We blogged recently about the annual almond tree pollination and how bees are being stolen ever more frequently. It is a short season, around 6 weeks long in February and March every year, and during that time billions of bees are trucked to California by US beekeepers so these rented insects can pollinate California’s most valuable crop.

As almond trees start blooming, thieves get busy. Beehive thefts have become an issue so prevalent that desperate beekeepers are forced to seek new solutions. They are turning to GPS tracking devices, forensic tools, surveillance security cameras and other anti-theft technology to prevent hive theft. We blogged about one such company.

Authorities say 1,036 beehives worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were reported stolen from California orchards in the past few weeks. In Mendocino County, the largest heist involved 384 beehives in a field. The state beekeeper association is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to their return.

Investigators have found honeycomb frames belonging to Helio Medina, a beekeeper who lost 282 hives a year ago. Medina said the theft devastated his apiary. This year he placed GPS trackers in the boxes. He also strapped cable locks around them and installed cameras nearby. As almond bloom approached and the hives became most valuable, he drove around patrolling the orchards in the dark.

Bees are harder to buy now, and pollination fees are soaring. This is likely all the motivation beekeepers needed to step it up. Hive rental was under $50 around 2000 but in 2022 it is as much as $230 per hive. 

This unrelated 1:03-minute video by CBS Los Angeles talks about beekeepers fighting theft with tracking devices:



The demand for almonds as a healthy nut and the demand for bees have steadily risen over the last 20 years. California has become the world’s biggest almond producer, and the amount of land used to grow almonds has more than doubled to around 1.3 million acres.

A survey of commercial beekeepers revealed that it will take an estimated 90% of honeybee hives in the US to pollinate all available almond orchards. Beekeepers come from as far away as Florida and New York, so this requires that pollinator fees must rise, according to Brittney Goodrich, an agriculture economist at the University of California at Davis.

Denise Qualls is a pollination broker who connects beekeepers with growers, and suspects thefts are due to beekeepers not providing the strong colonies they promised. They get money from the grower and then they leave the hives. The grower should be just as responsible as the beekeeper once they accept the bees. 

To help her clients, Qualls merged her business with tech startup Bee Hero to equip hive boxes with a GPS-enabled sensor. This way they can track their investments.

Even putting names and phone numbers on a box can help. Some beekeepers tag their hive box with SmartWater CSI, a clear liquid visible only under UV light even below layers of paint. Police use this forensic tool to trace stolen property to find the true owner despite thieves trying to disguise boxes.

Rowdy Jay Freeman is a Butte County sheriff’s detective who has been in the hive theft business since 2013. He pointed out that thieves are after the money, and then leave bees to die. In 2016 he worked with prosecutors to increase the crime’s severity. A man accused of stealing 64 beehives was charged with theft of livestock. California law says that theft of property worth $950 or less is a misdemeanor. Theft of agricultural products worth $250 or more is considered a felony. The man pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 90 days in jail and three years on probation.

The California State Beekeepers’ Association urges beekeepers and growers to communicate regularly about where hives are placed. They encourage growers to hire reputable beekeepers who show proof that they own the hives. The almond industry is trying to reduce its need for bees by growing “self-fertile” almond varieties requiring fewer bees for pollination.

When 90% of the US honeybee population is needed to pollinate the almond orchards, and since orchard lands are expanding every year, growers are more likely to be concerned with finding enough bees to get the pollination done, than worrying about beekeepers proving their ownership of the hives. 

Hopefully the new high tech GPS tracking systems will deter bee thieves.