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Bee Culture

CATCH THE BUZZ – Bee Theft, Almost the Perfect Crime

By March 4, 2021No Comments

Bee theft is almost a perfect crime—but there’s a new sheriff in town

Meet the man on the front lines of the ultimate bee sting.

Andrew Zaleski

Bee theft is almost a perfect crime.

The bee thieves come at night, swooping in and bugging out quicker than the wings of the insects they steal. And they always leave tracks.

Ray Olivarez knew this much, but he still expected a routine visit when he drove to his apiary in California’s Central Valley one brisk midwinter afternoon in 2016. As he parked, though, an uneasiness fell over him. His hives hadn’t been visible when he’d crested the hill. As he slowly marched toward the entrance, his face fell. The lock on the gate? Cut. His instincts kicked in, and he looked down, seeing squelched mud imprinted with ribbed tread marks.

A few days earlier, this yard had been home to 64 white wooden boxes of bees almost ready to make the trip to a local almond farm, where they would pollinate the trees. Now all he saw were the rectangular impressions they’d left in the grass. Like hundreds of other honey farmers every year, Olivarez was the victim of one of the most fiendish agricultural crimes in America: hive theft.

Central California’s temperate climate provides ideal conditions for the interdependent activities of raising bees and growing almonds. Mild winter rains spur the nuts to grow, while dry summers ensure they don’t fall victim to fungal infections before harvest. The state produces 80 percent of the world’s crop, with the bulk of its 1.3 million acres of trees clustered throughout a few particularly fertile counties. From February through mid-March, their buds burst into petals of pink and white—an irresistible treat to honeybees. Farmers rent Apis mellifera by the boxful to pollinate their orchards (it’s easier, and less time-consuming, than tending bees themselves); hitting all 250,000 farms requires the labor of some 500,000 hives native to California, as well as another 1.5 million trucked in from as far east as Florida. That’s 31 billion buzzing critters in total.

The big migration usually begins in January, with apiarists hauling hive-laden pallets to orchards on flatbed trucks and hoisting them off with forklifts. The rule, generally, is two boxes per acre of almonds. A crate of pollinators that would have cost just $11 to rent in the 1970s is now more than 10 times as valuable. A seasoned, second-generation bee wrangler like Olivarez, with 18,000 hives of strong insects, can command anywhere from $180 to $220 for each.

But within weeks of arrival, the first signs of trouble emerge: a box lifted from some rural orchard, a pallet gone missing overnight. As the value of the crates has risen, so too has a new class of criminals hell-bent on stealing honeybees.

That’s the situation Olivarez found himself in. He’d parked his colonies on a farm three hours north of San Francisco in January. When he checked in days later and found tire tracks, he figured foul play was afoot.

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