Forget the Rembrandts. Forget the diamonds. The new hot commodity luring thieves into the darkness of night is stealing bees. Petty bee thefts are nothing new, but things have escalated to unheard of proportions. The biggest heist ever, an estimated one million dollars, took place in central California, January of 2017.
The story, reported by Josh Dean, appeared in the July 2, 2018, edition of Bloomberg Businessweek. It recounts the struggles of a third-generation beekeeper from Montana who once made a comfortable living selling honey until he began to suffer the impact of bee die-offs from mysterious causes affecting bees in the US and Europe. The cost of maintaining bees was increasing as the returns were shrinking.
In California's central valley where 80% of the world's almonds are grown, there is a desperate need for pollinators during the brief pollination season. Bees are so crucial to the almond crop that it requires more than half of the 2.4 million commercial colonies in the US. Severe bee decline in the past 25 years has forced almond growers to import bees from Australia.
In February over one million acres of almond trees begin to flower, and almond pollination is crucial at that time. As in all business, prices are controlled by supply and demand. Almond growers need bees in February, and beekeepers can make a handsome sum at this time. Many small-scale beekeepers find it tempting to truck their hives to California for the February almond season, where they can earn $200 per hive for a few short weeks of pollinating. Such was the case with Montana beekeeper, Lloyd Cuniff, who dreaded the idea of hauling his bees to California, but the extra money was a big incentive.
In January of 2017, he loaded 488 bee boxes onto a semitruck trailer and began his 1,000-mile trip to almond country in Fresno County, California. He had business contacts with Strachan Apiaries in Yuba City, and they matched him up with a farmer in need of bees. They advised Cuniff to unload his bees next to a sunflower field near Yuba City so the bees could acclimate before reaching almond country.
He left his bees in his special hand-constructed bee boxes and stayed in a hotel that night. His nightmare began the next morning when he drove in thick fog to where he left his bees. He searched everywhere, but there were no bees to be found. All 488 boxes with nearly 500 million bees disappeared. Panicked, he called the Strachans, who immediately recognized this as the work of professionals, as later proved to be correct.
Tracks in the dirt revealed the presence of single-axle, dual-wheeled trucks with fork-lifts to raise the boxes. Cuniff wasn't the only victim. More than 700 boxes in total, worth one million dollars were stolen that night. The chances of finding the stolen bees were slim to nothing. Bee theft had been escalating over the years, but this one topped them all.
The California State Beekeepers Association (CSBA) mobilized and offered a $10,000 reward for information that would lead to finding the bee thieves. Law enforcement got involved. The bee community was on the lookout, having been provided with a description of the stolen boxes. During the brief but crucial time the trees are flowering the almond growers are less likely to be concerned about where the bees come from, than the fact that they desperately need pollinators.
Cuniff returned to Montana with no money and no bees. Things were not looking good. A few months passed, and in late May of 2017 the case of the stolen bees got a break when a Fresno County Sheriff's Office received word of a suspicious sighting on a vacant lot filled with broken boxes in complete disarray and agitated bees everywhere. Detectives, in proper bee outfits, went to the site and found one man splitting each colony in two, so there would be twice as many hives to sell. An accomplice was found nearby painting and stenciling the boxes with a new name – Allstate Apiaries, Inc. Detectives apprehended the owner, a Ukranian immigrant, who had been renting hives to local growers in addition to selling hives to buyers around the country. The only honest thing about the operation was the name. The stolen bees came from many states and were being sold back to beekeepers in any state.
Many of the stolen boxes had names of the original owners still on them. Cuniff's boxes did not, but their design was recognizable from the description he provided. Cuniff was notified that some of his boxes had been found. He caught a plane to California; and before he landed, authorities had found two additional places with stolen hives. More than 600 hives were recovered at three different locations. The two suspects were charged with ten felony counts of possession of stolen property with an estimated value of $875,000 dollars, making it the largest bee heist ever reported in Fresno County.
Cuniff was not able to load up all his boxes on one truck and returned the next day to collect the remaining bees; but in the morning they were gone! "They had come in and stolen some of the stuff again," Cuniff remarked. Luckily for Cuniff, those boxes were also recovered. Beekeepers do not believe this is an isolated incident, but rather part of a larger criminal network.
This story is important because in our materialistic society it helps raise awareness of the enormous value of bees, so often overlooked and clearly lacking in respect. When the monetary worth of a commodity increases to the point where some are willing to steal, that gets our attention, and hopefully will expand our appreciation of the importance of bees in our world.
Wild and managed bees provide us with a wide range of services. They contribute to food security, provide livelihoods for farmers and beekeepers, as well as provide greater biodiversity and ecosystem stability.1-3
Causes of Bee Demise
Wild bees and honeybees are the most prevalent pollinators, but others include butterflies, moths, other insects, birds, and bats. The modern world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to all pollinators on many fronts. What some think of as progress and scientific advances are threatening bee survival, which poses a threat to human survival.
Changes in land use that once were fields and meadows of wild forage are paved over for shopping malls and parking lots. Increased use of ever more potent pesticides, which include herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, miticides, and other chemicals designed to kill some form of living matter are affecting bees too.
Increased exposure to proliferating electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) from cell towers, cell phones, smart meters, etc., is suspected of interfering with their natural navigational instincts, as well as weakening their immune systems against mites and other assaults.
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and GE (genetically engineered) plants introduced into the food supply in the 1990s now include 90% of all corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, and sugar beets. Additional crops include potatoes, papaya, squash, alfalfa, and some apples. One major focus of GE crops was to design corn and soy that could withstand the onslaught of increased applications of the herbicide Roundup, without actually killing the crop plant. As so often is the case, Nature will not be bullied into man's desires and retaliates in other ways. The very pests, insects and weeds, that are subjected to the pesticides, quickly develop a greater resistance to them. The same cannot be said for bees, other pollinators, and humans.
Additional use of pesticides by municipalities and utility companies to kill weeds along roadways and right-of-ways eliminated a viable source of forage for pollinators for longer periods of time than mowing. Honeybees requires a mix of pollens from a variety of plants for proper nutrition.2
Climate change is real and verifiable. Hurricanes of greater intensity, excessive rain in some parts of the world, excessive drought in other areas, all take a toll on pollinators and the plant pollens they require for sustenance. UK Professor Dr. Simon Potts explains that bees face two major threats caused by climate change: habitats moving, and the changing seasonal behavior of different bee species. In the UK it has been observed that bees "are emerging earlier and earlier…by 7 to 10 days per decade," while the "flowers are blossoming only 4 to 5 days earlier each decade." The time lapse between bee emergence and the arrival of pollen for them to feed on is posing a threatening risk of local extinction.3 After three decades of this time differential, bees could be emerging 9-15 days ahead of any forage for them to feed on.
New Hope for Bees
Leigh Kathryn Bonner, fresh out of college, decided to do something to help bees by convincing corporate heads to install honeybee hives on their grounds in urban areas where bees could thrive on the varied flora. She and a few employees collect the honey and maintain the hives. Her company, Bee Downtown, also helps corporate employees learn more about bees by showing them how to find the queen bee or weight the honey, helping them understand the importance of sustainability and agriculture. And sometimes, as a bonus they get to keep some of the honey. Not only do the bees benefit from their new habitat, but the employees say the hives make them prouder to work for their company, with a majority of employees saying it was their favorite employee engagement activity of the year.
"If we get people excited for agriculture and learning where food comes from, we could really start to change agricultural processes, and make a really big impact on the world," she says. The bee entrepreneur is a fourth-generation beekeeper from the Raleigh, North Carolina (NC) area. Her business, Bee Downtown, is located in Durham, NC. Some of her clients include IBM, Burt's Bees, Chick-fil-A, and Intercontinental Exchange. With additional financial backing, she is planning to expand into the Atlanta area. She expected her revenue in 2018 to reach the one million dollar mark.
It is very gratifying to know that bees have an ambassador advocating on their behalf, educating corporate heads and staff about the importance of helping bees, and especially helping bees find new habitat with plenty of new forage among a wide variety of plants that are used in corporate landscaping.4
1. Dean J. How to Steal 50 Million Bees. Bloomberg Businessweek. July 2, 2018.
2. Williams RM. Colony Collapse Disorder. Townsend Letter. June 2008.
3. The World Bee Project. Pollination, Food, and the Environment. www.worldbeeproject.org/p-f-e.
4. Chang M. How This 25-Year-Old Entrepreneur Is Convincing Companies Like Chick-fil-A and Delta to Save the Bees. Inc. April 18, 2018.
Rose Marie Williams, MA, is a writer and frequent lecturer on environmental risk factors, risk reduction, and health protection. She was president of the Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc., a grassroots environmental and health organization, from 1995-2005. She has written for Foundation for Advancement in Cancer Therapy, Ltd. (FACT), Well-Being Journal, Health and Healing Journal (Australia), South Africa's Journal of Natural Medicine, and has had several articles in Townsend Letter since 1999. Contact: email@example.com.