by Kimberly Rivers

It’s the middle of the night. Several dozen nondescript wooden boxes are stacked among rows of avocado trees in Santa Paula. The boxes are home to bustling colonies of honey bees, working by day to pollinate the nearby trees and make honey, then resting at night. A truck approaches, the hives are loaded up and soon the truck is gone.

Bee hive theft is not a problem immediately associated with the liquid gold we buy at stores or farmers markets and spread on scones or add to tea. But it’s a common issue in the beekeeping industry, and Ventura County beekeepers regularly feel the effects of the sticky fingers of bee hive thieves.

”You can make a lot of money with bees. If you take them to almonds, you get paid by each box that you place,” said Karen Grammer, operations manager at Bennett Honey Farm of Fillmore. She said the company just realized that four pallets of hives were taken. That is 16 hives, each holding 30 pounds of honey. They were taken from a ranch that wasn’t gated and it is thought that a truck was coming in every night and taking a few pallets at a time. Grammer said it’s not a “huge loss.” They haven’t reported the theft yet. But she said that about a year ago, an entire yard of hives was taken. “It was 100 hives, we lost $72,000 of income, plus the boxes and bees and equipment.”

Bee keepers who sell honey need places to put their hives, and they can get paid by farmers who need pollination for their crops. Prices range from $180 to around $250 per hive to “rent” hives to almond and other growers to ensure pollination occurs across thousands of acres. According to Deputy Randy Freeman with the Butte County Sheriff, the “largest pollination event in the world” takes place in California every year with the almond pollination.

“Ventura County is a great spot for bees in the winter,” said Ed Williams, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner. At a recent county Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee (APAC), a beekeeper reported that there are about 100,000 bee hives in the county at any given time. “But only 16,500 are registered,” said Williams.

Beekeepers bring their bees to the county for the “temperatures and forage available” as they prepare to take their bees to the Central Valley for the almond pollination in February and March. Lemon and avocado growers in the county also need bees for pollination, although they are not as heavily dependent on bees as almonds.

Williams’ office is beginning to implement a new program, approved in April, aimed at stopping hive theft and preventing hives from being sprayed by pesticides. He explained that the plan is to map the locations of all registered hives in the county, so that ag commission staff can know whose hives are where. If other people are spotted handling hives, or hives are placed in a spot that isn’t mapped, law enforcement can be contacted to determine if a theft has occurred, or if there are stolen hives.

“They are trying to get into the business,” said Dave Mitchell, owner and beekeeper at Blue Ridge Honey of Ventura, about why he thinks people are stealing hives. He explained that someone paying their way in would have to spend nearly $100,000 for just the initial equipment needed, like the specialized truck, loader and trailer, “and you don’t even have any bees yet.”

From left, Dave Mitchell, volunteer Lisa Merkord, and employee Jeremy Mitchell use a Cowen inline extractor to remove honey from the combs at the Blue Ridge Honey shop in Ventura.

Mitchell has had some hives stolen over the years, but never a major theft. He points to rules in California that require commercial beekeepers to label their boxes so they are identifiable. All Blue Ridge Honey boxes are branded with a specific number that is carved into the wood, making it easy to identify the boxes should they ever be stolen. Some of the frames that hold the honey comb inside the boxes are also tagged. While a paint mark can be simply painted over, the carved brand is hard to cover up. Another issue is that to steal hives, a person has to have at least some knowledge of beekeeping. A passerby who sees the theft in process might think a legitimate beekeeper is moving hives.  

“It doesn’t happen a bunch, but I did have some bees stolen from a ranch earlier this year,” said Mitchell. He keeps several hundred hives at locations around the county, including the Ojai Valley, Camarillo and Santa Paula. “It was the first time in many years.”

He called it a “small scale theft,” of less than a 100 hives. A police report was filed and he will be keeping an eye out for those hives. After that incident he received a call from a Ventura County Sheriff’s deputy informing Mitchell that two suspicious men were looking at a spot where some of his hives were placed. The officer told Mitchell the men were Russian, and told him they were “looking for wild bees.” They got in their car and left. The mention of the men being Russian was particularly interesting to Mitchell because in 2017, a Russian-Ukranian bee thief was arrested for what was called the largest hive theft in state history. Hundreds of hives valued at almost $1 million were stolen.

“It just ticks me off; I know how expensive it is to run bees,” he said regarding a large theft about two months ago near Bakersfield of several hundred hives from Arkansas. “The guy was in tears.” Even though hive theft has always been a part of beekeeping, Mitchell explains that today there is an increasing impact due to rising costs.

“The difference now is the cost of rebuilding those hives. As a business expense, everything just keeps going up, and we are all not making that much more,” said Mitchell.

Having 100 hives stolen, a large theft, means a loss of income of about $100,000 minimum. That can be “catastrophic” to a beekeeper, said Mitchell. Climate change exacerbates the problem.

“If you know how our climate has changed . . . the drought that we just went through. Water in the creeks in the Sespe just disappeared. Now, after the rain, things are flowing again, but look at Lake Casitas, it didn’t go up diddly squat. We are nowhere close to being out of this drought. But in a year like this, with all the rain, bees do so good, we are having incredible honey production.”