That Big Rig You're Passing Might Just Be Full of Bees

Jalopnik By Andrew P. Collins June 25, 2019

Illustration: GMG Art Department/Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Illustration: GMG Art Department/Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

There are still cowboys driving livestock across America in 2019. While most of us are snoozing, they’re rolling up to dark fields with trucks full of creatures that are critical to our nation’s agriculture: thousands and thousands of bees.

“Very few people know that this happens, and it happens as a necessity of the way our agriculture’s done,” Apiarist and filmmaker Peter Nelson explained to me. “I see bee trucks when I’m on the road, but most people don’t recognize them because it looks like a truck with boxes covered by a net.”

Nelson’s new movie The Pollinators is all about the bee industry, its huge role in our food system and the dire situation it’s in today. After months embedded with beekeepers documenting the complicated logistics of hauling bees from one end of the country to another, and years raising bees in his own backyard, he’s become something of an authority on the subject.

After watching his film myself, I have a whole new appreciation for this fascinating biological and economic ecosystem. I will now impart some of this wonder to you, before getting back to the part about trucks filled with bees driving down the highway at night.

Bees: We Fear Them, But We Must Love Them (Or We Starve)

Crops that make some of our favorite foods—almonds, broccoli, blueberries, avocados, apples—all need to be pollinated, and they’re pollinated by bees. But it takes armies of the insects to tend the immense commercial farms that get those foods to grocery stores. Since pollination only happens in certain seasons, it’s not practical for most farmers to stock and feed their own bees year-round. There definitely aren’t enough wild bees to get it done. And that’s why we’ve got a bee industry.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Wild and farm-raised bees have slightly different lifestyles, but they have a lot of the same problems. Wild bees have to contend with their feeding grounds being paved and plowed for crops they can’t eat. Bees that work for humans for a living are at risk of being poisoned by pesticides designed to protect the plants that the bees are hired to pollinate. And all of them can succumb to parasitic varroa mites. These are tiny bugs that ride on bees and drink their blood, identified by the USDA as one of a bee’s biggest threats.

The importance of both natural and commercial pollination is well documented, as are the threats to their systems. If you want to dive deeper into the science of the situation, The Center for Biological Diversity’s paper Pollinators In Peril from 2017 might be a good place to start.

More recently, the plight of pollinators is starting to sneak its way into pop culture. Even PornHub is using its platform to make people realize how important bees are. But to truly appreciate what’s happening, you’ve got to wrap your head around the scale and significance of the bee industry.

Why Are We Trucking Bees Around, Exactly?

There are more than 90 million almond trees in California. They need to be pollinated every year, and it takes over 31 billion bees to make that happen.

Since there aren’t enough natural pollinators to take care of today’s commercial crops, just like there’s not enough rain to water them without the help of irrigation, the rental bees are brought in. Those same bees could get booked in every other corner of the country too, pollinating different crops in different seasons.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

After almond season, the bees might get shipped up to the pacific northwest for apples. Then Massachusetts for cranberries, Maine for blueberries, or, some go to North and South Dakota to relax and focus on making honey, as highlighted by an article in The Conversation that notes many beekeepers are based there.

Nelson told me there are approximately 2,000 beekeepers with “more than 300 hives,” which he also explained was about the threshold from where a hobbyist or sideliner beekeeper becomes a serious commercial player. “The biggest beekeeper in the country is about 100,000 hives,” he added.

And how many bees does that entail? The typical hives Nelson had seen tended to house about 25,0000 bees. But bee colonies expand and contract over the course of a year. An Oregon State University paper cited by GrowOrganic stated that you could have between 10,000 and 60,000 bees living together.

If bees are comfortable, they can multiply fast. A typical worker bee only lives for about 40 days, but population growth can be fast in the right conditions. A queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day when the environment is optimized. So a beekeeper renting hives to farmers could be working with many generations of the insects, at the same hive, over the course of a year.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Today beekeepers at big scale make most of their money from pollination services, as opposed to 20 years ago, Nelson told me, when honey production was more lucrative. But as farms expanded and natural bee habitats have contracted, the demand for rental bees has gone up.

Pollination fees vary. “Last year ranged from $175 to $225 per hive for almond pollination,” said Nelson. “And that’s the biggest pollination in the country. Honeybees are essential to almonds, so they command a higher price.”

Almond crops need two hives per acre to be pollinated completely, so the dollar figure starts to swell pretty quickly. The Center for Biological Diversity says “more than $3 billion dollars” changes hands for fruit-pollination services in the U.S. every year.

And yet, sometimes commercial beekeeping business relationships are pretty old-school. “a lot of these contracts or agreements are made on a handshake,” Nelson explained. “Dave Hackenberg, [well-known professional beekeeper, credited as the first to raise awareness about colony collapse disorder] he’s been keeping bees my whole life, and he has some of his regular clients that go back 30 years.”

OK, So Here’s How You Haul Bees

Bees are considered livestock, so people charged with moving them are supposed to be comfortable working with animals. Still, transporting bees presents some unique challenges. Like, if you stop on a warm day, your cargo might just buzz away. That, or get trapped in the net covering the truck’s cargo deck, and that’s just a bad day for everybody.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

If a bee truck crashes, “it’s a mess,” Nelson told me. It happens, and when it does, beekeepers will try to save their wares. If the queen bee stays in the hive, which they normally do, the rest of the bees will buzz back. But the insects can only get back to their hive if it’s in the same place they left it. If a cleanup crew has to move the hives, or replace them, rounding up all the loose bees can be impossible.

Most bee hauling runs don’t end in that kind of disaster, but they are a lot of work. Let’s say a big rig’s worth of bees need to get from Georgia to California early in the year, for the start of the almond season.

Bees are generally loaded up for transportation at nighttime. That’s partially because the cold slows them down, but mainly on account of that geolocation phenomenon I just mentioned. If the bees go to bed in one place and wake up in another, they apparently don’t care, and go about their business pollinating in the new spot. But if you move the hive while the bees are active, they get confused and lost.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Before being heaved onto the deck of an empty flatbed trailer, bees are often calmed down with smoke. (Bees: They’re just like us!) The trick is that beekeepers go around their hives with smoke-dispensing canisters to make the insects think there’s a forest fire.

You might imagine that would send them into an apocalyptic panic, but apparently it has the opposite effect. Kind of. The bees gorge themselves on honey, either in preparation for evacuation or just resignation that doomsday is near, and become significantly more docile than they usually are.

Smoke also “blocks pheromones and makes it harder for them to sting,” says Nelson.

With the bees toked out, about 400 to 425 palletized hives can be stacked onto a semi-truck trailer with a forklift. Multiply that by 25,000 bees per hive, and yeah, you could have more than 10,000,000 on a truck easily.

Once the bees are rolling, their humans like to keep them in motion as much as possible during the day since the wind discourages them from going outside. If beekeepers do have to stop, they try to do it at high elevation where it’s cooler and bees will be more motivated to stay indoors. Once again, I am realizing how bee-like my own existence is... I don’t like to leave the house unless the weather’s soft, either. Also, if my house moved I would definitely get lost.

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Speaking of weather, that’s the last, and most critical, factor bee haulers have to worry about. If it’s too warm, the bees will escape and die. If it’s too cold, the bees will die. If it rains or snows, that presents its own set of problems.

“The thing that they’re all watching is weather... The almond pollination, that’s probably the riskiest one,” Nelson explained, “because a lot of the distances they cover are long. From Florida, Georgia, Alabama, all the way to Central Valley, California. And then also because of the weather that time of year (January and February) is a little more volatile.”

Beekeepers will even pre-run their hauling routes, just like Baja racers, to scout good spots to stop and plan their pacing. “A lot of beekeepers will go these exact routes beforehand,” Nelson added, “so they’ll know places where, ‘OK if you need to pull off, this is a good place, because it has an elevation that’s a little bit higher, so it might be cooler and better for the bees to stay in the hive,’” for example.

A 2018 Agweek article cited Miller Honey Farms Vice President Jason Miller as stating his companies hives “lose about two percent of their bees each time they’re moved,” and also mentioned that bee farmers sometimes have to get creative when it comes to finding places to park the bees in down time. The Miller operation apparently rents potato cellars in Idaho as their bees’ winter home.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

But even if beekeepers manage to keep their bees alive through the cold months, and get them on-and-off trucks safely, they still have to deal with bee bandits.

Yes, beehive theft is a thing. National Geographic recently reported that $70,000 worth of buzzing gold (bees) was heisted from a California farm. In 2016, somebody made off with $200,000 worth of bees in Canada and similar crimes have happened in England, New Zealand and elsewhere.

In the U.S., California’s Rural Crime Prevention Task Force deals with this kind of thing. “These cases are hard to crack because bees don’t have VIN numbers like cars, and we can’t track them by their DNA,” Detective Isaac Torres of the Task Force is quoted saying in that Nat Geo article. But stolen bees do get found, and the California State Beekeepers Association apparently “offers a $10,000 reward for information resulting in the arrest and conviction of a bee rustler.”

How Do We Befriend The Bees, And Earn Their Trust And Respect?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got an understanding of how hard bees and their keepers have it. Some even say forcing bees to work for us at all is exploitive and wrong. But short of trying to topple the bee industry, it is possible for people to proactively be part of a pollination solution.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

“One of things I like to suggest to people is to support their local beekeepers,” Nelson told me when I asked him how I could help the bees. “Buy[ing] honey locally, certainly buy[ing] U.S. honey,” helps our bee economy, but planning a garden that’s pollinator-friendly if you have the space for it, and minimizing the use of pesticides around your house goes a long way too.

Not all pollinating bees are honeybees that can fly five miles or get carted thousands of miles across the country. Some local pollinators might just hang out in your yard.

Making good food choices, as in buying food that’s pollinated sustainably, can be difficult to do. It’s a very positive step in helping the environment, though. And now that you know that, you might have some more research to do. But at least, next time you see a truck with stacks of boxes covered by a net, you’ll know what it’s up to!

For a longer look at the life of bees on the road and the people making a lot of your food happen, you really should try to see The Pollinators movie, which you might be able to catch at a film festival soon.

https://jalopnik.com/that-big-rig-youre-passing-might-be-full-of-bees-1834383949

Beekeepers Hit Hard by Thefts of Hives

National Geographic By Rene Ebersole, Photographs by Lucal Foglia May 3, 2019

In sophisticated night heists, thieves are stealing thousands of bees. Why?

Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California’s Central Valley. Honeybees trucked in by the billions to pollinate the trees are as essential as rain and sunshine. Without them, only a fraction of the acreage under self-pollinating almond varieties would produce nuts. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California’s Central Valley. Honeybees trucked in by the billions to pollinate the trees are as essential as rain and sunshine. Without them, only a fraction of the acreage under self-pollinating almond varieties would produce nuts. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

CENTRAL VALLEY, CALIF.It was Wednesday night around dinnertime when Jeremy Kuhnhenn realized something was wrong. A few days earlier, in preparation for pollination season, he’d temporarily parked a truckload of more than 280 wooden boxes vibrating with buzzing bees on a grassy knoll overlooking a vista of citrus trees in McFarland, in California’s Central Valley. Now, standing on the hill, he felt ill, as if he might throw up—many of the boxes were missing.

Feverishly, he started counting. “I couldn’t think. I kept messing up the count,” he told me, sitting at a friend’s kitchen table the next morning, shaking his head. He’d hardly slept. “Over half of them were gone, 160 boxes”—days before California’s almond bloom, the biggest and most lucrative pollination event in the world. “Those thieves stole about $70,000 from me,” he said, tallying the insects, equipment, and lost pollination rental fees.

Each year between February and March, more than a million acres of almond orchards in the Central Valley burst into bloom, painting the region pastel pink and white. The area’s mild climate is ideal for cultivating almonds, as well as many other crops. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Each year between February and March, more than a million acres of almond orchards in the Central Valley burst into bloom, painting the region pastel pink and white. The area’s mild climate is ideal for cultivating almonds, as well as many other crops. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Kuhnhenn, 39—tattooed, with a brown beard, and wearing a black “Right To Bear Arms” T-shirt and jeans—is a commercial beekeeper from Bantry, North Dakota. Like many others in his profession, he makes the bulk of his living from an annual pilgrimage to the Central Valley, where his bees help pollinate the state’s almond crop. In the off-season, back home on his ranch, Bulldog Honey Farms, he manufactures about 80 pounds of summer honey. Wintertime is almond season, and he’d been preparing for the bloom all year. His hives were ready to move into position in the almond orchards. Now was that time, and a bunch of his bees were gone.

Kuhnhenn was distraught. How would he make up for the loss and pay the bills? “I’ve got some cows,” he said, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. “My wife is saying she’s gonna put up her Mustang GT.”

Left:  Officer Rowdy Jay Freeman, a member of California's Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, is also an apiarist, an activity he first learned about while working on a bee theft case. With his special expertise, he serves as a liaison between commercial beekeepers and regional law enforcement. Tips and reports from the beekeepers, a tightly knit group, often help solve cases.  Right:  Bee thieves are often beekeepers with experience handling stinging insects. Tire tracks are important evidence helping detectives determine if the vehicle used in a theft was typical of what a commercial beekeeper would own—such as a truck, trailer, or forklift. Car tracks would suggest less sophisticated criminals. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Left: Officer Rowdy Jay Freeman, a member of California's Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, is also an apiarist, an activity he first learned about while working on a bee theft case. With his special expertise, he serves as a liaison between commercial beekeepers and regional law enforcement. Tips and reports from the beekeepers, a tightly knit group, often help solve cases. Right: Bee thieves are often beekeepers with experience handling stinging insects. Tire tracks are important evidence helping detectives determine if the vehicle used in a theft was typical of what a commercial beekeeper would own—such as a truck, trailer, or forklift. Car tracks would suggest less sophisticated criminals. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Rowdy Jay Freeman and his colleagues on the state’s Rural Crime Prevention Task Force respond to reports of bee thefts and many other agriculture-related crimes, including stolen farm equipment, fuel, metal, cargo, pesticides, and more. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Rowdy Jay Freeman and his colleagues on the state’s Rural Crime Prevention Task Force respond to reports of bee thefts and many other agriculture-related crimes, including stolen farm equipment, fuel, metal, cargo, pesticides, and more. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

He wanted to show me the crime scene. He climbed into his truck, and I followed in my rental car. We traced a long series of dirt roads, deeply rutted from heavy rain and truck traffic. Finally arriving at the hill, we walked across the grass to where his bees had been.

“They were right here,” he said, pointing at the ground. “You can see the pallet marks in the grass, and here in the dirt are tread marks from the forklift. It had smaller tires than mine.”

Whoever did this knew what he was doing, Kuhnhenn said, and had the right equipment.

Cattle raiding and horse thieving were common crimes in the Wild West, but bee rustling is a relatively new offense for the lawbooks. That’s thanks in large part to the increasing necessity and profitability of trucking billions of bees to vast commercial orchards in dire need of pollination, as well as a thriving international market for gourmet honey.

“It’s the perfect crime,” said Butte County police detective Rowdy Jay Freeman, a member of the state’s Rural Crime Prevention Task Force and a commercial apiarist himself. “You see a person in a white suit, and it looks like a beekeeper, but it could be a thief too—you’d never know.”

Throughout the almond bloom, beekeepers monitor their bee colonies’ health, looking out for mites, fungi, and disease that can wipe out a hive. In cold weather, beekeepers supplement the hives with syrup and pollen to keep the bees alive till the weather warms. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Throughout the almond bloom, beekeepers monitor their bee colonies’ health, looking out for mites, fungi, and disease that can wipe out a hive. In cold weather, beekeepers supplement the hives with syrup and pollen to keep the bees alive till the weather warms. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Big bee heists are making global headlines. In April 2016, a few weeks shy of blueberry pollination season, thieves struck one of the largest family apiaries in the Canadian province of Québec. The beekeeper, Jean Marc Labonte, told reporters the crooks made off with 180 hives worth an estimated $200,000. Of two likely suspects snagged by police, one was sentenced to nine months’ probation, including five months’ house arrest, and a $40,000 fine; the other was acquitted, according to reports by the Canadian Broadcasting Companyand other outlets.

A few months later, in June, bandits absconded with some of the most valuable bees in Canada, belonging to a $7.1 million research project at the University of Laval aimed at breeding stronger honeybees resistant to some of the ailments, from mites to fungi, currently plaguing colonies around the globe.

Four out of the 30 stolen beehives were part of the Laval study. Hundreds of hours of research had been devoted to selectively breeding those particular colonies, University of Laval bee biologist Pierre Giovenazzo explained. “It’s difficult to put a price on it, but those hives were worth a lot,” he said.

Bees are not only a hot commodity for their pollination services—there’s big money in their honey too. One of Britain’s largest bee heists happened in February 2018 when 40 hives, containing millions of bees, were stolen from a family-run company, Beekeeper Honey, in Oxfordshire. The crime came on the heels of a Telegraph report about a spike in bee thefts in England and Wales.

Diane Roberts, a press officer with the British Beekeepers Association, stressed that bee thefts are not rampant but that a few happen every year. “The value of bees has gone up enormously,” she said, adding that some heists might be related to the type of bee stock—“like racehorses, the best bees are highly prized.”

New Zealand has become a major target for people hoping to cash in on the craze for manuka honey, a trendy sweetener valued for purported health benefits in the treatment of everything from colds to skin infections. Amber-colored manuka is produced by bees pollinating the flowers of the indigenous manuka shrub. An eight-ounce jar of manuka, dubbed “liquid gold,” sells for as much as $60 online. The global manuka market is exploding. Now valued at $940 million, it’s expected to reach $2.16 billion by 2025.

Thieves want both the raw honey and the hives, said New Zealand senior police sergeant Alasdair MacMillan. By his count, there have been more than 2,000 heists in New Zealand since 2016, with some possibly linked to organized crime. “The type and quantities being stolen indicate that a number of persons would need to be involved,” he said. “It takes lifting equipment, vehicles, beekeeping, an outlet for extraction—and of course a market.” Given the volume of manuka being stolen and high prices for the product in China and elsewhere, MacMillan said, it’s likely destined for the black market.

Perils of beekeeping

The domesticated western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the superstar of the bee world. Out of roughly 20,000 bee species on Earth, more than 4,000 in the United States alone, this one little European species commands the spotlight. It is indeed an extraordinary creature. No other bee takes division of labor to such an extreme, with colonies comprising one queen and tens of thousands of workers thrumming along in perfect synchrony—a superorganism. En masse, they move by swarm. Individually, they navigate in fanciful figure eights. Their hives are like little factories, not only filling our cupboards with honey but also producing wax for candles and soap. What’s more, they pollinate a third of the produce on our plates—everything from apples, oranges, and blueberries to tomatoes, watermelons, and zucchini.

Steve Godlin is one of the commercial beekeepers in the Central Valley who had nearly a hundred of his own hives and as many more that he was brokering stolen this year. Factoring the value of the equipment, bees, and lost pollination fees, a stolen hive is worth about $350. Oftentimes, thieves steal hundreds in one swoop, wiping out much of a beekeeper’s annual income. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Steve Godlin is one of the commercial beekeepers in the Central Valley who had nearly a hundred of his own hives and as many more that he was brokering stolen this year. Factoring the value of the equipment, bees, and lost pollination fees, a stolen hive is worth about $350. Oftentimes, thieves steal hundreds in one swoop, wiping out much of a beekeeper’s annual income. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

California almond season is the pollination Grand Prix. In roughly four weeks between February and March, when almond buds burst into pink and white petals, billions of honeybees buzz through the orchards collecting pollen and nectar for their hives and simultaneously pollinating about one million acres of almonds.

In the days leading up to the bloom, an estimated 85 percent of all the honeybees in the country are trucked into the valley. Budget hotels, Denny’s, and IHOPs overflow with rugged out-of-towners, sweaty and dirty from working with bees 24/7. A commercial apiarist makes a modest (and sticky) living traveling the country pollinating dozens of different crops, but it’s the almonds that pay mortgages and kids’ college loans.

Lately beekeepers are having a tough time supplying the high demand for their bees. With almonds priced at about $2.80 a pound, farmers are ripping out their raisin grapes and row crops and replacing them with almond trees. During the past 10 years, lands under almonds in California have grown from 825,000 to 1.33 million acres—a 61 percent rise, according to the state almond board.

In addition to trying to keep pace with the increasing almond acreage, beekeepers are struggling to prevent their colonies from succumbing to a multitude of maladies—mites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides—often simultaneously. Many apiarists say it’s never been so hard or expensive to raise and maintain healthy honeybee colonies. This year has been particularly arduous, with some beekeepers reporting as much as 85 percent losses.

Almond grower Daljit Rakkar (right) is helping run the Central Valley business established by his father, Gurcharan (left), who got his start in almonds as a farm laborer. Half the Rakkars’ 2,000 acres are planted with almonds, and the rest with a mix of pistachios and raisins. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Almond grower Daljit Rakkar (right) is helping run the Central Valley business established by his father, Gurcharan (left), who got his start in almonds as a farm laborer. Half the Rakkars’ 2,000 acres are planted with almonds, and the rest with a mix of pistachios and raisins. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Jeremy Kuhnhenn said about 75 percent of his bees died during the seven months between last year’s almond bloom and the end of honey season in early October. “I don’t know what caused it,” he said, looking out over the miles of farmland sloping from the hillside where his hives were stolen. “It could be a combination of a lot of stuff. I’m waiting on test results from some scientists. I had to buy bees to come out here with 1,500 hives for the almonds. Some of those hives died—I only had 830 left. Now I’m down 160 more.”

With such demand for honeybees, pollination fees have soared. Daljit Rakkar is a second-generation almond grower in Madera, California, whose father built an empire after starting out as a young laborer in the orchards. One afternoon at his family mansion, where two Mercedes-Benzes and a Maserati were parked in the driveway, Rakkar said his company has witnessed the dramatic increase in the cost of bee rentals. “When we first got started, the rental fee was five dollars a hive,” he said. “Now it’s $180 to $200. The standard is two hives per acre. We’ll spend $500,000 on bees this year.”

The opportunity for such high profits is unquestionably motive for theft. But here’s the thing: Not just anyone can make off with millions of stinging insects. More often than not, said detective Freeman, bee burglars are beekeepers. Some steal for a quick payday; others pinch some hives when they come up short trying to fulfill their contracts.

“The vast majority of beekeepers are good, hardworking people,” Freeman said. “But a small percentage of them are on the side of crime. They don’t have boundaries, and they’re looking to make a quick buck. Since the pollination prices have spiked, there have been hundreds of thousands of hives stolen in California.”

Beehive chop shops

Joe Romance, a beekeeper from North Dakota who splits the year between his home state, California, and Maine for the spring blueberry bloom, was furious when he heard that Kuhnhenn, “a young guy coming up in the business” had been robbed. Romance has been a victim too.

“When you go in the yard and see your bees are gone, you go crazy,” he said. “I think that’s the only time in my life when I could kill somebody—if I had a gun (which I don’t). It’s the worst feeling, because you’ve lost your crop, your farm, your everything—years of work, gone.”

In 2014, Romance got a call from one of his employees who’d discovered that more than a hundred hives were missing from the inventory. Romance drove up and down Kern County looking for the missing boxes, hoping the thief had been reckless enough to place them near a road. He didn’t find them. One day, he heard from a friend who said he’d met a guy offering some bees for rent and thought he’d seen some of Romance’s equipment at his place.

Accused of stealing hundreds of beehives throughout the Central Valley over several years, Pavel Tveretinov and an alleged accomplice, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, were arrested in 2017. Their preliminary trials are scheduled for this summer. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Accused of stealing hundreds of beehives throughout the Central Valley over several years, Pavel Tveretinov and an alleged accomplice, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, were arrested in 2017. Their preliminary trials are scheduled for this summer. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

“It was a lucky break,” Romance said. He decided to go incognito to check things out. “I go over to the house with another friend who’s like six four, and we pretend we’re almond farmers,” he recounted. He was met by two men. “I said, ‘I’m paying $225 a hive’—top dollar. The price at the time was about $180. These guys were falling all over themselves saying they’d love to sell us some bees.”

While they talked, Romance looked around and realized what was going on. “It was a chop shop. They were grinding the brands off the boxes and painting over them,” he said. “That’s like branding over cattle—you can’t do that. Used to be a hanging offense! They were systematically stealing bees, painting the boxes, and reselling them.”

Romance called the sheriff. Later that evening the sheriff arrested one of the men, Gabino Jordan Peña, who worked for a nearby beekeeper named William Green. When Green got word that Peña had been pegged for stealing bees, he couldn’t believe it. He’d always considered Peña to be a good employee—he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, went to church at least once a week. But Green soon came to the conclusion that Peña was likely swindling him too, even using his equipment and credit card to fund his operation.

Peña declared his innocence, said detective Richard Hudson, of the Kern County rural crime prevention task force, and his church raised money to bail him out of jail. A few days before he was scheduled to appear in court, Peña skipped town, possibly to Mexico, Hudson said.

It’s not uncommon for an employee to steal bees from the boss—bee crooks need to get training somewhere, Romance explained. “You don’t go to school or read a book to become a beekeeper. It’s a dirty, hot, stinging job. You have to have the chutzpah to do it.”

Ultimately, Romance said, the stolen bees were recovered and redistributed among Green, other victims, and himself.

Feeling the sting

Investigating bee crimes isn’t easy. “These cases are hard to crack because bees don’t have VIN numbers like cars, and we can’t track them by their DNA,” said detective Isaac Torres, a Fresno-based member of California’s rural crime prevention task force. Often the only witnesses at the crime scene would be an angry mob with stingers. Once while responding to a call, Torres’s partner, Andres Solis, got stung eight times in the head, and his face “swelled up like a balloon,” Torres said. Now Solis wears a beekeeper’s veil when investigating bee cases.

In 2017, Solis and Torres managed to crack one of the biggest hive heists in California history. For three years in a row, an unusually high number of bee crimes were reported throughout the Central Valley—200, 300, 400 hives at a time in many different locations. “We knew it had to be someone in the business,” Solis said. “They weren’t just any crooks. They really knew what they were doing.”

Buzz’s Bees, owned by California apiarist Buzz Landon, had eight hives stolen early in the 2019 season. The California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force recommends that beekeepers brand their boxes with their name and state-issued registration number, keep them where thieves have less access, and use technologies such as GPS trackers to help find stolen hives. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Buzz’s Bees, owned by California apiarist Buzz Landon, had eight hives stolen early in the 2019 season. The California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force recommends that beekeepers brand their boxes with their name and state-issued registration number, keep them where thieves have less access, and use technologies such as GPS trackers to help find stolen hives. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A few weeks after the almond bloom, the detectives investigated a report about a suspicious discovery: a vacant lot on the outskirts of Fresno with bee boxes in varied shapes, colors, and designs stacked and scattered about. At the scene, they found what appeared to be a chop shop, where boxes were being sanded, repainted, and stenciled with the name Allstate Apiaries Inc., a business operated by Pavel Tveretinov, who was on-site tending to the bees.

Officers arrested Tveretinov, a 51-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, and later an alleged accomplice, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, 48. As the investigation progressed, the detectives uncovered similar operations at two other locations. They say they recovered some 2,500 hives worth $875,000.

Word about the arrests spread quickly. Soon beekeepers from all over the country were calling to find out if their missing equipment was among the recovered stacks.

“It was like a spiderweb,” Torres said. “One person would go and ID their bees, then goes home and tells their friends they saw some equipment of theirs. Then they come and see someone else’s, and it kept going like that.”

Kamron Koehne, a beekeeper in Butte County, California, recovered some of his 240 hives, all of which were uniquely branded with the numbers 42-14. “Every frame, every bottom, every lid, every pallet, everything was branded,” he said. “We’ve never sold a thing. If someone else has it, they either picked it up off the road or stole it.” Recently, Koehne was informed by the investigators that some of his equipment was found in North Dakota, where Tveretinov was allegedly making honey in the off-season.

Almond farmers generally rent two hives per acre to ensure adequate pollination. Fees range from $180 to $220. When the almond bloom ends, beekeepers truck their bees to other locations across the U.S. to pollinate more than 90 crops, from apples and avocados to blueberries and cherries. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Almond farmers generally rent two hives per acre to ensure adequate pollination. Fees range from $180 to $220. When the almond bloom ends, beekeepers truck their bees to other locations across the U.S. to pollinate more than 90 crops, from apples and avocados to blueberries and cherries. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUCAS FOGLIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Ryan McGinthy confirmed that Tveretinov and Yeroshenko are still under investigation and that more charges could be forthcoming. Tveretinov now faces 12 felony counts, including receiving stolen property and grand theft. Yeroshenko is charged with 10 counts of receiving stolen property. Court records show their preliminary hearing is tentatively scheduled for June 25. If found guilty, they could face prison time and thousands of dollars in fines. Both men maintain their innocence.

The California State Beekeepers Association offers a $10,000 reward for information resulting in the arrest and conviction of a bee rustler. Torres said apiarists should report thefts to authorities immediately and be vigilant to protect themselves against crime. That includes registering their hives with the state and minimizing opportunities for thieves to snatch equipment by placing hives away from access roads, behind locked gates when possible. Unique hive designs are easier to identify and recover after a theft. Some beekeepers are meticulous about branding every moving part in the hive. A growing number are taking advantage of technologies such as GPS trackers and camera systems that can send text alerts when hives are moved. “If this is your bread and butter, you’ve got to protect yourself,” Torres said. “I tell everyone to put GPS trackers on their hives.”

That’s just what Jeremy Kuhnhenn would like to do. But the units are pricey, as much as $130 apiece, he said, and right now money is especially tight. Back at Bulldog Honey Farms in North Dakota in March, all his cows were still in the barn, but there was extra space in the driveway. The loss of his hives meant he had to sell a 24-foot trailer and his wife’s 2010 Mustang to pay the bills. He also got a loan from the bank to keep things going while building back his bee colonies and preparing to make summer honey.

Next February, as the winter stillness settles over North Dakota, he’ll load his bees on a truck and again make the 1,800-mile trip southwest to California, where money grows on almond trees.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.

Lucas Foglia's photographs have been widely exhibited and published in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Nazraeli Press recently released his third book,Human Nature . Follow him on Instagram.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/05/bee-thieves-cost-beekeepers-thousands/?fbclid=IwAR0nWJrPgam84cT3vd5GAZbA06vhwspRSDztBtVFxPBjugu9vBeLqpXK_XM

Almond Math

Pollinator Partnership By Dan Wyns February 28, 2019

There are plenty of quick stats you come across working around bees: At peak population, a strong colony can have over 60,000 individual bees. A queen is capable of laying more eggs in a day (up to 2,000) than there are minutes in a day (1,440). A single bee can produce 1/12 tsp honey in its lifespan and may cumulatively travel 500 miles during the several weeks it spends as a forager. Despite annual losses in the 30-40% range, the total managed colony numbers remains fairly constant at about  3 million.

The American bee industry is inextricably linked to the almond industry. Every year, about 3/4 of the national herd migrates from various wintering locations to the central valley of California for the almond bloom in February. The almond industry also has some eye-opening statistics: The 117,000,000 almond-producing trees in California are responsible for 82% of global almond production, and it is estimated that it takes approximately 1 gallon of water to produce a single almond. The Almond Board of California does a fantastic job summarizing and quantifying the industry in the annual Almond Almanac available here. A couple previous BIP blogs discussing bees and almonds are available here and here.

Given the link between almond and bee industries and the eye-opening numbers in both, it got me wondering how many almonds each bee produces, or how many bees it takes to produce a single kernel (almonds aren’t technically nuts). Do you think a single bee accounts for hundreds of almonds? Does it take dozens of bees to produce each almond? Pick a number and we’ll work through some estimates to see how close you come.

Each almond starts with a bee in a blossom

Each almond starts with a bee in a blossom

The population of honey bee colonies is often estimated in a unit called frames of bees (FOBs). A frame of bees is defined as a deep frame (apx 19” x 8.5”) well-covered with adult bees on both sides. Estimates range between 2000 and 3000 individual bees per frame. For the sake of this exercise I’ll use the 2400 bees per FOB estimate reported here.

Beekeepers that rent their colonies for almond pollination typically do so under a contract that specifies both a minimum acceptable size and an average colony size that must be met. A commonly used contract may specify a 4 FOB minimum and an overall average of at least 8 FOB with potential bonus payments for colonies exceeding standards.  During the month of February 2018, Bee Informed Partnership  Tech Transfer Teams inspected over 1,100 colonies from 38 different operations with the overall mean frame count being 8.96 FOB per colony, so we’ll use that number as an estimate for colony strength. It is worth noting that not all bees in a colony are foragers and the percentage of individual bees that forage increases with colony strength. Randy Oliver has an excellent summation of the pollination value of a colony relative to FOB available here. Considering the difficulty of accounting for variable percentage of foragers and also the fact that a colony could not function with foragers alone, we will consider the total number of bees present to all be needed in order to provide pollination.

It is estimated that in recent years approximately 1.9 colonies per bearing acre have been required to meet almond pollination demand. For the 2017/18 almond crop year, there were an estimated 1,000,000 bearing acres. For the same year there was an average yield of 2,270 almonds lbs/acre. For a total crop of 2.27 billion pounds. It is estimated that there are 368 almond kernels per pound.

Having accumulated the numbers above we can now go about calculating the total number of bees pollinating almonds:

2400 bees/FOB * 8.96 FOB/colony = 21,504 bees/colony

1,000,000 acres * 1.9 colonies/acre  = 1,900,000 colonies

1,900,000 colonies * 21,504 bees/colony = 40,857,600,000 bees pollinating almonds

How many almonds do those 40 billion bees produce?

2.27 billion pounds * 368 almonds/pound = 835,360,000,000 almonds

835,360,000,000 almonds/40,857,600,000 bees =20.45 almonds per bee

Each of the approximately 40 billion individual bees rented for pollination is responsible for producing a handful of almonds.

Each of the approximately 40 billion individual bees rented for pollination is responsible for producing a handful of almonds.

So there we are, each bee that gets set in California almonds accounts for about 20 almonds. My guess before gathering any of the numbers was about 10 per bee; how close did your guess come?

https://beeinformed.org/2019/02/28/almond-math/

Massive Loss Of Thousands Of Hives Afflicts Orchard Growers And Beekeepers

NPR Heard on All Things Considered By Anna King February 18, 2019

Bret Adee, a third-generation beekeeper who owns one of the largest beekeeping companies in the U.S., lost half of his hives — about 50,000 — over the winter. He pops the lid on one of the hives to show off the colony inside.  Greta Mart/KCBX

Bret Adee, a third-generation beekeeper who owns one of the largest beekeeping companies in the U.S., lost half of his hives — about 50,000 — over the winter. He pops the lid on one of the hives to show off the colony inside. Greta Mart/KCBX

Almond bloom comes nearly all at once in California — a flush of delicate pale blooms that unfold around Valentine's Day.

And beekeeper Bret Adee is hustling to get his hives ready, working through them on a Central Valley ranch before placing them in orchards.

He deftly tap-taps open a hive. "We're gonna open this up, and you're going to see a whole lot of bees here," Adee says.

Under the lid, the exposed sleepy occupants hum away. He uses a handheld smoker to keep them calm and huddled around their queen.

This third-generation beekeeper works night and day with a crew of more than 35. Adee has been busy staging more than 100 semi truckloads of his honey bee hives in almond orchards over a 200 mile swath of the Central Valley.

When temperatures rise and the blooms open, his bees wake up and go to work. It's his hives' first yearly stop on a 6,500-mile tour across the nation.

But this almond bloom, Adee's scrambling more than usual.

Deadouts

Adee lost more than half of his hives over the winter — 50,000. And he's not alone.

"You know, in September, I thought we had the most awesome bees ever," Adee says. "The bees looked incredibly good."

Like Adee, many beekeepers across the U.S. have lost half their hives — they call one with no live bees inside a "deadout." Some beekeepers lost as many as 80 percent. That's unusual. And many of the hives that did survive aren't strong in numbers.

A healthy hive able to pollinate has at least eight frames mostly covered in bees on both sides. But the fear this year is that there will be many weaker hives put into California almond orchards for pollination because so many hives have died across the country.  Greta Mart/KCBX

A healthy hive able to pollinate has at least eight frames mostly covered in bees on both sides. But the fear this year is that there will be many weaker hives put into California almond orchards for pollination because so many hives have died across the country. Greta Mart/KCBX

For decades Adee says if he lost 5 percent he really got nervous. Now a 40 percent loss every few years is more common, he says. But this many lost hives across the country is concerning.

Every hive

California almond orchards have grown so much over the past 10 years, the bloom requires nearly every commercial hive available in the United States.

Almonds have grown from 765,000 acres to 1.33 million acres in the last decade. Bees travel from as far as Florida and New York to do the job. Without these hives, there is no harvest.

Almond bloom is just as important to the beekeepers. It's a chance to make nearly half their yearly income, and a place for the bees to work and grow early in the spring while healing up from winter.

This year, many beekeepers have had to tell their orchardists that they won't have enough bees this year to cover their entire contracts. And some orchardists are desperately calling beekeepers. Some report pollination prices going up.

Sneaky suckers

Experts say honey bees are dealing with many stressors: chemicals, loss of wildflowers, climate change, nutrition and viruses. But this year, a special problem might have taken down the honey bees more than usual.

A matrix of almond branches show off delicate early blooms near Lost Hills, Calif. Almonds have grown from 765,000 acres to 1.33 million acres in the last decade.  Greta Mart/KCBX

A matrix of almond branches show off delicate early blooms near Lost Hills, Calif. Almonds have grown from 765,000 acres to 1.33 million acres in the last decade. Greta Mart/KCBX

A tiny parasite called the varroa mite sucks at the bee's body, causing big problems.

Ramesh Sagili, a bee expert with Oregon State University, predicted these big bee losses because of mites earlier last year.

"It's a very lethal parasite on honey bees," Sagili says. "It causes significant damage not only to the bee, but to the entire colony. A colony might be decimated in months if this varroa mite isn't taken care of."

He says unusually early and warm spring weather last year made the bees start rearing baby bees early. That gave varroa mites a chance to breed and multiply too.

Varroa mothers crawl into the cells of baby bees and hide there until the bees close the cell up with wax. Then they lay an egg and rear their young on the baby bee.

Emotional sting

When the almond blooms fade, beekeepers will truck their hives across America — from the Northwest and Dakotas to the South and Maine, chasing spring.

Eric Olson, 75, of Selah, Wash., points out the fruiting wood on his cherry tree. Pruning helps to open the canopy so the fruit can ripen well, and cuts back on fast-growing branches called suckers that can sap the tree's energy away from the valuable fruit.  Anna King/Northwest News Network

Eric Olson, 75, of Selah, Wash., points out the fruiting wood on his cherry tree. Pruning helps to open the canopy so the fruit can ripen well, and cuts back on fast-growing branches called suckers that can sap the tree's energy away from the valuable fruit. Anna King/Northwest News Network

In Eric Olson's foggy and frosty Washington state cherry orchard, bloom is still a while off. His crew is busy pruning away the wood that would block light to the fresh fruit.

He's helps manage one of the largest beekeeping businesses in the Northwest.

He says their hives experienced a dramatic loss this year. But it's not as bad a when he lost about 65 percent of them.

"That's when I cried," says Olson, who served 20 years in the Air Force. "I was a pilot and I spent my time in combat situations. Never in my life was I as low as when we lost 65 percent of those bees."

Chasing spring

Still, spokespeople for the almond industry are saying it's all fine.

"Orchard growers who have long-standing relationships with beekeepers are not experiencing problems," says Bob Curtis, a consultant for the Almond Board of California. "Folks that are having trouble are the ones that don't make the contracts in the fall with beekeepers."

If Northwest growers line up beekeepers early, Olson says he expects there will be enough bees for the region's smaller fruit tree bloom. Still, he's worried for his orchardist friends.

"If I can't get bees in my cherries I'm in trouble," Olson says. "I don't have a crop. What do I do? I don't know."

Surveys later this spring will give a better idea of nationwide bee losses, but that might be too late for orchardists at the end of the pollination line.

This story comes to us from the Northwest News Network.

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/02/18/694301239/massive-loss-of-thousands-of-hives-afflicts-orchard-growers-and-beekeepers

Thefts Continue to Trouble Beekeepers

AgAlert By Christine Souza February 20, 2019

Butte County Sheriff’s Deputy Rowdy Freeman checks on commercial apiaries in an almond orchard near Oroville. Freeman says law-enforcement agencies around the state have received reports of bee-colony thefts, suggesting potentially tight supplies of bees for pollination.  Photo/Christine Souza

Butte County Sheriff’s Deputy Rowdy Freeman checks on commercial apiaries in an almond orchard near Oroville. Freeman says law-enforcement agencies around the state have received reports of bee-colony thefts, suggesting potentially tight supplies of bees for pollination.
Photo/Christine Souza

For some commercial beekeepers, California's almond bloom ended before it officially started.

Early last week, Tulare County beekeeper Steve Godlin of Visalia learned that about 100 honeybee colonies he was managing had disappeared from an almond orchard west of Visalia.

"We got hit. It's a nightmare," said Godlin, who had been managing the colonies for a fellow beekeeper from North Dakota. "It's very discouraging, obviously, to get the bees this far to a payday and then have them stolen."

Citing a shortage of bees for almond pollination, which this year requires about 2.14 million apiaries for more than 1 million bearing acres of almonds, Godlin said the bees were likely stolen Feb. 10.

Deputies from the Tulare County Sheriff's Department Agricultural Crimes Unit also took a report of a likely related theft the next day: Just a few miles from the Godlin location, Gunter Honey reported a second theft of another 96 hives.

Godlin said 100 beehives would be valued at $20,000 for the bees alone and another $20,000 for the pollination services—and that to steal that many hives would require a one-ton truck and forklift. His advice to farmers?

"Know your beekeepers, and if you or anybody in the public sees somebody loading bees up in an almond orchard, call the police. That's not the way it works. Bees should be going into the almonds, not out," Godlin said.

Butte County Sheriff's Deputy Rowdy Freeman, who investigates rural and agricultural crimes, said a theft of 100 or 200 hives at a time would likely be committed by someone who is a beekeeper.

"They know what they are doing. They have beekeeping equipment. They know how to go in and take them and have the means to do it. It could be a beekeeper who lost a lot of hives and can't fulfill his contract. Desperation leads to theft, so they will steal the hives from someone," Freeman said, noting that other bee thefts had been reported already this year in Kern County and in Southern California, with a total of 300 hives lost.

"What we typically see is they steal hives from one area and then drive several hours to put them on a contract, because the people there won't necessarily know that they are stolen," Freeman said. "Almond growers need to know whose bees are going into their orchards, what markings are going to be on those hives, and if they see anything different, they need to report it."

Early this month, Freeman investigated reports of a small number of bees stolen from Butte and Glenn counties. He later recovered about half of the bees, after deputies spotted some of the stolen hives loaded onto a small utility trailer parked in a driveway in Biggs.

Two adults were arrested for the alleged crime and for felony possession of stolen property. The recovered bees were returned to the beekeeper-owner in Glenn County.

The sheriff's department said the suspects planned to place the hives in an almond orchard in exchange for payment for pollination services.

Freeman said smaller apiary thefts could be carried out by people who aren't beekeepers, but are just looking to make quick cash.

"In a recent case I worked, they saw an ad on Craigslist, and they responded to that and came to an agreement," he said. "The farmer doesn't know who they are really dealing with, and that guy comes out and drops off a bunch of boxes that look like beehives and the farmer is happy he has bees. But he doesn't look inside of them. One case, there weren't any bees in the boxes, and they weren't beekeepers."

Freeman, who also became interested in beekeeping after investigating a theft in 2013 and now maintains about 50 hives of his own, said the thefts this season are likely related to a limited supply of bees.

Whether or not almond growers will have enough bees remains to be seen.

Mel Machado, director of member relations for the Blue Diamond Growers cooperative, said he hadn't heard "any issues related to a shortage of bees."

Almond grower Dave Phippen of Travaille and Phippen Inc. in Manteca said one of the beekeepers he works with was unable to bring the truckload of bees that he had agreed upon, but was able to deliver 400 bee colonies for Phippen's almonds.

"I got what I needed, but just by the skin of my chinny-chin-chin," Phippen said, adding, "It's a challenge every year."

Phippen said he expects the cost of pollination services this year will be approximately $190 per colony.

"The trees are excited and trying to open," he said. "The weather's been cool, so it held them back, but with this warm storm, I'm afraid they are going to progress quicker than they have been."

Machado said it would take a while to gauge the impact of last week's rains on the almond bloom.

"We just don't know yet," he said.

Freeman offered suggestions for preventing bee theft:

Beekeepers should place bees out of sight and off the road, and mark hives, lids and frames with identifying information so that recovered bees can be traced back to the owner.

Growers paying for pollination services should verify that colonies in the orchard or field match with the contract they have with the beekeeper.

Though it is not cost-effective for every hive, beekeepers should strategically place GPS trackers in certain hives.

Beekeepers and farmers should maintain a close working relationship.

The California State Beekeepers Association offers up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of persons responsible for stealing bees and/or beekeeping equipment; information may be sent to calstatebeekeepers@agamsi.com.

The Tulare County Sheriff's Department asked anyone with information regarding the stolen apiaries there to contact its Agricultural Crimes Unit: 559-802-9401.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

http://www.agalert.com/story/?id=12734