As if bees don't have it hard enough these days between miticides and neonicotinoids... now they're victim to a black market that involves the theft of thousands of beehives — and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars — in California's Central Valley, where 800,000 acres of almond trees are farmed every year.
Almonds are big business here: the U.S. grows more than 80% of the world's almond supply, and the price of almonds has increased by about 70% in the last five years (up to $2.58 per pound). With large profits and the Almond Board of California predicting a harvest of 1.85 billion pounds this year, almond farmers rely on honeybees more than ever for the pollination of their crops.
Each year, about 1.6 million beehives travel to the Central Valley from all over the country to meet the demand during prime pollinating season. That's right: bees are brought in from elsewhere to ensure a productive harvest.
The bees are actually rented from professional apiarists (another term for beekeepers), each of whom provides thousands of hives to farmers every season. An entire (and very lucrative) industry is set up around the practice of beekeepers renting out their hives, sometimes through bee brokers who arrange the contracts and inspect the hives for healthy colonies.
A single beehive is worth around $200 in rental fees per season. Multiply that by the thousands of hives a beekeeper may rent out at a time, and one realizes that the money made in commercial beekeeping is not in honey production — it's in hive rentals.
And where there's money to be made in beehives, there are bee thieves — or bee rustlers, as they're called.
Experienced bee rustlers operate as a sort of chop shop: they grind off the names that commercial beekeepers brand their hives with, remove the queens and honey, sometimes going so far as painting the boxes. They rent the stolen hives to unsuspecting farmers, often at below-market rates. Simply by loading up a dozen beehives (which are often left unattended in rural areas) and driving off with them in the bed of a truck, a bee rustler could rake in a few thousand dollars for a 10-minute job.
Take one such case in Yolo County, a few miles west of Sacramento: According to Modern Farmer, beekeeper Mark Tauzer discovered hundreds of his hives missing during a routine check in a farmers' field he'd been contracted to pollinate.
After organizing a search party, Tauzer and his crew found the lids from his stolen hives scattered along the road, all leading to an illicit bee yard run by the thief.
Viktor Zhdamirov was eventually found guilty of robbery worth $65,000, and sentenced to restitution payments of $65,000 and three years in county jail.
But many others like Zhdamirov are never brought to justice because sheriff's offices in rural towns are often understaffed, underfunded, and uncertain of how to handle cases of beehive thievery.
Yolo County Deputy District Attorney Martha Holzapfel, who prosecuted Zhdamirov, told Modern Farmer:
"Despite being familiar with farming/ranching issues, I did not know anything about commercial beekeeping. The victims in this case were wonderful and more than willing to educate me so that we could educate the jury.Farmers and ranchers are a very important part of our community and I do not take crimes against them lightly."
As for the future of honeybees in the Central Valley, they'll start to arrive by the millions in January before the flowers bloom. Bee rustlers will no doubt be lurking among the legitimate beekeepers, but with an increased awareness among local law enforcement after cases like Tauzer's, they may soon be dissuaded by the risk versus reward.