Ever been robbed? I have. It’s a pretty sick feeling when you realize that someone has broken in and taken your stuff. Imagine how a Montana beekeeper felt when he entered his apiary to work his bees but almost 500 colonies were gone. Man, that’s gotta hurt.
But finally some good news from the world of bee rustling. Someone was caught. A full semi-load of bees (488 colonies) were lifted from Montana beekeeper Lloyd Cunniff’s operation while his bees visited California for almond pollination. Ag agents found the bees (estimated value $170,000) in a Fresno County cow pasture and drainage ditch. His were among ten other big bee thefts reported in seven California counties this spring.
Pulling off a bee theft isn’t easy. At this scale, the thief has to be a commercial beekeeper with appropriate off-road forklifts, a flat-bed semi, and some bee knowledge. You can see what loading bees looks like – that’s me on the trailer in this picture. My bees and I were preparing to leave Florida, heading for northern clovers.
Big bee thefts take two or more people, and someone is always more willing to talk than go to prison. And the stolen property is usually easy to recognize. Although most beekeepers use similar Langstroth hives, most modify their equipment, many have unusual home-made pallets, operate 8-frame, or 10-frame, or double-deeps or triple-Illinois depths. Hives could be painted white, silver, camo, or rainbow. They are unique. Once stolen, beehives are hard to hide, even in drainage canals. Someone’s going to notice. Finally, commercial guys brand their wooden equipment with a hot wood-burning tool that engraves their name, initials, or other marks. Frames, hive bodies, maybe even lids and pallets get branded.
My oldest brother was once stopped by state troopers while he was hauling is own bees on his own rig. The cop wanted his ‘Bill of Lading’ to identify whose bees were being trucked down the highway.
“Don’t have one. There’s no sale, so no bill of lading. These are my own bees and hives.”
“Can you prove that?”
“Well, they are all branded.”
My brother meant that all the bee equipment was branded. The trooper thought he meant that all the bees were branded and the cop wasn’t going to start checking each one, so he let him go. Besides, maybe my brother looked honest.
Meanwhile, back in Choteau, Montana, a couple hundred miles south of my home in Calgary, Mr Cunniff reaquired most of his stolen hives last weekend. He put them in separate apiaries, away from his other hives, in case they came back to him with diseases or mites. But already he has lost a lot – he likely would have managed them better than the thief had. The Montana honey season is coming soon with alfalfa and sweet clover already opening. These bees, though finally back in their owner’s hands, won’t produce as well as his other colonies will.
One of my early mentors, Josip Benko, (he’s Croatian) was robbed of 100 hives in Temecula CA a couple years ago. The hives are permanently on avocados and citrus. The thieves employed a different system, apparently not wanting to get his branded woodware—they placed net bags over the top of each hive and drove the bees out with repellents. A neighbor became suspicious seeing work in the grove late at night and called police, but the robbers got away before anyone showed up. Josip’s colonies were destroyed—lots of brood dying and few bees when he made it there from where he lives in San Pedro.
That’s a rather ambitious way to destroy a man’s livelihood, isn’t it?
I kept bees in Florida for about ten years back in the 70s and 80s. At the time, a ring of bee thieves picked up hives at night, shook the bees out into their own equipment, extracted all the honey they found, melted the combs for wax, and then burned everything in a big pit. By morning they had a couple drums of honey and some blocks of wax. The chief apiary inspector told us about these guys. They were eventually caught (someone always talks) and several of them went to prison. But that didn’t undo the damage done.
unbelievable they got all that work done in a night!! must’ve had quite a crew
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Some follow-up. An NBC story has identified the alleged thief as “a Russian Ukrainian” who was running a beehive ‘chop shop’. A beekeeper spotted hives belonging to a friend amid the jumble and police moved in. (“Someone always talks.”) Mr Cunniff’s hives had been spray painted, but were still identifiable. It turns out Cunniff lost an estimated $400,000 altogether while the entire theft – including hives lost by nine other parties – was about one million dollars.
Here’s the NBC link: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/great-california-bee-heist-authorities-identify-russian-ukrainian-suspect-n759886
Thank you for the article, Ron. I thought you would enjoy the local coverage of the bees, once they arrived safely back home in MT, under the very watchful eye and caring hands of my brother Lloyd.
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Thanks, Courtney, for sharing the news about the arrival of the stolen bees back where they belong. Best wishes to you and your brother Lloyd and our hopes for a bumper crop.
The KFBB piece says this, “…they are basically starting over. Lloyd said a number of other beekeepers in the area along with friends and family helped them get back into business. He hopes they can salvage most, if not all the recovered hives… The Cunniff bees are home and will be checked on all summer. Should they make it through the season Lloyd said he is going to be one happy beekeeper.”