Nothing is more important to a robust almond harvest than a bee, so much so that farmers pay top dollar to borrow the pesky buggers for a growing season. But this year, soaring bee rental fees for California's $6 billion almond crop are attracting a swarm of recent hive heists and leading to stinging losses for beekeepers.
It also has created angst for some nut growers as they cope with higher costs and scramble to secure enough honeybee colonies in their orchards for the almond pollination process that begins this month.
"It seems to be picking up this year," said Butte County Sheriff's Detective Jay Freeman, who has been tracking recent bee thefts. "That could be due to the increased prices and pollination fees and also a shortage of bees coming into California as well."
At least a half dozen honeybee thefts have been reported this year in five counties — Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Kern and Sutter. Some beekeepers have estimated their losses could reach $100,000 for the theft of hundreds of hives they rent out to pollinate almonds and other crops.
To discourage and trace theft, honeybee boxes, lids and pallets in use typically have distinctive markings or hive frames branded with official numbers. It's not unusual for thieves to paint over the markings or simply transfer the bees to new containers. And there is usually no GPS device on the crates.
Once the hives are stolen, they usually end up getting rented or sold to a broker, according to industry insiders. Sometimes they are disgruntled workers or beekeepers down on their luck with dead hives and take others to make up for their losses.
The thefts come as nearly 90 percent of all commercial beehives in the U.S. — about 1.8 million hives — come to California and pollinate the state's more than 800,000 acres of almonds. The state's almond pollination season typically starts the second or third week of February.
"This is really prime time for beekeepers in California because the almond trees are going to pop into bloom in the next couple of weeks," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "As almond acreage has increased, there's been more demand obviously."
Beekeepers are charging almond pollination fees of as much as $200 to rent a single beehive this season. That's as much as five times the rate charged in 2004, according to industry experts. Some of the bees used for California's almonds get trucked all the way from the East Coast.
"Demand is so strong in California that there's no way that they can supply them domestically here," said Mark Borba, who farms nuts and other crops in California's Central Valley. Borba is getting some of his beehives this year from Michigan, Florida and Idaho.