Bee Rustlers Are California's Newest Outlaws

In the world of agriculture, bees are big business. California beekeepers often rent their hives out in mid-winter to farmers who need the insects to pollinate almonds and other crops. And that's why bee rustling has become such a problem.

Photo by John Schreiber

Back in the nineteenth century, cattle rustlers would peel off a few heads of cattle from a herd to make some money without doing the work of ranching. And today, similar kinds of people are stealing bee hives and trying to rent them out to unsuspecting farmers.

Over at Weather.com, Lorraine Boissoneault has a fascinating story about bee rustlers and the high tech methods that beekeepers are using to protect their insects. She also describes a huge beehive heist that took place recently:

The morning after [beekeeper Joe] Romance got the call about his bees going missing, he drove to the crime scene with one of the Kern County officers. It looked like more than 100 beehives were missing. In addition to relying on traditional law enforcement, Romance relayed the message to his network of fellow apiarists. That same day, he heard from another beekeeper.

David Patty might never have seen Romance's green bee boxes if he didn't have an almond grower friend who was looking to rent some bees at the last minute. When the friend said he'd contacted a beekeeper who wanted to meet in Starbucks, alarm bells went off in Patty's head. He didn't know any established beekeepers who would hold a meeting in Starbucks.

Because of his suspicions, Patty accompanied his friend to the bee yard to inspect the hives. The beekeepers were offering a much lower price than the market.

"I asked the guy, 'Why are you willing to settle for so cheap with strong boxes like this?' And he kinda, he made this face like he didn't want to tell me," Patty recalls. It was around that time when he noticed the boxes with green lids and green pallets and decided to call Romance.

After receiving Patty's information, Romance decided to pose as an almond grower and approach the beekeepers who appeared to have stolen his bees. He knew something was up as soon as he got out of the car at the address Patty had given him. The people were grinding brands off the boxes, which is illegal. Brands burned into the sides of bee boxes are one of the main ways beekeepers identify their property. Romance uses "UHB" as his brand for the name of his company, United Honeybees.

"It was a chop shop," Romance says of the operation. "It was perfect. They had them methodically stacked up and they first transferred the boxes with other boxes that they ground the brands off, and then they were painting."

Romance walked away from the area to make a call to the sheriff's department. It looked like he'd be getting his bees back after all, but instead of feeling elated, Romance was boiling mad.

"The worst thing you can do is steal a man's bees, because that's his livelihood," Romance says. "Everybody puts his heart and soul into their bees and then you just up and steal them? You're a scumbag."

You will definitely want to read more of this story over at Weather.com