Honeybee Heists A New Reality In A Time Of Colony Collapse

Sep 6, 2015
Originally published on September 6, 2015 12:44 pm

Honey bees are being rustled.

Thieves are hijacking hives and renting the bees and their queens out to farmers to pollinate their crops. With the global collapse of the bee population, the crime is becoming even more lucrative.

It's an issue in the U.S., in California's Central Valley, but most recently, another bee theft caught our attention. On the tiny island of Angelsey, off the coast of North Wales, Felin Honeybees, a farm and education center, has been hit twice in the last month.

The bee burglars used a small box, called a nucleus, which is used for starting new hives, Felin owner Katie Hayward tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

"They've done what's called a 'bee shake,' which is where you hold the frames over the box and you shake the bees in," she explains. "So they can be stored in the boot of any car, I'm afraid."

They were able to make off with some 45,000 bees, including four queens, she says.

The bee bandits took bees that the center had bred for calmness, to be used for teaching. Hayward says the pilferers must have had some expertise.

"They knew exactly what they were taking," Hayward says. "There's been a huge surge in beekeeping as a hobby, and the demand for new nucleuses has risen over 75 percent in the last five years."


Interview Highlights

On the impossibility of tagging bees with identifying markers so they can be tracked

The unfortunate thing is, you can't trace the bees once they're away from the hive. ... A honeybee, a normal worker bee, this time of year, only has a lifespan of about 40 days, so unfortunately there's nothing on the market to spray your bees with.

On finding the center was filched by fellow beekeepers

It's been devastating to us here, because all of the beekeepers in the whole of north Wales, our country, know what we do here at Felin. We use these bees to teach children with special needs, and we use these bees to teach people not to be frightened of bees. So for someone to come to our home and willingly take them, you feel violated, and I feel hugely disappointed that one beekeeper is tarnishing what we hold dear. We look after each other as beekeepers. It's a very difficult profession to do. ...

The farm we live on is over 750 years old, and we've always felt quite safe. It's been a big eye-opener.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A short ferry ride away, across the Irish Sea, there's a crime syndicate at work. Well, syndicate may not be the right word. Would you believe bee rustling? Thieves on the island of Angelsey are hijacking hives, and they're likely renting out the bees and their queens to farmers to pollinate their crops. With the global collapse of bee populations, the crime is becoming quite lucrative. Katie Hayward of the Felin Honeybee Education Center has been hit twice in the last month. Thieves made off with 45,000 bees and four queens. How does one steal that many bees or for that matter any bees?

KATIE HAYWARD: They've gone into the hives, and they brought along what's called a nucleus box. And they've done what's called a bee shake, which is where you hold the frames over the box and you shake the bees in. So they could be stored in the boot of any car, unfortunately.

WERTHEIMER: Then they don't take the actual hive that you have built?

HAYWARD: No. The hives that they've taken the bees from, that they've stole from, we've bred for calmness 'cause we teach children with them. So they knew exactly what they were taking and the value of them. And there's been a huge surge in beekeeping as a hobby. And the demand for new nucleuses has risen over 75 percent in the last five years.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea how much these people can earn by renting out your bees?

HAYWARD: To rent out, they pay 100 pound a week to pollinate. And the unfortunate thing is you can't trace the bees once they're away from the hive.

WERTHEIMER: Now, obviously, in this country, with our big tradition of cattle herds in the West, cattle farmers brand their herds to identify the cattle when they're stolen so they can get them back. Is there any way to mark a population of bees?

HAYWARD: It's very, very difficult because a honeybee - a normal worker bee this time of year only has a lifespan of about 40 days, so unfortunately there's nothing on the market to spray your bees with any kind of marking to date.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you said that these people are taking the bees out of the hives using bee shakers, so obviously they know what they're doing. Is it disheartening to have find that you have been robbed by fellow beekeepers?

HAYWARD: It's completely heartbreaking. It's been devastating to us here because all of the beekeepers in the whole of North Wales, our country, know what we do here at Felin. You know, we use these bees to teach children with special needs. We use these bees to teach people not to be frightened of bees.

So for someone to come to our home and willingly take them, you feel violated. And I feel hugely disappointed that one beekeeper is tarnishing what we hold dear 'cause we look after each other as beekeepers. It's a very difficult profession to do. It hits us hard, to be honest. The farm we live on is over 750 years old, and we've always felt quite safe. So it's been a big eye-opener in the last four weeks for both myself and my family, so, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Well, Ms. Hayward, we're sorry for your losses. And thank you very much for speaking to us.

HAYWARD: You're welcome, Linda. And thank you so much for your support. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.