Beekeepers Feel The Sting Of California's Giant Beehive Heist : The Salt This year authorities uncovered a "beehive chop shop:" nearly $1 million in stolen hives in a field in Fresno County. There's money to be made by renting out bees to orchards, and thefts are rising.

Beekeepers Feel The Sting Of California's Great Hive Heist

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There's a crime problem in California's orchards - bee thefts. Hives are a target because farmers pay good money to rent them to pollinate their crops. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Seventy-one million. That's the number of bees Max Nikolaychuk tends in the rolling hills east of Fresno. Each is worth a fraction of a cent. Nikolaychuk's not wearing gloves or a bee suit while he's opening a hive.

MAX NIKOLAYCHUK: So that's all the baby eggs. Right over here we've got a whole bunch of larva.

ROMERO: For Nikolaychuk, stings are a regular thing. In fact, he just got stung.

NIKOLAYCHUK: Feels like I'm alive. Venom's good for you, you know?

ROMERO: Nikolaychuk isn't worried at all about bee stings. He's worried about bee thieves. He makes most of his money during almond pollination season, and this year a thief stole four stacks of his hives.

NIKOLAYCHUK: He knew about the bees because he went through every single bee colony I had and he took only the good ones. But, you know, like, the bee yards - I don't have security there. No fences.

ROMERO: That lack of security means he's had bees stolen more than once. Literally billions of bees are needed to pollinate California's almond crop. Not enough bees live in California year-round to do that, so they are trucked in from across the country from places like Colorado and Nebraska. And earlier this year, more than a million dollars' worth of stolen bees were found in a field in Fresno County.

ARLEY TERRENCE: Well, this was a beehive chop shop.

ROMERO: Sergeant Arley Terrence is with the Fresno County Sheriff's Office.

TERRENCE: There were so many different bee boxes and beehives owned by so many different victims. All of these stolen bee boxes that we recovered, none of them were stolen in Fresno County.

ROMERO: The bees were stolen from across California, but they belong to beekeepers from around the country, from places like Arizona and Montana. A few thousand bee boxes disappear every year. But this bee heist was different.

TERRENCE: And this is the biggest bee theft investigation that we've had. The bees that are stolen, most of the time our experience has been it's someone from within the bee community.

ROMERO: That was the case in the giant heist earlier this year. The alleged thief was a beekeeper from Sacramento who used the stolen bees for pollination and then stashed them on a plot of land in Fresno County. He was arrested and could face around 10 years of jail time. Steve Godlin with the California State Beekeepers Association says the problem gets worse every year.

STEVE GODLIN: There used to be a - kind of a code of honor that you didn't mess with another man's bees.

ROMERO: So this dude broke that code.

GODLIN: Oh, buddy, he went way, way over the line. And it's just, you know, heartbreaking when you go out and your bees are gone.

ROMERO: Godlin's using a forklift to move sage flower honey around his warehouse. He's had hives stolen in the past. For him, it's not just the bee rental fees that are lost when hives are stolen. It's also what the bees produce themselves.

GODLIN: So this is what it looks like. It's a big, sticky mess. So we've got to get this all out of these combs and into a barrel.

ROMERO: For many beekeepers, honey is a second income in addition to the pollination fees, so when bees are stolen they lose out on both sources of income. Godlin says it takes time to develop a new hive by introducing a new queen and developing honey.

GODLIN: Bees - you know, we have been hit by everything from vandals to bears to thieves. But the vandalism and the thieving is the worst, you know, the one that hurts the most.

ROMERO: Godlin says his organization will pay a reward of up to $10,000 for tips leading to the prosecution of bee thieves, but that only relieves some of the sting. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno.

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