Rise of the Bee Thieves

Cupid honey thief Durer

Dürer’s Honey Thief

Hive theft has been around ever since there were beehives and beekeepers. For example, the classic watercolour of Cupid, the Honey Thief, by Dürer was painted in 1514. Jumping ahead just a little, during the early 1980s, when I bee-kept in Saskatchewan (summers) and Florida (winters), an inordinate number of hives began disappearing in south Florida. Turned out that a beekeeper with a serious drug problem was stealing hives at night, taking them to his farm, shaking the bees into his own boxes, extracting the honey, melting the wax, then burning all the stolen branded equipment. By morning, there was nothing to show of the stolen bees except a drum or two of honey, some blocks of wax, and a pile of ashes in his burning pit.

With honey bees dropping like flies from CCD, pesticides, malnutrition, or poor beekeeping, bee thefts are back in the news again. Some beekeepers can’t resist repopulating their hives with other people’s bees. Bee rustling is about the same as cattle rustling. Darkness, daring, and the right equipment are all the thief needs. Experience is useful – the bee robbers are always beekeepers. They know the value of what they are taking, know how to load the illicit cargo, and know what to do with the bees once they have them.

Someone ran off with 30 hives on the outskirts of Calgary this spring, but this is not just a local problem. A news report from France tells of 61 colonies (worth 60,000 Euros) stolen in Loire and recovered hundreds of kilometres away in Brittany. In Australia, The Guardian tells about a dozen hives stolen near Ipswich while the BBC mentions “45,000 bees, 3 queens, along with 3 honeycomb frames” stolen in Craichie, Scotland and a separate theft of “6 queens and 18 honeycomb frames” from a farm in Coupar Angus last week. Similar robberies have been reported in California and near Houston, Texas, in the USA. Bee theft is tough to stop – most beekeepers keep their bees in fields and orchards far from their own homes. Landowners might not be concerned about a late evening bee truck visiting the property somewhere in the woods behind their home, thinking it is the owner/beekeeper moving some hives, not suspecting it is a bee thief. Usually the legitimate owner can prevent theft if the hives are behind locked fences. Branding the wooden parts helps, but as I mentioned earlier, a really desperate thief may simply remove the good parts and burn the wood.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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