How almond prices and bee deaths sparked California’s beehive theft problem

When Jeff Anderson pulled up to the bee yard southeast of Sacramento, Calif., to check on his hives, it took him a minute to process that something was amiss.

A third-generation beekeeper who splits his time between winters in California and summers in Minnesota, Mr. Anderson was getting ready for the almond bloom, when roughly two-thirds of all the commercial beehives in the United States are trucked to California to pollinate the more than 1.2 million acres of almond orchards in the state.

He was on a conference call on his cellphone when he noticed patches of bare pavement among the pallets stacked with hives that he had laid across an abandoned road behind two locked gates. “It dawns on me that I should be up close to the bees and I’m not,” he recalled of the brisk January day two years ago.

Thieves had made off with 96 of Mr. Anderson’s hives, leaving behind a muddy winter glove and sets of tire tracks, which Mr. Anderson believes were made by a skid loader, a piece of heavy equipment. In total, Mr. Anderson estimates he was out almost $50,000 (U.S.) in lost income from the contract to rent the hives to an almond grower and the cost of replacing the stolen bees and equipment.

Beehive theft has exploded in recent years in California. Police estimate thieves have made off with about 2,000 hives across the state so far this year, after more than 1,500 went missing last year.

Rising almond prices have enticed farmers to devote more of their land to the crop, pushing up the rates to rent bees from about $150 per hive in 2013 to as much as $220 today. And beekeepers point to the high numbers of bee deaths, which have made it more expensive to maintain colonies and have created another motive for desperate beekeepers to steal from their neighbours.

A healthy hive, filled with worker bees near Stockton, Calif.

California grows roughly 80 per cent of the world’s supply of almonds. With so many almond orchards and not enough bees to pollinate the crops, the industry attracts thousands of beekeepers from across the country each year. They typically ship their hives to California every winter and store them in remote fields until the almond pollination season starts early in the year, making the hives easy prey for thieves.

“It created a lot of financial incentive for crooked beekeepers or crooked orchardists,” Mr. Anderson said. “When you’ve got that many bees out there –…

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