WOODLAND, Calif. — For a hectic few weeks, beekeepers across the United States are transporting billions of honey bees to California to lease them to almond growers who need the insects to pollinate the state’s most prized crop.
But when almond trees begin to bloom and blanket entire valleys in white and pink blossoms, hive thefts begin, so rampant that beekeepers are now turning to GPS tracking devices, surveillance cameras, and other anti-theft technologies to protect their prized colonies protection.
In recent weeks, 1,036 beehives worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have been stolen from orchards across California, authorities said.
“It’s hard to describe how it feels to take care of your hives all year round only to have them stolen,” Claire Tauzer wrote on Facebook to break the news of the reward.
A day later, an anonymous tipster prompted authorities to recover most of the boxes and a forklift that were stolen from Tauzer’s family business about 55 miles away at a rural Yolo County property. A suspect has been arrested.
Investigators also found frames, the species used to hold the comb, which belonged to Helio Medina, another beekeeper who lost 282 hives a year ago.
Medina said the theft devastated his apiary, so this year he put GPS trackers in the boxes. He also strapped cable locks around them and installed cameras nearby. As the almond blossom approached and the beehives became most valuable, he drove around and patrolled the orchards in the dark.
“We must do what we can to protect ourselves. Nobody can help us,” Medina said.
Demand for bees has steadily increased over the past 20 years as the popularity of the healthy, crunchy nut has made California the world’s largest almond producer. Accordingly, the area used for almond cultivation has more than doubled to an estimated 1.3 million acres.
This year, a survey of commercial beekeepers estimated that 90% of honey bee colonies in the US are needed to pollinate all almond orchards.
“That means beekeepers are coming from New York and Florida, and to get them to come all the way, pollinator fees have to go up,” said Brittney Goodrich, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis.
Rowdy Jay Freeman, a Butte County Sheriff’s Detective who has been prosecuting robberies since 2013, has decided to charge bee thieves with cattle rustling, a felony.
Under California law, stealing property valued at $950 or less is a misdemeanor. But stealing at least $250 worth of farm produce is considered a felony.
“Stealing one hive or 10 or 100 hives would result in the same charge,” he said.