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California is filled with almond orchards but not enough bees to pollinate the crops. The situation has created a motive for desperate beekeepers to steal from their neighbours, Tamsin McMahon reports

Beekeeeper Jeff Anderson checks on his beehives.

When Jeff Anderson pulled up to the bee yard southeast of Sacramento, Calif., to check on his hives, it took him a minute to process that something was amiss.

A third-generation beekeeper who splits his time between winters in California and summers in Minnesota, Mr. Anderson was getting ready for the almond bloom, when roughly two-thirds of all the commercial beehives in the United States are trucked to California to pollinate the more than 1.2 million acres of almond orchards in the state.

He was on a conference call on his cellphone when he noticed patches of bare pavement among the pallets stacked with hives that he had laid across an abandoned road behind two locked gates. "It dawns on me that I should be up close to the bees and I'm not," he recalled of the brisk January day two years ago.

Thieves had made off with 96 of Mr. Anderson's hives, leaving behind a muddy winter glove and sets of tire tracks, which Mr. Anderson believes were made by a skid loader, a piece of heavy equipment. In total, Mr. Anderson estimates he was out almost $50,000 (U.S.) in lost income from the contract to rent the hives to an almond grower and the cost of replacing the stolen bees and equipment.

Beehive theft has exploded in recent years in California. Police estimate thieves have made off with about 2,000 hives across the state so far this year, after more than 1,500 went missing last year.

Rising almond prices have enticed farmers to devote more of their land to the crop, pushing up the rates to rent bees from about $150 per hive in 2013 to as much as $220 today. And beekeepers point to the high numbers of bee deaths, which have made it more expensive to maintain colonies and have created another motive for desperate beekeepers to steal from their neighbours.

A healthy hive, filled with worker bees near Stockton, Calif.

California grows roughly 80 per cent of the world's supply of almonds. With so many almond orchards and not enough bees to pollinate the crops, the industry attracts thousands of beekeepers from across the country each year. They typically ship their hives to California every winter and store them in remote fields until the almond pollination season starts early in the year, making the hives easy prey for thieves.

"It created a lot of financial incentive for crooked beekeepers or crooked orchardists," Mr. Anderson said. "When you've got that many bees out there – and a lot of them look very similar – it's easy for stuff to just disappear."

Beehive thefts have become such a problem that last year the state legislature passed a law allowing beekeepers to sue thieves for three times their losses from theft and vandalism, giving bees the same status as cattle and other livestock. And the California State Beekeepers Association is offering a $10,000 reward for information about bee theft that leads to a conviction.

California beekeepers finally got a big break in late June when police charged a Sacramento beekeeper with running what is believed to be the largest beehive-theft operation in the state's history.

Investigators raided a bee yard in Fresno and found 2,500 hives, worth almost $1-million, that had been stolen from at least 10 different locations around the state. The hives had been disassembled and painted over, with identifying numbers ground off in what police are calling a "beehive chop shop."

Pavel Tveretinov, 51, of Sacramento is one of two men charged after police discovered nearly $1-million (U.S.) worth of stolen beehives stashed on properties around Fresno, Calif. Fresno County Sheriff's office

Pavel Tveretinov, 51, and his alleged business associate, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, 48, have been charged with multiple counts of receiving stolen property. Both have pleaded not guilty and were released on bail, with Mr. Tveretinov under a court order not to possess any bees. If convicted, they could face up to a decade behind bars.

"A beekeeper thief – I mean, it doesn't get much lower than that," said Kamron Koehnen. Early last year, thieves made off with 240 of Mr. Koehnen's hives, stealing bees from two locations.

His operations had already been suffering through a bad year, after mites killed off a significant number of his bees, when he got a call from one of his workers that his hives had gone missing. "At that point your heart just sinks," he said.

He recovered roughly a quarter of the hives, in various pieces, from the bee yard that police raided in Fresno, about four hours south of where they were stolen. But most are still missing.

Beekeepers point to the shifting economics of California's almond industry and the rising cost of keeping bees alive for making bees an attractive target for thieves.

Several of the thousands of recovered beehives stolen in California are shown in this May 16, 2017, photo near Sanger, Calif.

Widespread bee deaths have more than doubled the price that almond growers pay to rent beehives since what is known as colony collapse disorder began plaguing the beekeeping industry about a decade ago, says Vernon Crowder, an agricultural economist and former senior vice-president at Rabobank who is based in Fresno. "Some [beekeepers] will just start hives over every year," he said. "They just literally rebuild hives in the fall for the new season."

While U.S. beekeepers have been able to maintain a large enough bee population to meet demand from farmers, a high number of bee deaths – from parasitic mites, changing use of pesticides and a shift toward monoculture farming that has eliminated some of the plants that bees typically use for food – have raised costs for the industry.

"It's hard to keep bees alive right now," said Mr. Anderson, who won a 2005 legal challenge over pesticide use in Minnesota and was the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful California lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year.

So hard, in fact, that it has pushed some beekeepers to become thieves. In 2015, a beekeeper south of Modesto, Calif., was convicted of stealing bees from a neighbouring yard. He told the court he had invested all of his savings in his operation and panicked when all his bees suddenly died.

At the same time, the insatiable global demand for almonds has driven up prices, and the amount of land that California farmers devote to almond orchards has soared 50 per cent since 2010. Almonds are now California's most valuable export crop, ahead of wine, and the largest single crop in the U.S. that requires insect pollination.

"Everywhere you go up here and down the I-5 corridor, it's just almonds, almonds, almonds," Mr. Koehnen said. "There's that much less acreage for the bees to go forage on and now they expect us to come up with all these hives to pollinate for all these orchards."

The ever-expanding almond orchards have created an ever-expanding need for bees. California's almond industry requires roughly two million colonies to pollinate the trees. So every year beekeepers from as far away as Maine and Florida truck their bees into the state.

The Anderson family works among bee boxes in California.

Almonds are among the first crops of the year to bloom and do so for a short period – several weeks between January and March. Winter is also when bee populations are typically at their lowest, so beekeepers can charge far higher rates to almond growers.

Most of the bee thefts across California have occurred in late January and early February, when thieves can quickly turn around and contract out stolen hives to growers, collecting five- and six-figure pollination fees.

The annual migration of billions of bees into the state for almond pollination every winter also means no one bats an eye at strangers carting truckloads of beehives throughout California's Central Valley.

Some beekeepers have begun to change their practices because of the rash of thefts. Some out-of-state beekeepers have stopped bringing their hives to California in early winter, shipping them instead to Idaho to store them in potato sheds, then trucking them into the almond fields just in time for pollination season.

Mr. Koehnen is investing in GPS equipment that alerts him when his hives are being moved.

Mr. Anderson has installed motion-activated cameras in his bee yard and has changed his rental agreements so almond growers are responsible for his bees once they're placed in their orchards. Otherwise he risks being on the hook for lost almond crops if his bees are stolen or damaged during pollination season.

He even offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of stolen bees. But two years later he has received just two tips, both of them dead ends. While he's not losing sleep over his lost hives, he hopes the recent arrests in Fresno will finally put an end to bee thievery in California.

"If they get less than a wrist slap, which most of the bee thefts have been in the past, there won't be any deterrent," he said. "But if they get thrown in the slammer for 20 years plus a significant fine, it might give others pause before they follow the same route."