For weeks, beekeepers moved truckloads of honey bees from across the US to California. The bees are rented out to farmers to pollinate their precious almond crop. But when the almond blossoms begin to bloom, begins the season of hive-stealing that has become so common that breeders are turning more to technology to protect their bee colonies.
Over the past few weeks, more than 300 beehives worth tens of thousands of dollars have been reported stolen in the San Joaquin Valley.
Another 384 disappeared from fields in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, prompting the state beekeepers’ association to offer a $10 thousand reward for information leading to the rediscovery of the hive.
“It’s hard to explain what it’s like to care for a beehive all year and then it’s stolen,” wrote beekeeper Claire Tauzer on her Facebook page to announce the reward.
Days later, he said an anonymous informant helped authorities find boxes containing bees, 32 kilometers from a village property. A suspect was arrested.
Thieves are usually beekeepers or people accustomed to transporting bees, working at night when the insects are not very active.
Claire Tauzer of Tauzer Bee Farm explains, “We rent out beehives to farmers and our bees actually do the pollination so that almonds can be produced. Almonds are 100 percent dependent on pollination by honey bees.”
A limited supply of bees and the soaring cost of renting bee hives for pollination, soaring from about $40 two decades ago to $230 per hive this year, are likely to encourage beekeepers to cheat.
Demand for bees continued to increase during this period, while the global popularity of healthy, crunchy almonds turned California into the world’s largest producer of almonds.
Along with that, the area of land used to grow almonds has more than doubled to around 526 thousand hectares. Breeders better adapt this growth by increasing the availability of beehives.
This year, a survey of commercial breeders estimated it would take 90 percent of honeybee colonies in the US to pollinate all the crops in an almond garden.
But bee populations are notoriously unstable, and they are plagued by many problems, from habitat loss, insecticides and disease.
Claire Tauzer adds, “It’s very difficult for professional beekeepers like us to keep this colony active. And it’s getting even harder now, which includes more and more theft in our industry. It took over a year to build a healthy colony and once it was stolen from us , this is not something we can replace easily.”
The drought that hit Western states last summer also reduced bee colonies, depriving them of the nutritious pollen and nectar of wildflowers.
When their honey production declined, beekeepers had to artificially substitute their diets with sugar solutions and pollen substitutes. This of course incurs additional costs.
For beekeepers, the loss of bees means a loss of income from honey production and future pollination, not to mention the cost of maintaining the hive all year round. They say they rarely break even.
“For every $210 we pay to rent bee hives, we spend almost that amount also during the year to feed the bees because of the drought. We do all the labor-intensive health checks and we provide full benefits to workers,” said Tauzer.
A bee-rental intermediary suspected the theft had occurred because some beekeepers were unable to deliver the healthy colonies they had promised.
Some breeders are starting to equip honeycomb boxes with sensors linked to GPS. Others marked their boxes with a clear liquid that was only visible under ultraviolet light, even with layers of paint, so that when thieves tried to cover up the crates they stole, the police could identify their rightful owners.
Meanwhile the almond industry is trying to avoid a possible pollination crisis by growing adaptable almond varieties that require fewer honey bees to pollinate and investing in research and other initiatives aimed at improving bee health. [uh/ab]