The Washington Post By Jenny Starrs February 16, 2016
The bee industry is vital to California's massive almond production. Watch how hives
are moved between orchards and just how thieves can swoop in to steal them.
(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
Jay Freeman is a run-of-the-mill detective in Butte County, Calif. He spends most of the year investigating robberies and homicides. “Just general felonies,” he said.
But that all changes during pollination season. Every February, his caseload turns to a different kind of grand theft. One that has a very low recovery rate and ends up costing business owners hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
Detective Freeman starts chasing bee thieves.
The bee economy in California is immense. Eighty-two percent of the world’s almonds are produced within a 400-mile stretch in the state. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of un-gated almond orchards in California, all of which need to be pollinated in the span of a few weeks in February — by an ever-dwindling bee population. Beekeepers come in from across the country to fulfill contracts with farmers and brokers, moving hives to and fro on forklifts and flatbed trucks. And they come with a steep price that’s getting steeper every year.
At the start of pollination season in 2010, the average hive cost $130 to rent. Rental fees are $200 this year, and will continue going up as hives continue to die off. The industry is becoming increasingly volatile, increasingly expensive and thus, increasingly criminalized.
Detective Freeman can tick off hundreds of hives stolen since the current season began — 240 in Colusa County, 64 in Butte, 280 in Sutter County, 100 more in Butte. The list goes on.
“The numbers – the 240 and 280 is a little unusual,” Detective Freeman told The Washington Post. “In the past few years when I’ve been investigating hive thefts, it’s been 20 here, 40 there. There was one that was 128, but it seemed to be significantly lower in number than the ones this year.”
Two hundred eighty stolen hives equates to a $100,000 loss for a beekeeper, Detective Freeman said. And the culprits come from within the beekeeping community itself. Motivations vary, but the detective theorizes that many beekeepers struggle to fulfill their contracts as hives die off, and turn to stealing from fellow keepers to meet their obligations and generate revenue.
“They could be large-scale beekeepers or just a smaller hobbyist or sideliner who’s trying to make a few bucks in the almond pollination,” the detective said.
Hives are normally grouped together on large pallets, so it takes forklifts and trucks to move them – things beekeepers all have. And with so many beehives on the road this month, it’s near impossible to tell when a truck is carting stolen goods.
“Most people, when they lose their hives, figure they’re never going to get found,” said Joy Pendell, a California beekeeper and media director at the California State Beekeepers Association. “It’s very frustrating for us, because we go all winter without any income. So we put all this money and work into them for months, and we’re about to have our payday and someone just goes and steals it.”
Pendell can count 500 hives stolen just from association members, and cites “easily over a thousand” in the whole state this year. And the solutions to these thefts – GPS devices and private security firms – chip into the profits of already struggling beekeepers.
“It’s always been a really old-fashioned industry,” Pendell said. There are labelling requirements for bee equipment, but even Detective Freeman admits that many keepers don’t brand all of their hives.
“There does need to be a registration process,” she said. “A good, clear registration process…Hopefully we can get some legislation passed in the next few years.”
None of Pendell’s hives have been stolen yet, but she said it’s something that’s constantly on her mind. With a legislated and enforced registration process still far off for California beekeepers, they rely largely on tips, the honesty of bee brokers and the hard work of Detective Freeman.
He laughs and shrugs off the title “bee detective,” but admits that he has taken on a rather specialized job.
“I’ve become the point of contact for a lot of the beekeepers,” Detective Freeman said. “A few years ago we had a few bee thefts that took place and I got assigned to investigate the cases. And I didn’t know anything about bees or hives or pollination.”
He turned out to be a quick learner. Detective Freeman was fascinated with the industry, and even started to raise bees himself.
“I’m small in the grand scheme of things, I have a hundred hives. A lot of these people have several hundred or several thousand,” said Detective Freeman. He cultivates and rents out his hives just like any other beekeeper.
“He’s just really helpful,” Pendell said, and keeps in close touch with her and the rest of the California State Beekeepers Association. And his immersion in the bee industry has started tipping the odds in his favor; he’s actually recovered hives, which is an unexpected feat in the beekeeping business.
This year, 64 stolen hives have been recovered so far. They were located through a tip, were recovered from a broker’s possession and are still under investigation. But Detective Freeman said has a suspect. He’s closing in, but not disclosing much.
“I want to make sure this person is held accountable and used as an example,” he said.
Sixty-four hives hives may seem small when compared to the thousands disappearing this month. But if Freeman’s investigation is successful, the thief will face grand theft charges, which could add up to three years behind bars. That’s three years of not cultivating hives, of no money made during the annual pollination season, of no contracts. The beekeeping industry is many things — old-fashioned, expensive, intricate – but is unlikely to be forgiving as it deals with the questionable health of bee populations in the U.S. and the hive thefts that have resulted.