By Christine Souza
California Farm Bureau
TULARE COUNTY – 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 [email protected]
The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department asked anyone with information regarding the stolen apiaries there to contact its Agricultural Crimes Unit: 559-802-9401.