Photo: iStockA bee box typically weighs 60 pounds or more and houses at least 50,000 bees.
Southwest Florida Roundup
Hive rustlers: Thefts sting Florida beekeepers
In May, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a theft at a remote wooded area in Lehigh Acres. A local beekeeper told deputies that someone had stolen about $4,500 worth of hives. Tire tracks found nearby appeared to be from the thief’s vehicle.
A month later, deputies responded to another report of a beehive theft — someone cut through a fence on a Cape Coral property and made off with 100 wooden bee boxes. That theft was followed by a series of heists at several commercial beekeeping sites in the area that netted hundreds of hives worth more than $150,000. The sites’ owner, Wonderful Bees, part of a California-based firm called Wonderful Co., offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. A criminal investigation remained under way in October.
The thefts highlighted a littlepublicized aspect of Florida’s agricultural sector — large-scale commercial beekeeping. The state is home to nearly 4,000 registered beekeepers and more than 500,000 hives. Florida ranks among the top three states in both honey production and pollination.
The stolen bees also reflect a trend: Over the past decade, a combination of parasites, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder have caused widespread bee losses.
Those losses (along with increased costs to keep bees alive) mean higher fees for commercial beekeepers, who rent hives to farmers, who need the bees to pollinate their crops. It’s big business: U.S. fruit and nut growers, for example, spend more than $500 million each year on pollination services.
Gene McAvoy, a regional vegetable agent with the University of Florida, suspects the thieves are either other beekeepers or budding apiarists who know how to handle the insects. He believes the stolen hives were sold to unscrupulous pollination service providers. To disguise the thefts, the hive boxes may have been repainted and scraped of any identifying marks.
For their part, beekeepers are stepping up security patrols and fitting hives with tracking devices, McAvoy says.
“In terms of crime, this is not real high on the sheriff’s priority list,” he says. “But to individual beekeepers, it’s huge. That kind of inventory loss has to hurt your bottom line.”
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