CENTRAL VALLEY, Calif.It was Wednesday night around dinnertime when Jeremy Kuhnhenn realized something was wrong. A few days earlier, in preparation for pollination season, he’d temporarily parked a truckload of more than 280 wooden boxes vibrating with buzzing bees on a grassy knoll overlooking a vista of citrus trees in McFarland, in California’s Central Valley. Now, standing on the hill, he felt ill, as if he might throw up—many of the boxes were missing.
Feverishly, he started counting. “I couldn’t think. I kept messing up the count,” he told me, sitting at a friend’s kitchen table the next morning, shaking his head. He’d hardly slept. “Over half of them were gone, 160 boxes”—days before California’s almond bloom, the biggest and most lucrative pollination event in the world. “Those thieves stole about $70,000 from me,” he said, tallying the insects, equipment, and lost pollination rental fees.
Kuhnhenn, 39—tattooed, with a brown beard, and wearing a black “Right To Bear Arms” T-shirt and jeans—is a commercial beekeeper from Bantry, North Dakota. Like many others in his profession, he makes the bulk of his living from an annual pilgrimage to the Central Valley, where his bees help pollinate the state’s almond crop. In the off-season, back home on his ranch, Bulldog Honey Farms, he manufactures about 80 pounds of summer honey. Wintertime is almond season, and he’d been preparing for the bloom all year. His hives were ready to move into position in the almond orchards. Now was that time, and a bunch of his bees were gone.
Kuhnhenn was distraught. How would he make up for the loss and pay the bills? “I’ve got some cows,” he said, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. “My wife is saying she’s gonna put up her Mustang GT.”
He wanted to show me the crime scene. He climbed into his truck, and I followed in my rental car. We traced a long series of dirt roads, deeply rutted from heavy rain and truck traffic. Finally arriving at the hill, we walked across the grass to where his bees had been.
“They were right here,” he said, pointing at the ground. “You can see the pallet marks in the grass, and here in the dirt are tread marks from the forklift. It had smaller tires than mine.”
Whoever did this knew what he was doing, Kuhnhenn said, and had the right equipment.
Cattle raiding and horse thieving were common crimes in the Wild West, but bee rustling is a relatively new offense for the lawbooks. That’s thanks in large part to the increasing necessity and profitability of trucking billions of bees to vast commercial orchards in dire need of pollination, as well as a thriving international market for gourmet honey. (For more on the shady business of stealing bees, check out our podcast "Overheard at National Geographic." Listen here.)
“It’s the perfect crime,” said Butte County police detective Rowdy Jay Freeman, a member of the state’s Rural Crime Prevention Task Force and a commercial apiarist himself. “You see a person in a white suit, and it looks like a beekeeper, but it could be a thief too—you’d never know.”
Big bee heists are making global headlines. In April 2016, a few weeks shy of blueberry pollination season, thieves struck one of the largest family apiaries in the Canadian province of Québec. The beekeeper, Jean Marc Labonte, told reporters the crooks made off with 180 hives worth an estimated $200,000. Of two likely suspects snagged by police, one was sentenced to nine months’ probation, including five months’ house arrest, and a $40,000 fine; the other was acquitted, according to reports by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and other outlets.
A few months later, in June, bandits absconded with some of the most valuable bees in Canada, belonging to a $7.1 million research project at the University of Laval aimed at breeding stronger honeybees resistant to some of the ailments, from mites to fungi, currently plaguing colonies around the globe.
Four out of the 30 stolen beehives were part of the Laval study. Hundreds of hours of research had been devoted to selectively breeding those particular colonies, University of Laval bee biologist Pierre Giovenazzo explained. “It’s difficult to put a price on it, but those hives were worth a lot,” he said.
Bees are not only a hot commodity for their pollination services—there’s big money in their honey too. One of Britain’s largest bee heists happened in February 2018 when 40 hives, containing millions of bees, were stolen from a family-run company, Beekeeper Honey, in Oxfordshire. The crime came on the heels of a Telegraph report about a spike in bee thefts in England and Wales.
Diane Roberts, a press officer with the British Beekeepers Association, stressed that bee thefts are not rampant but that a few happen every year. “The value of bees has gone up enormously,” she said, adding that some heists might be related to the type of bee stock—“like racehorses, the best bees are highly prized.”
New Zealand has become a major target for people hoping to cash in on the craze for manuka honey, a trendy sweetener valued for purported health benefits in the treatment of everything from colds to skin infections. Amber-colored manuka is produced by bees pollinating the flowers of the indigenous manuka shrub. An eight-ounce jar of manuka, dubbed “liquid gold,” sells for as much as $60 online. The global manuka market is exploding. Now valued at $940 million, it’s expected to reach $2.16 billion by 2025.
Thieves want both the raw honey and the hives, said New Zealand senior police sergeant Alasdair MacMillan. By his count, there have been more than 2,000 heists in New Zealand since 2016, with some possibly linked to organized crime. “The type and quantities being stolen indicate that a number of persons would need to be involved,” he said. “It takes lifting equipment, vehicles, beekeeping, an outlet for extraction—and of course a market.” Given the volume of manuka being stolen and high prices for the product in China and elsewhere, MacMillan said, it’s likely destined for the black market.
Perils of beekeeping
The domesticated western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the superstar of the bee world. Out of roughly 20,000 bee species on Earth, more than 4,000 in the United States alone, this one little European species commands the spotlight. It is indeed an extraordinary creature. No other bee takes division of labor to such an extreme, with colonies comprising one queen and tens of thousands of workers thrumming along in perfect synchrony—a superorganism. En masse, they move by swarm. Individually, they navigate in fanciful figure eights. Their hives are like little factories, not only filling our cupboards with honey but also producing wax for candles and soap. What’s more, they pollinate a third of the produce on our plates—everything from apples, oranges, and blueberries to tomatoes, watermelons, and zucchini.
California almond season is the pollination Grand Prix. In roughly four weeks between February and March, when almond buds burst into pink and white petals, billions of honeybees buzz through the orchards collecting pollen and nectar for their hives and simultaneously pollinating about one million acres of almonds.
In the days leading up to the bloom, an estimated 85 percent of all the honeybees in the country are trucked into the valley. Budget hotels, Denny’s, and IHOPs overflow with rugged out-of-towners, sweaty and dirty from working with bees 24/7. A commercial apiarist makes a modest (and sticky) living traveling the country pollinating dozens of different crops, but it’s the almonds that pay mortgages and kids’ college loans.
Lately beekeepers are having a tough time supplying the high demand for their bees. With almonds priced at about $2.80 a pound, farmers are ripping out their raisin grapes and row crops and replacing them with almond trees. During the past 10 years, lands under almonds in California have grown from 825,000 to 1.33 million acres—a 61 percent rise, according to the state almond board.
In addition to trying to keep pace with the increasing almond acreage, beekeepers are struggling to prevent their colonies from succumbing to a multitude of maladies—mites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides—often simultaneously. Many apiarists say it’s never been so hard or expensive to raise and maintain healthy honeybee colonies. This year has been particularly arduous, with some beekeepers reporting as much as 85 percent losses.
Jeremy Kuhnhenn said about 75 percent of his bees died during the seven months between last year’s almond bloom and the end of honey season in early October. “I don’t know what caused it,” he said, looking out over the miles of farmland sloping from the hillside where his hives were stolen. “It could be a combination of a lot of stuff. I’m waiting on test results from some scientists. I had to buy bees to come out here with 1,500 hives for the almonds. Some of those hives died—I only had 830 left. Now I’m down 160 more.”
With such demand for honeybees, pollination fees have soared. Daljit Rakkar is a second-generation almond grower in Madera, California, whose father built an empire after starting out as a young laborer in the orchards. One afternoon at his family mansion, where two Mercedes-Benzes and a Maserati were parked in the driveway, Rakkar said his company has witnessed the dramatic increase in the cost of bee rentals. “When we first got started, the rental fee was five dollars a hive,” he said. “Now it’s $180 to $200. The standard is two hives per acre. We’ll spend $500,000 on bees this year.”
The opportunity for such high profits is unquestionably motive for theft. But here’s the thing: Not just anyone can make off with millions of stinging insects. More often than not, said detective Freeman, bee burglars are beekeepers. Some steal for a quick payday; others pinch some hives when they come up short trying to fulfill their contracts.
“The vast majority of beekeepers are good, hardworking people,” Freeman said. “But a small percentage of them are on the side of crime. They don’t have boundaries, and they’re looking to make a quick buck. Since the pollination prices have spiked, there have been hundreds of thousands of hives stolen in California.”
Beehive chop shops
Joe Romance, a beekeeper from North Dakota who splits the year between his home state, California, and Maine for the spring blueberry bloom, was furious when he heard that Kuhnhenn, “a young guy coming up in the business” had been robbed. Romance has been a victim too.
“When you go in the yard and see your bees are gone, you go crazy,” he said. “I think that’s the only time in my life when I could kill somebody—if I had a gun (which I don’t). It’s the worst feeling, because you’ve lost your crop, your farm, your everything—years of work, gone.”
In 2014, Romance got a call from one of his employees who’d discovered that more than a hundred hives were missing from the inventory. Romance drove up and down Kern County looking for the missing boxes, hoping the thief had been reckless enough to place them near a road. He didn’t find them. One day, he heard from a friend who said he’d met a guy offering some bees for rent and thought he’d seen some of Romance’s equipment at his place.
“It was a lucky break,” Romance said. He decided to go incognito to check things out. “I go over to the house with another friend who’s like six four, and we pretend we’re almond farmers,” he recounted. He was met by two men. “I said, ‘I’m paying $225 a hive’—top dollar. The price at the time was about $180. These guys were falling all over themselves saying they’d love to sell us some bees.”
While they talked, Romance looked around and realized what was going on. “It was a chop shop. They were grinding the brands off the boxes and painting over them,” he said. “That’s like branding over cattle—you can’t do that. Used to be a hanging offense! They were systematically stealing bees, painting the boxes, and reselling them.”
Romance called the sheriff. Later that evening the sheriff arrested one of the men, Gabino Jordan Peña, who worked for a nearby beekeeper named William Green. When Green got word that Peña had been pegged for stealing bees, he couldn’t believe it. He’d always considered Peña to be a good employee—he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, went to church at least once a week. But Green soon came to the conclusion that Peña was likely swindling him too, even using his equipment and credit card to fund his operation.
Peña declared his innocence, said detective Richard Hudson, of the Kern County rural crime prevention task force, and his church raised money to bail him out of jail. A few days before he was scheduled to appear in court, Peña skipped town, possibly to Mexico, Hudson said.
It’s not uncommon for an employee to steal bees from the boss—bee crooks need to get training somewhere, Romance explained. “You don’t go to school or read a book to become a beekeeper. It’s a dirty, hot, stinging job. You have to have the chutzpah to do it.”
Ultimately, Romance said, the stolen bees were recovered and redistributed among Green, other victims, and himself.
Feeling the sting
Investigating bee crimes isn’t easy. “These cases are hard to crack because bees don’t have VIN numbers like cars, and we can’t track them by their DNA,” said detective Isaac Torres, a Fresno-based member of California’s rural crime prevention task force. Often the only witnesses at the crime scene would be an angry mob with stingers. Once while responding to a call, Torres’s partner, Andres Solis, got stung eight times in the head, and his face “swelled up like a balloon,” Torres said. Now Solis wears a beekeeper’s veil when investigating bee cases.
In 2017, Solis and Torres managed to crack one of the biggest hive heists in California history. For three years in a row, an unusually high number of bee crimes were reported throughout the Central Valley—200, 300, 400 hives at a time in many different locations. “We knew it had to be someone in the business,” Solis said. “They weren’t just any crooks. They really knew what they were doing.”
A few weeks after the almond bloom, the detectives investigated a report about a suspicious discovery: a vacant lot on the outskirts of Fresno with bee boxes in varied shapes, colors, and designs stacked and scattered about. At the scene, they found what appeared to be a chop shop, where boxes were being sanded, repainted, and stenciled with the name Allstate Apiaries Inc., a business operated by Pavel Tveretinov, who was on-site tending to the bees.
Officers arrested Tveretinov, a 51-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, and later an alleged accomplice, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, 48. As the investigation progressed, the detectives uncovered similar operations at two other locations. They say they recovered some 2,500 hives worth $875,000.
Word about the arrests spread quickly. Soon beekeepers from all over the country were calling to find out if their missing equipment was among the recovered stacks.
“It was like a spiderweb,” Torres said. “One person would go and ID their bees, then goes home and tells their friends they saw some equipment of theirs. Then they come and see someone else’s, and it kept going like that.”
Kamron Koehnen, a beekeeper in Butte County, California, recovered some of his 240 hives, all of which were uniquely branded with the numbers 42-14. “Every frame, every bottom, every lid, every pallet, everything was branded,” he said. “We’ve never sold a thing. If someone else has it, they either picked it up off the road or stole it.” Recently, Koehnen was informed by the investigators that some of his equipment was found in North Dakota, where Tveretinov was allegedly making honey in the off-season.
Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Ryan McGinthy confirmed that Tveretinov and Yeroshenko are still under investigation and that more charges could be forthcoming. Tveretinov now faces 12 felony counts, including receiving stolen property and grand theft. Yeroshenko is charged with 10 counts of receiving stolen property. Court records show their preliminary hearing is tentatively scheduled for June 25. If found guilty, they could face prison time and thousands of dollars in fines. Both men maintain their innocence.
The California State Beekeepers Association offers a $10,000 reward for information resulting in the arrest and conviction of a bee rustler. Torres said apiarists should report thefts to authorities immediately and be vigilant to protect themselves against crime. That includes registering their hives with the state and minimizing opportunities for thieves to snatch equipment by placing hives away from access roads, behind locked gates when possible. Unique hive designs are easier to identify and recover after a theft. Some beekeepers are meticulous about branding every moving part in the hive. A growing number are taking advantage of technologies such as GPS trackers and camera systems that can send text alerts when hives are moved. “If this is your bread and butter, you’ve got to protect yourself,” Torres said. “I tell everyone to put GPS trackers on their hives.”
That’s just what Jeremy Kuhnhenn would like to do. But the units are pricey, as much as $130 apiece, he said, and right now money is especially tight. Back at Bulldog Honey Farms in North Dakota in March, all his cows were still in the barn, but there was extra space in the driveway. The loss of his hives meant he had to sell a 24-foot trailer and his wife’s 2010 Mustang to pay the bills. He also got a loan from the bank to keep things going while building back his bee colonies and preparing to make summer honey.
Next February, as the winter stillness settles over North Dakota, he’ll load his bees on a truck and again make the 1,800-mile trip southwest to California, where money grows on almond trees.