Don’t dare try to steal from the bee detective. “Rowdy” Jay Freeman raises honeybees and rents them out during almond pollination. He’s also on the felony investigations squad in Butte County, Calif., and stays hot on the trail of bee thieves.
Honeybees have long been a target for criminals during almond pollination, but the rate of theft has jumped due to fast money and easy pickings. Specifically, a honeybee shortage and an increase in pollination rental rates have combined to lure thieves.
California’s 1.1 million acres of almonds translate to a $6 billion industry. However, the almond machine would come to a screeching halt without pollination, and the Golden State does not have nearly enough honeybees to get the deed done. Every year, before the February to early March pollination season, trucks from across the U.S. make a pilgrimage west, packed with billions of honeybees. Roughly 1.8 million bee hives are used during almond pollination--up to 90% of the available commercial hives in the U.S. Theft is typically exclusive to the almond pollination window where thieves can make money.
Hive rental rates quadrupled in a single decade, reaching an average $190 in 2016, essentially painting hives in a shade of proverbial green. Bee boxes are lined up across the Central and Northern valleys during almond pollination and frequently placed in unsecured locations. Thieves case the hives and strike in the late night and early morning. Who’s doing the stealing? “The majority of hives are stolen by beekeepers,” Freeman explains. “They’ll usually grab anywhere from 20 to 200 hives in one hit.”
In a form of agricultural fratricide, beekeepers lacking bees for contracts steal from fellow keepers. Greed is the trump card: More hives equal more money. One-hundred stolen hives rented at $200 for a few weeks use means $20,000 in profit for no work or management. Commercial hives are often kept four to a pallet. Using flatbeds and forklifts, thieves load and drive several hours to another almond-producing area. They often take out the frames, place them in their own equipment, and drop the hives into their pollination contracts. Hive values can average $300 to $350, according to Freeman. Steal 50 pallets with four hives each and the math can bleed a beekeeper for $70,000. “A keeper loses equipment, value of bees and queen, and potential rental profit extrapolated for years afterward,” he says.
Gene Brandi, president of the American Beekeeping Federation, has been raising honeybees and pollinating almonds since the 1970s. “Honeybee theft continues to occur because we’re short on bees for almond pollination and colony prices are climbing. Bee rustlers exist and they rent the stolen bee hives to unsuspecting almond growers. Legitimate keepers would never do it, but there are a few unscrupulous people in every industry, including the beekeeping industry, who are brazen enough to commit these crimes. There have even been a few people who set up chop-shops, grind off ID numbers and brands, and repaint the stolen hives.”
Bee theft is low on the legal priority list. Several years back, a thief caught stealing honeybees from Brandi and a dozen other keepers received a nine-month suspended sentence and two years of probation. Although financial restitution was part of the sentence, only one victim received any payment.
Freeman says legal change may finally be in the works. In 2013, he was assigned several bee theft cases. “The more I investigated, the more fascinated I became with honeybees. I got a few of my own hives and started adding more.” Freeman currently has 250 colonies and isn’t sure he can handle more with full-time investigation duties. He rents bees out during pollination and sells honey in the summer.
“We’ve had 1,700 hives stolen statewide in California in 2016,” he adds. “As for anyone and especially for a small guy, as in all areas of agriculture, a theft can be crippling to a business and their families.”
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