Bee Thieves Pose a Big Threat to California's Almond Industry

Many beekeepers lease their hives to California almond growers for pollination services, but an increasing number of bees have gone missing in recent years.

Forget that worn-out phrase about "selling like hotcakes," because it might be more accurate to say that popular items are "selling like almonds." According to The Guardian, in the past two decades, California's almond industry has grown into an $11 billion dollar business, and it's mostly because the United States has developed an obsession with that particular tree nut. Americans are now the world's biggest per-capita almond-eaters, consuming more than two pounds per person annually, and almond milk sales have increased by 250 percent in the past five years.

Honeybees are a crucial component of every almond farm, and the hard-working pollinators are always in demand: one million acres of almond blossoms requires twice as many hives, according to the California Department of Agriculture's AgReport.

beekeeper and bees in and around apiary
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Beekeepers have learned that they can make some extra bank by leasing their beehives to almond farmers in California's Central Valley, and as many as two-thirds of the country's 'keepers send their hives west every year. But because people always find new ways to be awful, the number of hive thefts is also on the rise. That's right: enterprising criminals are stealing hundreds of thousands of bees.

Less than 200 hives were reported stolen in 2014 and 2015 combined, but that number jumped to 1,695 in 2016. "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," Butte County Sheriff's Deputy Rowdy Freeman told The Guardian. (In addition to being known as the "bee theft detective," Freeman is also a beekeeper himself.)

This year has already been a big one for thieves—which is bad news for beekeepers. In January, 92 hives were taken from a single field in Yuba City, California. “We work hard enough all year to keep [the bees] alive. Then one guy comes around and steals them,” beekeeper and theft victim Mike Potts told the Los Angeles Times.

One beekeeper who lost 100 hives last year said that the bees themselves were worth $20,000, and their "pollination services" would've been valued at another $20 grand. Based on the transport equipment and the specialized knowledge required to make off with that many bees, there's some speculation that other beekeepers could be to blame. (Why? Either to sell to farmers who need additional bees or to boost their own colony numbers after their own insects die.)

Others have suggested that the financial value of the bees can make the theft worth it, even if the only "skill" the thieves have is the ability to drive a forklift or a flatbed truck. "[I]t’s a pretty small pool of people that are able to steal them," UC Davis beekeeper researcher Charley Nye said. "But the reward is so big that I think it can be tempting to people to do that.”

In 2017, the theft of a staggering 2,500 hives worth an estimated $875,000 was traced to two men, Pavel Tveretinov and Vitaliy Yeroshenko, who had been splitting the hives and selling the halves to almond growers who were desperate for bees. The two men were charged with 10 felony counts of possession of stolen property.

Since the almond farms always seem desperate to have enough bees, 'keepers are worried that this could be another big month for thieves. On second thought, maybe "selling like stolen beehives" is a more accurate expression.

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