The Rise Of The Bee Bandits

Where once there was cattle and horse rustling, the American West is now confronting the theft of its bees.

Alex Valentina for Noema Magazine

Oliver Milman is a New York-based environment correspondent for Guardian US.

The foundational story of the modern American West is riven with tales of animals slaughtered or plundered: bison gunned down by the million, wolves cast out, horses purloined, cattle rustled. Today, a rather different flavor of animal crime has become ascendent — the theft of bees.

Every year, the bloom of thousands of almond trees in California spurs one of the world’s largest, albeit artificial, migrations of animals; as billions of honeybees are loaded onto trucks and sent to deliver lucrative pollination fees for their human keepers. This insect odyssey ensures paydays for often struggling beekeepers, the production of most of the world’s almonds, and increasingly, an opportunity for enterprising thieves.

Standing in the way of the bee rustlers — often alone — is Rowdy Freeman, a deputy at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office in California’s Central Valley. Freeman is a steely sort of bee detective. Angular, with a shaved head and fond of wearing wrap-around sunglasses, the taciturn deputy is a beekeeper himself and is aghast at how hive thefts have become so ubiquitous.

Last year, according to Freeman calculations, a record of more than 2,300 honeybee hives were stolen in the Central Valley. This year’s thefts could easily surpass that number, with Freeman recording nearly 2,000 hives stolen already. Despite the growing scale of this crime, Freeman is typically the only law enforcement officer working with beekeepers to track the stolen hives and their thieves.

“I’m trying to get more help for this because it’s become a major problem, it’s getting out of control,” Freeman said. While California has state branches devoted to stamping out the theft of horses or cattle, no such task force exists for bees, he notes with no small amount of envy and frustration. The federal government is also uninterested in the issue, despite what Freeman describes as clear-cut evidence that stolen hives have been transported over state lines.

“It’s just me,” he said. “The state of California has done nothing to help.”

The Honeybee Era

Horses and cattle may be the antecedents to bees in terms of human thievery, but the scale involved here is very different. Farmers have carpeted huge swathes of prime Central Valley land with serried ranks of almond trees. The annual budding of this sought-after nut and its burgeoning pollination needs means up to roughly nine out of every 10 commercial honeybee hives must be sent here from all corners of the U.S.

For some time at the start of each year, the Central Valley becomes a sort of giant, mechanized jamboree of honeybees, with 18-wheelers and semis bearing several million hives traversing this monoculture and depositing their cargo in orchards to propagate the crop. We are accustomed to aggregating sheep and cows and, to a lesser degree at home, our cats and dogs. But in terms of the sheer numbers — 2.7 million hives, according to Wenger, or a lowball estimate of some 54 billion bees to support this year’s almond crop — there is little to compare to the annual seething mass of bees clustered in California outside of enthralling wild scenes like the African migration of wildebeest. 

“It makes you think you’re reading an old western about moving 7,000 head of cattle across the high plains,” said Jacob Wenger, an entomologist at California State University, Fresno. “But even then, it wasn’t 90% of all the beef cattle in the United States.”

Despite the numbers of hives involved and the lucrative fees beekeepers can now charge growers for their tiny winged contractors, security around this enterprise is usually fairly lax. Hives are trucked in, often by third-party crews, and unloaded in orchards or holding lots that are rarely gated, fenced or guarded, and easily visible from the road. 

Amid the frenzy of this seasonal activity, semi-trucks will sometimes load or unload hives in the dead of night. Given Central Valley farmland’s sprawling, horizon-busting nature, a visitor might not even be seen at all. In such conditions, a truck, a smattering of local knowledge and opportunism is all that’s needed to spirit away tens of thousands of dollars of humming property.

In January, Victor Lazo, who has kept bees in the Houston area for the past decade, sent around 4,000 colonies to the Central Valley for almond season. After the truck crew dropped off the hives in an orchard, Lazo arrived to feed them and treat them for any disease; to his shock, he discovered a whole row — 168 hives in all — had vanished.

“While California has state branches devoted to stamping out the theft of horses or cattle, no such task force exists for bees.”

“My first reaction was that the guys had set them down in the wrong spot,” Lazo said. His hives didn’t have GPS trackers on them (a technological fix some beekeepers have resorted to), but the truck did, and the GPS showed it had stopped at the correct spot. The hives had vanished into the underworld of bee thievery and would likely reappear in a different guise when sold to a grower, or to supplement another beekeeper’s diminished stock.

“The growers don’t care where the hives come from as long as they have hives out there,” Lazo explained. “For now, I’ve just written them off. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack — it’s hard to catch a thief unless you catch them doing it. It’s been a really bad year in California for theft.”

Sometimes the bee rustling is bad enough that it wipes out a whole business. James Steinbrugger, 40, a California native who has kept bees since he was a 13-year-old, left his stash near the small town of Five Points to help a fellow beekeeper unload his hives last year. When he returned to his stash of bees, he was astonished to find every single one — some 408 colonies containing an estimated eight million honeybees — had been pilfered

“It basically put me out of the bee business,” said a dejected Steinbrugger, who now works on construction jobs. “It’s big money. These crooks didn’t have to do all the upkeep, the financials of it. They just get a truck, rip people off and get paid.”

Bee Thief Gangs

As a detective working these cases, Freeman looks for clues like tire tracks in the mud. But most leads come through the information bouncing around the fraternity of mostly male beekeepers who congregate in California each year. The reality is that given the specialized knowledge necessary to handle loading millions of buzzing flying creatures speedily and safely onto trucks at night, such thievery almost certainly involves an inside man — another member of this beekeeping brethren. 

Lately, the talk in beekeeping circles has been about whether the surging thefts are the work of the typical solo opportunists wanting to supplement a bad year, or a larger and more organized effort. The theft of hundreds of hives in one go, like in Steinbrugger’s case, pointed to the latter. Such an efficient heist points to a level of organization that only a criminal group, or gang, could pull off.

The closest police have come to breaking up such a gang was after Alexa Pavlov, a Missouri-based beekeeper, received a tip in 2017 that some of her stolen hives might be found in a patch of scrubby land a few miles outside Fresno, California. Pavlov jumped on a plane and went straight to the site, which police later described as a “chop shop for bees.” Clouds of bees flew around dozens of scattered boxes belonging to different beekeepers, some of which appeared to be in the process of being split apart. Nearby, a gaunt 51-year-old Pavel Tveretinov, was spotted tending to this Frankenstein-like apiary. Pavlov contacted police who subsequently arrested and charged Tveretinov along with an accomplice, Vitaliy Yeroshenko.

The haul was extraordinary. There were more than 2,500 hives, valued at nearly $1 million, belonging to a dozen beekeepers, stolen over several years.

Police indicated that the duo had traversed the Central Valley selling their stolen goods to unsuspecting growers for the previous three years and had been aided by the close-knit Ukrainian-Russian beekeeping community centered in Sacramento.

The detail stoked ugly, racist suspicions among some beekeepers. Yeroshenko ultimately pleaded no contest to receiving stolen property, and in 2021 was sentenced to four years probation and ordered to pay $13,000 in restitution. Tveretinov insisted he was innocent but then died of cancer in 2020 before the case against him concluded.

Denise Qualls, who works as a pollination broker — a sort of middleman connecting almond growers with beekeepers — noted that the ongoing organized thefts point to other criminal groups still at play.

“I do think it’s a collaborative effort,” Qualls said. “Back in the day it was sort of random, a few hives here and there. But when it’s a couple of hundred hives in multiple locations, it’s not your average agricultural crime tweaker looking to resell for drugs. It’s bigger than that.”

“The hives had vanished into the underworld of bee thievery and would likely reappear in a different guise.”

Qualls said she recently received a call from a beekeeper “of that nationality” who asked to inspect some bees she was overseeing at a holding yard in Stanislaus County. The man marched around the yard, which held around 1,500 hives belonging to various beekeepers looking to be matched with growers, pulling out frames and demanding that Qualls provide hives with a brood, or the eggs, larvae and pupae of honeybees to repopulate a colony.

This was unusual behavior, Qualls said, and she turned him away. “I just had a bad feel about it, and I said it wasn’t a good fit,” she said. Qualls was keenly aware of the yard’s lack of security — with no fence or cameras — as well as the toll taken by hive thefts. “He could just come back and take some,” she said. “Beekeepers are getting kind of tired of it, really. It’s your livelihood. It’s a lot.”

The Ideal Mobile Pollinator

The Western honeybee — or apis mellifera — is among the most successful of all migrants to America. First brought over on wooden ships by European settlers in the 17th century, honeybees have since established themselves not only as a crucial cog in the agricultural system, but they have also flourished in the public imagination. 

Conjure up thoughts of a bee and you’ll likely think of a black and yellow striped creature with a stinger that lives in a hive with thousands of comrades making honey. But that image of a honeybee is just one of around 20,000 species of bee, most of them solitary and wild. “There are relatively few bee species that get love and care from humans,” said James Nieh, a bee expert at the University of California, San Diego. “The word ‘bee’ is boiled down to honeybee.”

For agricultural workers, honeybees are the only bee worth thinking about. Apis mellifera are superb generalists, able to quickly learn how to pollinate more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables, from apples to cherries to pumpkins.

Thanks to the invention of the modern beehive — a usually wooden box with vertically hanging, removable frames into which bees build their honeycomb, devised by Ohio clergyman Lorenzo Langstroth in the 19th century — they can also be moved around relatively easily. These bees are the key to unlocking massive yields across American farmland that have been supersized and shorn of its natural surroundings, including wild pollinators.

“They are like the ideal mobile pollinator,” Wenger, the entomologist, said. “We built these large artificial food systems that are reliant on bees so then, yeah, honeybee ecology is going to become more and more artificial, further separated from its natural conditions.”

To grow a lot of almonds you need a lot of bees. The plants need plenty of cross-pollination and will keep producing nuts until they start falling off the tree. The global growth in demand has prompted farmers across the Central Valley to blanket the countryside with these distinctive, white-blossomed trees. Today, around 1.4 million acres, mostly in the Central Valley, is used to produce roughly 80% of the world’s almonds.

Troubling Times For Bee Shepherds

The industrialized honeybee has replaced the bucolic image of honey-producing homesteaders. Each honeybee hive can now command up to $225 in pollination fees, a sizable jump on what it once was. 

But while there are financial rewards for beekeepers, it’s harder for the bees. Almond pollination occurs in January and February when the hives’ bees are at the groggiest and weakest points in their lifecycle; they must be spurred into shape by a procession of treatments and feeds. The bees are loaded onto trucks to make their prolonged journeys to the Central Valley, in some cases traveling more than 1,000 miles. This forced migration, with its fumes and vibrations, can also harm the tiny passengers.

This is all occurring as more honeybees die over the winter months. In the past decade, beekeepers have lost as much as 40% of their bee populations during these coldest months, as a growing list of ills assails the species. Wildflower habitat is being torn up, depriving honeybees of nutrition beyond single monoculture crops like almonds; the hives themselves have been attacked by diseases, widespread crop pesticides and afflictions such as the varroa mite — a parasite that feeds on the bees’ young, causing malformations and weakness and in some cases completely wiping out colonies.

“To grow a lot of almonds you need a lot of bees.”

“My biggest stress is keeping my employees alive,” said Jeffrey Lee, a beekeeper in North Carolina who estimates that he loses 10% of his bees each time he sends them to California. Lee describes himself as a “bee shepherd,” who guides his indentured workers on a tour around the country for different pollination demands — blueberries in Maine, almonds in California, then cucumbers back in North Carolina. 

It’s getting harder to maintain bee numbers, according to Lee, with the endless routine of medical treatments, supplemental feedings and occasional mishaps, like drunk drivers barreling into hives or tractors running them over, only adding to the stresses. Operating costs are already high so many beekeepers don’t want the added expense of security for their hives. 

In addition, the insect population is also declining, and scientists warn this could threaten basic ecological functions, including food production, due to habitat loss, chemical use and the climate crisis. There is already evidence of falling blueberry crop yields in the U.S. due to a lack of pollinators, while in parts of China, workers have had to use paintbrushes daubed in pollen at orchards to make up for the lost bees. 

Unlike wild bees, honeybees have been mostly shielded from catastrophic colony loss by their human guardians. Meanwhile, the American bumblebee, once the most commonly observed bumblebee in the U.S., has suffered an 89% drop in abundance and vanished from at least eight states over the past two decades, according to a 2021 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and a group of Albany Law School students arguing that the American bumblebee should be listed as an endangered species.

Honeybees may be a good mascot for a campaign to save the bees, but they’re “kind of like the chickens of the bee world,” Wenger said. “They really are bred for human purposes. It’s like saying we are protecting bird diversity by putting in more chicken farms.”

Still, it’s a bad idea to have a food system hinge on a single pollinator species. Scientists have worked on creating self-fertilizing almond trees, engineering so-called Frankenbees or pesticide-resistant honeybees, and looking at maybe even deploying pollinating robotic bees or drones. But ultimately, it’s measures that help all insect life and ecosystems such as cutting carbon emissions, rewilding sterile farmland and slashing pesticides and other poisons that may provide a longer-term solution.

In the meantime, the wheels of Central Valley industry continue to turn. Some farmers have eyed the dip in the global almond price, plus concerns over prolonged drought and new state rules over groundwater use that could make it harder to grow this thirsty nut, and started thinking about the next cash crop; perhaps pistachios, since they are pollinated via the wind. That would leave less work for the bees, and possibly decrease the amount of beehive theft. But until a more drastic change, the crimes continue to rise.

For beekeepers contemplating whether it’s worth cashing in on the still lucrative Central Valley pollination market, Freeman frames their dilemma: “You’ve got to weigh your odds — do you want to gamble on making some money and hope your hives don’t get stolen?”