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MIKE HEATH

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS2.A

CCSS: Writing: 3

TEKS: 6.12D, 7.12A, 8.2E, B.10B, B.12A, E.4G

Sting Operation

Bee thefts are on the rise in California. What’s behind the crime wave?

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT why farmers depend on bees to grow certain crops.

Kamron Koehnen had been robbed. During the night, thieves had snuck onto his property in Ord Bend, California, and made off with more than $2,000 worth of loot. The crooks hadn’t stolen money, electronics, or jewelry—they’d snatched 14 boxes of live honeybees. “Each of those hives was worth about $150,” says Koehnen.

Koehnen’s family has been raising bees for generations. They also grow almonds, a crop that depends on the bees for pollination. The bees visit the family’s almond flowers to drink their sweet nectar. As they do, powdery pollen grains get stuck to the bees’ fuzzy legs and transferred between flowers. That allows the trees to make the nuts they need to reproduce. Farmers harvest these nuts for people to eat (see Pollination 101).

Kamron Koehnen had been robbed. During the night, thieves had snuck onto his property in Ord Bend, California. They’d taken more than $2,000 worth of loot. The crooks hadn’t stolen money, electronics, or jewelry. Instead, they’d grabbed 14 boxes of live honeybees. “Each of those hives was worth about $150,” says Koehnen.

Koehnen’s family has been raising bees for generations. They also grow almonds. This crop depends on the bees for pollination. The bees drink sweet nectar from the family’s almond flowers. As bees visit the flowers, powdery pollen grains stick to their fuzzy legs. The bees carry the pollen between flowers. That allows the trees to make nuts. Trees need the nuts to reproduce, and farmers pick the nuts for people to eat (see Pollination 101).

SCOTT SMITH/AP PHOTO

WORKER BEES: Commercial hives are made up of stacked wooden boxes containing removable frames on which bees build honeycombs.

Farmers who don’t raise their own bees rent hives to pollinate their crops. As a result, hive thefts have become a huge issue. Thieves nab the bees and then rent out their pollination services to make a quick buck. With rental fees per hive reaching about $200, a farmer can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on bees per year. “A lot of people don’t understand why someone would want to steal beehives,” says Rowdy Jay Freeman, a beekeeper and deputy sheriff in Butte County, California. “It’s all about money.”

Freeman and other California rural crime investigators are working to crack down on the increasing number of hive thefts. But it’s not an easy job. Officers must rely on tips from members of the community and the few clues left at crime scenes—both of which would prove vital in solving Koehnen’s case.

Some farmers don’t raise their own bees. Instead, they rent hives to pollinate their crops. That’s why hive thefts have become a huge problem. Thieves steal the bees. Then they rent out their pollination services to make fast money. Rental fees reach about $200 per hive, so a farmer can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on bees per year. Rowdy Jay Freeman is a beekeeper and deputy sheriff in Butte County, California. “A lot of people don’t understand why someone would want to steal beehives,” he says. “It’s all about money.”

The number of hive thefts is increasing. Freeman and other California rural crime investigators are working to crack down on the problem. But it’s not an easy job. Officers need tips from members of the community. They also look at the few clues left at crime scenes. Both of these would be needed to solve Koehnen’s case.

IMPORTANT INSECTS

Honeybees pollinate about a third of the produce people eat, from apples to zucchini. Beekeepers truck their bees all over the U.S. to pollinate crops during different parts of the year. California’s almond season lasts for about four weeks in February and March. During that time, an estimated 85 percent of all honeybees raised in the U.S. help pollinate more than 1 million acres of almond trees in bloom.

Almonds are a valuable crop, and their production has soared in recent years. Beekeepers have struggled to supply enough bees for farmers’ needs. Along with growing demand, beekeepers face new challenges in maintaining healthy hives (see Inside a Hive). Bee colonies are increasingly being devastated by diseases, parasites like mites, and toxic pesticides. Now, on top of these issues, comes a growing wave of thefts.

Honeybees pollinate everything from apples to zucchini. In fact, they pollinate about a third of the produce people eat. Beekeepers truck their bees all over the U.S. to pollinate crops at different times of year. California’s almond season lasts for about four weeks in February and March. About 85 percent of all honeybees raised in the U.S. take on the job. They help pollinate more than 1 million acres of blooming almond trees.

Almonds are a valuable crop. Lately, their production has shot up. Beekeepers are struggling to supply enough bees for farmers’ needs. Besides growing demand, beekeepers face other challenges. They need to keep their hives healthy (see Inside a Hive). But diseases are destroying more and more bee colonies. So are toxic pesticides and parasites like mites. Now, a growing number of thefts add to these problems.

CRACKING THE CASE

LUCAS FOGLIA

It’s often impossible for police to catch hive-stealing crooks, since they’re quick to hide evidence of their crimes. The thieves sand off and paint over owners’ personal brands or unique registration numbers burned into the wood on bee boxes. Then thieves can pass the hives off as their own. Thankfully in Koehnen’s case, officers had a lead. The crooks had left behind an important clue when they fled the scene: tire tracks. The marks indicated that the thieves’ getaway vehicle had been pulling a small trailer. And it just so happened that a local citizen had reported seeing a suspicious trailer stacked with bee boxes in front of a house in the nearby town of Biggs.

Deputy Freeman visited the house. He noticed that some of the boxes were still branded with “42-14,” identifying them as Koehnen’s. The trailer was also attached to a Jeep Wrangler with tires that matched the tracks found at the crime scene. Freeman questioned the suspects at the house, who claimed they’d bought the bees from someone else and didn’t know they were stolen. Based on the evidence, Freeman didn’t think they were telling the truth. He arrested them and took them to jail. They were charged with possession of stolen property.

Often, police can’t catch the thieves who steal hives. The crooks quickly hide evidence of their crimes. Owners of bee boxes burn their own brands or registration numbers into the wood. The thieves sand off the markings and paint over them. Then they pass the hives off as their own. But in Koehnen’s case, officers had a lead. When the crooks fled the scene, they left behind an important clue. It was tire tracks. The marks showed that the thieves’ getaway vehicle had been pulling a small trailer. And a local citizen had reported a suspicious trailer stacked with bee boxes. It was in front of a house in the nearby town of Biggs.

Deputy Freeman visited the house. Some of the boxes were still branded with “42-14.” That marked them as Koehnen’s. The trailer was attached to a Jeep Wrangler. And the Jeep’s tires matched the tracks at the crime scene. Freeman questioned the suspects at the house. They said they’d bought the bees from someone else and didn’t know they were stolen. Based on the evidence, Freeman didn’t believe them. He arrested them and took them to jail. They were charged with possession of stolen property.

LUCAS FOGLIA

FARMERS’ FRIENDS: Beekeepers release bees into almond orchards to help the plants produce almonds.

Koehnen was angry about the theft, but also grateful that more of his hives hadn’t been stolen. “A while back, we got hit by thieves who stole 240 hives,” he says. “That was a bad year.” Between 2014 and 2017, California experienced a surge in bee-related crimes. Hundreds of hives were being swiped at a time in different locations. Officers thought someone had to be coordinating the heists.

In 2017, not too long after that year’s almond bloom, detectives in Fresno received a report about a vacant lot on the outskirts of the city littered with bee boxes of different colors, shapes, and brands. The officers investigated and arrested a man at the scene. After following additional leads in the case, they tracked down more than 2,500 stolen beehives worth an estimated $875,000. Some of the recovered equipment was labeled with Koehnen’s brand. “We got about 80 of our hives back,” he says.

Koehnen was angry about the theft. But he was also grateful that more of his hives hadn’t been stolen. “A while back, we got hit by thieves who stole 240 hives,” he says. “That was a bad year.” Between 2014 and 2017, bee-related crimes rose in California. Thieves were taking hundreds of hives at a time in different places. Officers thought someone had to be organizing the crimes.

Not too long after the 2017 almond bloom, detectives in Fresno got a tip. Bee boxes of different colors, shapes, and brands were in an empty lot just outside the city. The officers went there and arrested a man at the scene. Then they followed other leads in the case. They tracked down more than 2,500 stolen beehives worth around $875,000. Some of the recovered boxes were marked with Koehnen’s brand. “We got about 80 of our hives back,” he says.

CATCHING FUTURE CROOKS

Despite some convictions, beehive theft continues to grow, says Freeman. “As long as the pollination fees are high, people will steal bees.” He advises beekeepers to mark hives with a state registration number, their company’s name, and a phone number.

Koehnen has gone a step further, tagging his bee boxes with tiny GPS trackers. These devices use satellite networks to provide information about the hives’ location. If moved, the hives’ trackers send Koehnen a text notification. “He’s on guard every night during bee season,” says his wife, Julie. “He keeps his phone on the nightstand. If it goes off while we’re sleeping, we know someone’s stealing.”

Some thieves have been caught and convicted. But beehive theft remains a growing problem, says Freeman. “As long as the pollination fees are high, people will steal bees.” He tells beekeepers to clearly mark their hives. They should include a registration number from the state, their company’s name, and a phone number.

Koehnen has gone a step further. He tags his bee boxes with tiny GPS trackers. These devices use satellite networks to locate the hives. If the hives are moved, the trackers send Koehnen a text message. “He’s on guard every night during bee season,” says his wife, Julie. “He keeps his phone on the nightstand. If it goes off while we’re sleeping, we know someone’s stealing.” 

LUCAS FOGLIA

CRIME SCENE: Officer Freeman examines tire tracks on Koehnen’s property left by the bee thieves’ getaway vehicle.