updated 3/22/2004 12:57:28 PM ET 2004-03-22T17:57:28

Hoping to foil a wave of bee poaching, almond growers who use the insects to pollinate their orchards are turning to modern technology — tagging the hives with microchips.

A rise in the price of honey and a shortage of bees has fueled the outbreak of poaching in the Central Valley, where many of the state's almond orchards are located.

Bakersfield beekeeper Joe Traynor came up with the idea of combining the hives and chips after watching a television show in which scientists tagged fish and other animals as a means of identification.

"It was an obvious correlation," he said. "If we put these chips in the hives, it discourages people. The thieves will move down the road."

So this season, white cardboard signs have begun appearing in almond groves across the Central Valley bearing this warning: "Beehives on this property are permanently identified with AVID microchips."

Because of a spike in the price of honey, many beekeepers have moved to honey production and away from pollination. And the wildfires that blazed through southern California last fall also took their toll, destroying thousands of hives at one of the state's largest beekeepers near San Diego.

As a result, California is home to 530,000 acres of almond orchards but only 500,000 beehives — and almonds require two hives per acre to be properly pollinated.

Hives for rent
The shortage of hives has become so severe that some beekeepers travel from as far as Arkansas to bring their bees to California for just a few weeks. A quality hive rents for as much as $60 for the season and some expect the price to jump 10 to 20 percent next year. A beehive is worth anywhere from $65 to $140 depending on its quality.

About eight hive thefts have been reported so far this season in Stanislaus County, but police said many beekeepers don't bother to report thefts because they don't think investigators can do anything to catch the poachers.

"It's one of the toughest crimes to investigate," said detective Jeff Reed of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, noting the difficulty of patrolling so much acreage — particularly late at night, when most of the thefts occur.

Last year, Hughson beekeeper Orin Johnson lost 64 hives. Although 56 were recovered, the bees weren't well cared for and 16 of the hives were no good. The poacher was caught and convicted of a felony and sentenced to nine months in jail. He was also ordered to pay $6,000 in restitution.

"It's like having your home broken into," Johnson said. "It's not the boxes and bees, but it's the labor and effort. Someone stole my work from me."

Johnson wouldn't say what strategy he's using this year to deter thieves, but he said he does see potential in the microchips.

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