Choteau beekeeper Lloyd Cunniff on Tuesday morning discovered that his bees had been stolen in California – packed up and trucked away into the fog blanketing Northern California.
Cunniff’s 488 hives had vanished overnight, along with his source of income for the coming year.
Cunniff was with his bees in Yuba City, California, when he woke up Tuesday and found his hives had been stolen. The area where his 190,000-plus bees had been was vacant, and two sets of 2-ton semi-trailer truck tracks pointed away from the scene. Cunniff believes whoever heisted the bees were organized with the trucks and equipment.
“It’s more than a semi (truck)-load,” Cunniff said. “Now I have no bees for a pollination income, and no bees for a honey crop next summer. It’s not something that you can recover from in one year. This is going to take two or three years.”
Cunniff now has just one hive, which contains about 400 bees, back at his Beeline Honey operation back in Choteau.
“I’m now a commercial beekeeper that has one colony of bees,” he said.
Bee rustling has burgeoned into a major problem for beekeepers in California, as well as the farmers who rely on pollination contracts to produce their crop.
Cunniff said his loss means hundreds of thousands in lost income, and he isn’t a lone victim in the industry. Another beekeeper nearby, he said, lost 240 hives a few days earlier. Cunniff reported the theft to local law enforcement and was told this has been a growing problem for the better part of a year. Cunniff said that according to local law enforcement, more than 2,000 hives have been stolen in the last year.
Cunniff, a third-generation beekeeper, brought his bees to California for a contract he secured with a California almond producer. It’s typical for beekeepers to ship their bees to California, where they can better survive the winter. Simultaneously, the almond industry has been booming in California during the last few years, according to the Almond Board of California, bringing hundreds of beekeepers like Cunniff to the area where almonds are farmed and where they are now targeted by bee thieves.
Cunniff’s bees were stolen from a fellow beekeeper’s property in Yuba City, California, where he was storing them before shipping the hives to Fresno. What’s worse for Cunniff: the stolen bees only exacerbated his initial troubles. Last summer, he lost a significant percentage of his bee population to colony collapse disorder, where a majority of adult bees abandon the colony. So far, researchers have tentatively pointed to new, but harmful pesticides that cause colony collapse disorder.
“That’s the only reason I came down to California, trying to make up for the money we lost last summer,” he said. “We had such a short crop this summer that everything we had we brought down here. It’s a double-whammy.”
Beekeeping operations in California are required by law to mark their hives, but that’s not the case in Montana. Cunniff said if law enforcement did find his hives, they wouldn’t be able to identify his hives because they were not marked. He said he’d like to see better alignment between the groups involved in fighting the bee rustlers.
“We’d like to see the police department (and the) sheriff’s department coordinate with the almond growers and California State Beekeepers Association to come up with a better plan to keep track of all these bees,” he said.
Cunniff is now in negotiations with his insurance company. He has a theft policy for his bees, but he doesn’t yet know how much the insurance company will cover. In hopes of making up for the lost income, Cunniff hopes to lease other keepers’ bees from Texas or Florida to fulfill his pollination contract on the almond farm near Fresno.
And while law enforcement continues to investigate the bee rustling, beekeepers are beginning to make their own recovery efforts, Cunniff said, by driving the back roads along the California coast in search of the sticky-fingered bee thieves.
“Whoever’s got them better watch out because somebody’s going to see them,” he said. “They’re all tight-knit and pitch in to help somebody when they get in a pinch.”
MEANWHILE, IN TEXAS….More Thefts….
Last month, Texas thieves made off with $90,000 worth of … bees. A Danbury beekeeper says he discovered 300 of his honey bee colonies were missing from a cattle ranch on Dec. 17, the Houston Chronicle reports. Randy Verhoek’s bees are typically unattended as they spend the winter on properties around Brazoria County. Verhoek, who calls the still-at-large suspects “bee rustlers” and “lowlife thieves,” has filed a police report, and police are asking anyone who sees bee boxes branded with the letters “HHI” to get in touch.