Nefarious Criminals Can’t Stop Stealing Bee Hives
Apiarists gone rogue are making thousands of dollars on pilfered honey and hives, and police have no idea how to stop them
Bill Boyle loved his bees. At his upstate residence in Cochecton, New York, the amateur apiarist never had any reservations donning the signature off-white jumpsuit and entering the fenced-off gates up the road, where his four beehives were housed. Their caretaker's duties involved watching for signs of disease, feeding his swarms if necessary, and making sure there was enough space for new combs. In exchange for his diligent husbandry, the bees rewarded Boyle with pounds of golden honey.
But this past April, while Boyle was at his main home in Brooklyn, the hives disappeared. A crook visited the property during the dead of night, likely having previously spotted the unguarded hives while driving along Highway 97, and successfully pilfered two of the four crate-shaped, 60-pound hives.
"I jokingly refer to the hives as 'my girls,'" Boyle said, alluding to the fact that the majority of beehive populations are female. "It’s not quite like having a dog, but there was an emotional attachment."
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It's a rough time to be an American beekeeper. In addition to colony collapse disorder and human-driven threats to apiculture, honey burglars are outright stealing hives. Last year in California's Central Valley, thieves were pilfering apiarists' equipment and honey left-and-right in 2016, with NPR reporting that over 1,700 hives had been stolen that year by mid-June. (One of the biggest busts came this year, after police apprehended Pavel Tveretinov, a 51-year-old beekeeper from Sacramento, responsible for over 2,500 hive thefts, worth around $875,000.) And these days, the hunger for honeybee profit is expanding: Beekeepers in upstate New York, Canadian cities like Victoriaville and Ottawa, and down under in New Zealand, are being marauded by a buzz of criminals attracted by targets with low perceived risks and high rewards.
Laypeople (and police administrative workers taking calls regarding stolen hives) might laugh at the concept, but Jim Doan, an apiarist in Rochester, New York, said this is an industry with thousands of dollars in potential profit, especially when it comes to the “black market.” If stolen hives are still buzzing with life, Doan estimates that they can be rented out to pollinate farmers' crops, with almonds fetching the highest rate at around $150-200 per hive.
This was not the case with Boyle, as his stolen hives were lifeless; his bees hadn’t survived the winter. Still, according to Doan, that doesn't mean his equipment and frames were worthless—far from it. The honey tucked away in the structures’ combs, when jarred and labeled, could be sold at the local farmers’ market for $10-$15 per pound, right under their original owner’s nose. (With each holding approximately 40 pounds of honey, Boyle's hives could have fetched at least $400). Meanwhile, Boyle's box and frames, which run a few hundred dollars each, can be resold to other beekeepers, to be repopulated with their own bees.
"You get set back substantially—$350 for hive kit, $100-150 for the bees,” Boyle said, “but the worst part is the [following] season. You can’t harvest anything because the bees still have to build out the honeycomb." While he can still repopulate the remaining two hives, the theft has severely undermined his goal of supplying his family with their own honey.
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A few hundred bucks and a years’ setback on a honey harvest is a big disappointment to hobbyists like Boyle, but large scale beekeepers have made headlines for losing upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars in honey or hives. Mark Berninghausen, the president of Empire State Honey Producers Association, Inc., a statewide beekeeper commercial organization, and a victim of beehive theft himself, noted that "nationally, there seems to be an uptick in the occurrence."
"It happens, it makes one angry," Berninghausen said, but concluded that there's "not a whole lot that one can do about it." And it doesn’t help that catching and prosecuting these criminals is a near-impossible task.
To steal from a beekeeper, one has to think like a beekeeper, which means that hive thefts are most likely an inside job, or committed by apiarists gone rogue. Doan explained that only someone in the industry would know not only how lucrative beehives are, but how to remove the masses of honey and wax, which weigh dozens of pounds, in a short amount of time and without making a scene. (Also, if the hives are live and active, they would know how to avoid waking and enraging thousands of bees.) Boyle, similarly, thinks his perp was someone familiar with beekeeping within his geographic vicinity.
"My guess is it's somebody whose significant part of their income is dependent on bees," Boyle said. "And if they’re losing bees, and a lot of bees died out, I think you’re hitting the nail on the head to say they know they’ve already got full deep hives, filled with honey, ready to go, and all the comb built out. They get right in and go for it."
Admittedly, not everyone is onboard with the idea that a human might have stolen Boyle's bees. When asked about it, Jim Kile, a beekeeper of eighty years in Sullivan County, which includes Cochecton, was skeptical of Boyle's thief.
"I haven't heard of any beehive thefts, but we do have a bear problem," Kile said, suggesting that a hungry bear may have taken off with the hives. But there wasn't any damage suggesting a gargantuan mammal lusting for honey took Boyle’s hive, and when he had called the Sullivan County Beekeeper Association to look into the possibility of burglary, Don Bertholf, Jr., the current president, informed him that a similar theft had occurred not long ago. In that case, however, the thief had taken off with over a dozen hives.
“We’re all friends, and we know each other,” Bertholf said of the local beekeepers. “It’d be terrible to think that someone might be stealing from the rest of us.”
It'd be nice to imagine Boyle reunited with his girls, but Doan said that even after filing an official police report, it's unlikely that Boyle will get them back, much less restitution for his losses. Enforcing hive theft might require getting intimately close with boxes containing thousands of deafening bees, and Doan believes that even the toughest cops are scared to come near hives. So, if somebody is transporting a stolen beehive, they're less likely to get busted than a drug mule. And the only ones who really suffer are the beekeepers (not to mention the frightened bees who subsequently die from mishandling).
But a larger problem, Doan added, is that "the police really don't know where to look. It's one of those crimes that disappears. I could have bees here today in New York, and have them in Florida by tomorrow night.”
In the case of the Cochecton beehive thief, Doan might be right. When SAVEUR reached out to the Sullivan County Police Department for comment on the theft, Undersheriff Eric Chaboty, who had not spoken with Boyle, was astonished at the idea that people would even steal bees.
Since April, Boyle has made efforts to help catch the perp, contacting local beekeeper associations, nearby shops selling equipment, and beekeepers at the nearby farmers' market. But while the thief may still be at large, Boyle has pressed on with his beekeeping hobby. At the end of May, he had posted a video on Instagram, and on that sunny day, a crop of his new "girls" flickered across the screen.
"New hives #back in business," the post read. The sound of ecstatic buzzes rang out.