In California, the hunt for bee thieves

The modern American West was built on countless stories of animals massacred or pillaged: bison slaughtered by the millions, wolves eliminated, horses stolen, cattle stolen. Today, a completely different type of animal crime is booming: bee theft.

Every year, the blossoming of thousands of almond trees in California leads to one of the largest animal migrations, albeit artificial: billions of bees are loaded onto trucks and sent to the state for their beekeepers to collect lucrative pollination fees . This insect odyssey guarantees remuneration for beekeepers, often in difficulty, ensures most of the world’s almond production and is increasingly becoming a boon for enterprising thieves.

Facing these beekeeping thieves is Rowdy Freeman, a police officer in Butte County, in the Central Valley, California. This taciturn police officer with angular features and a shaved head, himself a beekeeper, says he is amazed that the theft of hives has become so frequent.

By 2023, according to his calculations, a record number of more than 2,300 bee hives will have been stolen from the Central Valley. In 2024, Rowdy has already recorded nearly 2,000 hive thefts (during the first quarter). Despite the scale of this crime, Rowdy is usually the only police officer working with beekeepers to track down hives and their thieves.

“I’m trying to get reinforcements because this has become a huge and uncontrollable problem,” Rowdy explains. California has units specializing in the fight against horse or cow theft, but none exist for bees, he notes, not without a touch of jealousy and frustration.

Horses and cattle may precede bees in flight, but the scale of the phenomenon is very different here. In the Central Valley, huge areas have been lined with almond trees in tight rows. The annual budding of these highly prized fruit trees and their need for pollination means that about nine out of ten commercial hives must be brought to the region from all corners of the United States.

For a time at the beginning of each year, the Central Valley transforms into a sort of immense mechanized bee festival, when heavy trucks carrying several million hives pass through this monoculture zone and deposit their cargo in the orchards to propagate the insects.

Some 54 billion bees

We are used to gatherings of sheep and cows. But as for the numbers – 2.7 million hives, according to Jacob Wenger, an entomologist at California State University at Fresno, a low estimate of 54 billion bees to sustain the almond harvest in 2024 –, the annual abundance of bees in California is unparalleled.

“It feels like we’re reading an old western about moving 7,000 head of cattle across the high plains,” says Jacob Wenger.

“But even then, we weren’t talking about 90 percent of the cattle in the United States.”

In January, Victor Lazo, who has been caring for bees in the Houston area for ten years, sent about 4,000 colonies to the Central Valley. After truck drivers dropped off these hives in an orchard, the beekeeper arrived to find that an entire row – 168 hives – was missing.

Clandestine universe

“At first I thought the guys had installed them in the wrong place,” says Victor. His hives were not equipped with geolocation beacons (a technical trick used by some beekeepers), but the heavy truck was. And his GPS indicated that he had stopped at the right place. The hives had therefore disappeared into the clandestine world of apid thieves and they would undoubtedly reappear under another appearance, once sold to a farmer or to supplement the weakened numbers of another a

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