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.
The Butte County Sheriff's Office said on Feb. 2 it obtained "information that over 500 beehives have been reported stolen in two separate incidents which took place in two neighboring counties over the last two weeks." One instance involved 280 hives on Jan. 30 in Colusa County, while the other was about 200 hives stolen in Butte County.
Freeman said another bee theft in the county, on Feb. 4, involved 64 beehives valued at about $20,000. He said an arrest has been made outside the county for that case.
Authorities believe some of the recent thefts are the work of other beekeepers, since they have involved common beekeeping equipment such as flatbed trucks and forklifts. The thefts typically happen at night, when the colonies are resting in their hives.
"You do have to know what you're doing, but it is easy," Freeman said. "It's obvious that it's another beekeeper."
Sutter County Sheriff's Lt. Bruce Hutchinson said investigators are looking for suspects in the Jan. 18 theft of nearly 300 boxes of beehives from a farm. "The total loss was $98,000. We don't have any leads at this point," he said.
"The thievery problem is getting totally out of hand," said Joy Pendell, spokeswoman for the California State Beekeepers Association. "The number might be pushing 1,000 (beehives)."
According to Pendell, there's already "a bit of a shortage" of hives for crop pollination, due in part to some diseases and maladies, such as varroa mites, that have hurt the honey bees. What's more, she said: "Brokers are looking the other way and don't want to know if those hives are stolen. There are newcomers to the industry because of the prices."
Last week, the association offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of bee thieves.
Bee rustlers also have targeted Kern County, the No. 2 farming county in the Golden State.
"We lost a couple hundred hives in Bakersfield," said beekeeper Jack Wickerd, co-owner of the Happie Bee Co. "They were wintering out in a field. There were more than 400 hives stolen the night before at another location before they took ours."
Wickerd, whose company operates in Kern and Riverside counties, estimates the theft of 207 hives last month was a $36,000 loss. When factoring in what the bees could have made, that figure is "close to $100,000," he said. And he isn't hopeful the perpetrator will be caught: "That would be nice but I'm not holding my breath."