Not far from Silicon Valley, a tech boom is occurring among beekeepers desperate to find new ways to keep hives from being stolen by criminals amid a dwindling supply of bees across the United States .
Thefts are becoming so common in California’s Central Valley region that beekeepers are using GPS tracking devices, surveillance cameras and other anti-theft technology to protect their bee colonies.
According to the Associated Press, 1,036 hives worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have been stolen in California, including a burglary in which 384 hives were stolen in Mendocino County.
“We have to do what we can to protect ourselves,” Helio Medino, a beekeeper who had 282 hives stolen last year, told AP. “No one can help us.”
The Central Valley is responsible for about a quarter of all produce grown in the United States, but beekeepers from all over the country are drawn to the region primarily for the enormous pollination demands of the almond industry, which has doubled in size over the past two decades. .
There are 1.17 million acres of almonds in California that require pollination. At a standard rate of two hives per acre, this means the industry must somehow amass 2.34m of hives for a short period of time each February when the almond trees begin to bloom.
This demand requires that approximately 90% of all managed American bee colonies be attached to trucks and sent to the Central Valley when the trees are in bloom.
Thieves, usually people with knowledge of beekeeping, target hives at night, as they are set up near orchards or in waiting areas. Organized gangs are behind some of the thefts, police say, with hives being quickly resold after identifying markers were removed.
Thefts are on the rise due to the tight supply of bees and soaring pollination costs: Almond growers who paid around $50 to rent a single hive a few years ago are now often paying over $200 $ the hive. Stealing beehives has therefore become relatively lucrative.
“Normal people can’t just steal 500 beehives with a forklift and a truck,” Charley Nye, a bee researcher at the University of California, Davis, told The Guardian in 2020.
“So it’s a pretty small group of people who are able to steal them. But the reward is so big that I think it might be tempting for people to do it.
Bees are beset by disease, loss of habitat to monoculture farmland, and widespread use of pesticides. The drought that has gripped the western United States has also weakened the colonies, putting further pressure on beekeepers to maintain their numbers for the huge logistical exercise in crop pollination.
The effort to replenish bee populations for agricultural purposes, however, is not replicated for the thousands of species of wild bees in the United States. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, about a quarter of North America’s 46 bumblebee species are in decline and threatened with extinction.
Experts have warned that a widespread decline in bee species is putting food security in some parts of the world at risk, with demand for pollinated crops increasing by 300% globally in the past 50 years, as the Pollination supply is dwindling due to habitat destruction, the use of toxic substances, insecticides and the climate crisis.