a field in Mendocino County. Authorities, helped by an anonymous tipster, eventually recovered most of the boxes and a forklift stolen from the family farm some 55 miles (88 kilometers) away. One suspect was arrested. Investigators also found frames used to hold honeycombs that belonged to Helio Medina, another beekeeper who lost 282 hives a year ago.

After last year’s steal, Helio Medina then decided to place GPS trackers inside the boxes for this year’s pollination period. He also strapped cable locks around them and installed cameras nearby. As the almond bloom approached and the hives became most valuable, he drove around patrolling the orchards at night, when most heists occur. It’s usually a moment when nobody is watching and when bees are back in their hives.

More often than not, they steal to make money and leave the bees to die,” said Rowdy Jay Freeman, a county sheriff’s detective who has been keeping track of hive thefts since 2013. He advises beekeepers to use security cameras and put their names and phone numbers on the boxes. Some beekeepers have also been using a liquid only visible under UV light to earmark their boxes and prove ownership.

The rustler is usually a beekeeper or someone familiar with the transportation of bees.

Almond tree flower in California
Almond trees in California | © California Almonds

Beekeepers stealing from other beekeepers

The demand for bees in California has constantly increased over the last 20 years as the state became the world’s largest almond producer. During that period, the amount of land used to grow almonds has more than doubled to an estimated 1.3 million acres (526,000 hectares). A survey of commercial beekeepers estimated it would take 90% of honeybee colonies in the U.S. to pollinate all the almond orchards of California. Beekeepers from the East Coast would drive across the country to supply their bees.

And, as a consequence, the price to rent a hive dramatically grows. From less than $50 for a hive two decades ago, it now costs as much as $230 per hive in 2022. This likely motivates thefts, who are most likely other beekeepers.

Because on the other hand, bee populations are fragile and sensitive to weather, disease, loss of habitat and insecticides. With the lack of wildflowers last summer, bees couldn’t turn enough nectar into honey and survive through winter. Beekeepers had to add sugar to beehives during winter, incurring more costs.

Denise Qualls, a pollination broker who connects beekeepers with growers, suspects the thefts are happening because beekeepers can’t provide the strong colonies they promised:  “They can get the money from the grower and then they leave the hives”.

Under California law, theft of property worth $950 or less is classified as a misdemeanor. But the theft of any agricultural product worth at least $250 is considered a felony.

The California State Beekeepers’ Association urges beekeepers to communicate regularly with growers about where their hives are placed. It also encourages growers to hire reputable beekeepers who can show proof of ownership of their hives.

The almond industry, meanwhile, is trying to reduce its dependence on bees by growing almond varieties that require fewer bees for pollination and by investing in initiatives aimed at improving their health.

The Almond Board of California also joined a coalition to create a habitat for pollinators on farmlands, which the state of California supported with $15 million in funding.

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