The annual push to get about 1.8 million colonies of bees to pollinate California’s almond crop is a necessary and profitable relationship between the beekeeper and the grower.
It’s a time of the year when upwards of 90 percent of all the managed bees in the United States are clustered into one relatively small region.
Sadly it is also a profitable time for more nefarious activities.
Almond pollination is a popular time for thieves as opportunity thefts of bee colonies increase with the temperature.
Even before the bloom began a Colusa County beekeeper reported 240 hives stolen from two locations in late January. The hives are branded with the numbers 42-14 on them. According to the Colusa County Sheriff’s Department the hives were taken from two yards north of Colusa and on the east side of the Sacramento River.
The California State Beekeepers Association and others have taken to social media to get the word out and hopefully solicit some useful information that could help recover the hives.
Bee hive theft is nothing new says Gene Brandi, a California beekeeper since the 1970s and the president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
According to Brandi, the California State Beekeepers Association implemented a reward system years ago to combat the issue by creating a reward system for the arrest and conviction of anyone caught stealing bees. Brandi says there have been a few payouts since the program began.
One central California beekeeper Orin Johnson knows all too well about bee thefts.
Crime victim speaks out
“I’m probably the poster boy for this,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Johnson lives in Hughson, a Stanislaus County community in the heart of almond country.
The story about Johnson’s more recent bee theft could almost be a made-for-television episode as he would have more than one run-in with the thief arrested for trying to steal some of his hives from a foothill location in western Stanislaus County.
Johnson said the guy was caught in the act with hives in an enclosed box van. Private security with an upscale development near where he overwinters his bees noticed something suspicious and contact Johnson in the middle of a cold, winter night.
Johnson had previously spoken with security about hive placement in nearby foothill canyons. This is part of Johnson’s practice to solicit extra sets of eyes to watch his bee colonies.
Johnson received one of those calls after the armed security agent noticed a gate ajar that should not have been. By the time Johnson arrived on scene the county sheriff was there and had one man in custody.
Johnson confirmed the man did not have permission to take the bees and the man was arrested and charged with felony theft.
Johnson sat through the trial to ensure the charges of felony theft stuck so the man would get the maximum amount of punishment possible.
Though the man was convicted of a felony, Johnson said he was sentenced to less than a year in county jail.
Johnson is a relatively small beekeeper in terms of the number of colonies he has and what he does with them. His hives stay within his local region.
When he’s not pollinating local almond crops his bees are moved to locations where they can make sage and orange blossom honey.
Johnson says the experience of having hives stolen several times taught him some useful lessons that he now employs with growers who rent his bees for almond pollination and where he chooses to place bees when they’re making honey.
In the case of his previous theft case, the thief had to cut through a locked gate. While it obviously did not stop the perpetrator it was enough of a clue for private security when they saw the gate ajar shortly after midnight.
Johnson also works with nearby landowners to inform them about his hives and who has permission to be there.
Colony placement is one method of perhaps slowing down opportunistic crooks.
“Don’t just put them next to the road,” Johnson says.
That’s why he works with the growers he leases his hives to in order to ensure a safe and concealed placement of his bee hives.
Sgt. Ryan Hushaw, supervisor of the Ag Crimes Task Force with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department calls that is a good practice.
In addition, Hushaw says slowing crooks down by controlling vehicle access to where the bees are located can be helpful. This can be done with gates across access roads and other vehicle barriers.
Hushaw says many of the theft cases his task force sees are those stolen in the middle of the night from orchards on flatbed trucks where the perpetrators use a forklift to load the bees.
According to Hushaw, the larger-scale thefts that can wipe out an entire beekeepers inventory tend to happen in the pollination off-season when large colonies of bees are kept in remote locations. These tend to involve big rigs used to cart away the hives.
Because the bee industry is rather small, Hushaw says thefts tend to be perpetrated by those with basic knowledge of the industry and how to handle bees. A typical mode of operation is the nighttime theft when bees are relatively inactive and thieves can operate under the cover of darkness.
In the Colusa County case, law enforcement reported finding tracks that matched a particular type of forklift and one or two dual-wheel vehicles.
Almond growers and beekeepers are encouraged to work together on hive placement to make it more difficult for a thief to quickly access an orchard and steal bee hives. Placing hives next to the road or with easy access for quick removal is not recommended.
The Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office has informational flyers it presents to beekeepers and almond growers to help prevent bee theft and protect bees against spray drift.
California requires beekeepers to register their hives with county agricultural departments. Some agricultural commissioners say compliance tends to be low. Part of the reason for this law is so county agricultural staff can coordinate the applications of registered chemicals in orchards by notifying beekeepers that a bloom time spray is going to take place. This notice is given so they have the opportunity to move their bee colonies.
The California Food and Agriculture Code also requires out-of-state bee colonies be registered with local agricultural officials.
Bee hives should also be marked with identifying information including the name and phone number of the beekeeper, Hushaw says.
Other identifying and tracking mechanisms are encouraged as well.