Thieving b(ee)’stards

HMP Bee Shed

HMP Bee Shed

There’s something both vaguely amusing and deeply repellent about hive and bee thefts.

Vaguely amusing in terms of the way the press cover it and possibly in the way it’s perceived by the general public. The latter have visions of beesuited ‘rustlers’ rounding up ‘herds’ of bees and making off with them in the dead of night. The press do little to alter this perception, generally stressing the large number of individual bees stolen in articles littered with beekeeping gaffes.

The deeply repellent aspect of honey bee thefts is that most must be carried out by beekeepers.

Handling bees in large numbers is a daunting prospect for most of the general public. Even the most light-fingered ne’er-do-well is likely to think twice about making off with a 40 litre box packed with stinging insects.

It requires specialist knowledge and equipment … or, in their absence, tener cojones as the Spanish say.

Bee and hive theft is not like a ned1 stealing a smartphone and flogging it at a car boot sale … it’s more like a surgeon being involved in organ trafficking.

Whether to make up for their own beekeeping inadequacies or simply to make a quick profit, this type of ‘inside job’ is an unsavoury reminder that some – hopefully a very few – ‘beekeepers’ have criminal tendencies and cannot be trusted.

Prepare to be amused

“Rustler steals 40,000 bees in Britain’s biggest hive heist in years” is a recent headline in The Guardian. The article describes the theft of a single hive (presumably gold-plated as it’s valued at £400, though perhaps this price reflects the fact that it’s the ‘biggest’ hive) from a ‘ditch’ in Anglesey, blaming the recent increase in bee thefts on the spiralling cost of ‘nukes’ (sic).

The Daily Mail announces that bee hives are stolen and sold for up to £8,000 a time, and helpfully illustrate the article with a picture of a bumble bee (almost certainly a male) and the caption “Some queen bees are worth £180 …”.

Actually ... some breeder queens cost €450

Actually … some breeder queens cost €450

I can’t help but think that the emphasis on the ‘value’ encourages some of the thefts. After all, what else valued at £400 (or £8000 for that matter) do you know about that’s left unattended and unlocked for days at a time in a remote corner of a farmer’s field.

As an aside, The Daily Mail obviously don’t realise that some breeder queens sell for a lot more than £180 …  😯

Scaling up

It’s not really clear from the Daily Mail article (above) whether it was one or many hives that were stolen. However, since many apiaries will contain multiple hives, it’s not unusual to have the entire lot vanish.

Another poorly punned headline from The Telegraph announces “Britain’s biggest bee sting: One million insects stolen from Oxfordshire hives”, choosing to emphasise the total number of insects, rather than the 40 hives that went missing.

Pedantically, the hives and  the bees were stolen … they didn’t just take the bees, though that happens as well as will soon become clear.

But, as with so many other things, you need to go across the Atlantic to experience the biggest bee and hive thefts. The scale of commercial beekeeping operations in the USA means that there’s added incentive and opportunity. Two ‘beekeepers’ were charged in 2017 with the theft of 2,500 hives (no need to count the bees this time, hive numbers alone were sufficiently impressive) worth almost $1M.

Hives were stolen from apiaries at night, spirited away on a flatbed trailer and moved to an isolated location where they were repainted. “It looked like a chop shop for bee hives,” Fresno detectives said.

Not hiding hives

The Oxfordshire bee heist was of overwintering hives in a field that “couldn’t be seen from the road”. As I’ve previously discussed, obscurity does not guarantee security.

High resolution satellite imagery is increasingly available and it’s easy to find apiaries. While preparing this post I looked at Google and Bing maps of an apiary I know well. It is effectively invisible from public roads or the adjacent football pitch.

The satellite images are taken at different times 2, so aren’t identical. The first two images are at about the same scale. The three white rectangles in the Bing maps image are poly tunnels, each about 5-6 metres long. The regularly-spaced hives are pretty obvious.

The image on the right is the current enhanced Google maps view, in this individual hives can clearly be counted. You can even discriminate between paving slabs with hives on stands and those that are unoccupied.

A beekeeper thief could spend a few winter evening scanning these sorts of satellite images and easily identify likely apiaries, whether they can be seen from the road or not.

Security

I’m going to write more extensively in the future about deterring thieves as there’s a more important topic to cover here.

You can place hidden cameras near the apiary (to catch a thief … or obvious ones to deter). There are now ways of installing GPS-trackers in hives. These trigger a remote alarm if moved. You can ‘label’ equipment and make it uniquely traceable using SmartWater-like solutions.

Alternatively you can consider physical deterrents, like simply screwing the hive floor to the stand (from inside the hive). It’s unlikely the thief will have spare floors. I’ve heard of people plugging a hole through the hive floor with a bung, the latter firmly attached to the hive stand. The thief places the hive in the back of the estate car and … you can imagine the rest 🙂

Apiary gate

Apiary gate

Or just use an enormous fence and a big padlock.

Gamekeeper turned poacher

For reasons outlined in the opening paragraph I suspect the majority of these thefts are by beekeepers or – as Martin Smith of the BBKA puts it – “beekeepers or at least those with a rudimentary knowledge of the craft”.3

A recent theft announced on the Sottish Beekeepers Association interactive forum (SBAi) clearly emphasises the involvement of beekeepers. Here are the relevant bits of the post:

… Came across a set of plainly disturbed hives near Dundee today whilst doing heather prep[arations]. These were double deep hives with brood in 12 to 15 bars, plenty food and pollen, but were being robbed. Almost no bees, no queen, no q.cells, brood in all stages inc eggs, combs not back in correct order …

Large hives, full of brood but empty of bees. Odd. The poster (a hugely experienced commercial beekeeper) concludes:

Shook swarms plainly been removed from them.

Conducting shook swarms on large double brood colonies is unlikely to be the work of someone with just a rudimentary knowledge of the art. Done properly, it involves first finding and caging the queen, then shaking all the bees off all the frames. It’s hard work and to someone unused to working with lots of bees it would be a daunting undertaking.

Pssst … wanna buy a nuc?

The SBAi post author suggests that the likely fate for those bees is to be split into nucs and sold on to unsuspecting beekeepers. It’s really a bit late in the season … remember that you should ideally only buy nucs with at least 2-3 frames of brood in all stages from the queen in the box 4.

However, beginners desperate for bees who don’t purchase from a known and trusted source are unlikely to be worrying about the quality of the bees they buy.

I never knew there was so much in it …

But those beginners purchasing nucs are possibly getting more than they bargained for, as is clear from the rest of the post on the SBAi:

The bad news for the thief is that this apiary has had EFB [European foulbrood] earlier in the summer and is still under a standstill order, and one of the hives shaken was the one next to the (removed and destroyed earlier) EFB case. This must be considered a super high risk bit of theft ………… so if you are offered bees by an unknown source in the area be very very careful.

It’s not really bad news for the thief … but it is for the purchaser, or potentially for anyone in the area (or outside the area) who keeps bees and may now get a potentially EFB-infected colony5 in the garden next door 🙁

Ironically, great advances have been made recently in molecular fingerprinting of foulbroods to determine transmission pathways. This is similar to the DNA fingerprinting that can unambiguously link a person to the scene of a crime. It should soon be possible to definitively demonstrate the EFB in that dodgy nuc you bought from the bloke in The Crooks Arms public house was from bees stolen from an apiary ‘near Dundee’.

Nuc behind bars

Nuc behind bars

Caveat emptor

That’s a doubly sour note to end on. One or more beekeepers must have been involved and it could result in the further spread of EFB.

It’s been a great summer for bees. Many experienced beekeepers will likely have an excess of bees at this time of the season. The usual high demand for nucs in early Spring has probably all been met. However, there will still be people wanting to start beekeeping.

It is this group of novices that might end up buying a poorly balanced nuc of stolen bees with a side order of EFB.

What Not a bargain.

If you do want to buy bees6 then:

  • Buy local bees.
  • Buy from a known or trusted source. Ask around. The beekeeping community is pretty small. Most beekeepers and beekeeping associations are very approachable.
  • Inspect the nuc before purchase. If there’s little or no brood, frames with undrawn foundation or an obvious mix of bees then do not buy it.

Finally, if you don’t know whether the bees are local, whether the source is trusted or whether the nuc is high quality … stop.

Get some training, get a mentor and get some help with the purchase.


Colophon

The title of this post is an obvious bee-flavoured concatenation of a well known insult that strikes hard at one’s personal integrity and social standing, both, in an economy of words”.

The simpler concatenation to B’Stard was used by the late Rik Mayall as the surname of his character (Sir Alan Beresford B’Stard) in The New Statesman, a late-80’s sitcom satirising the then Conservative Party government. B’Stard would stop at nothing to fulfil his megalomaniac ambition. He was “selfish, greedy, dishonest, devious, lecherous, sadistic, self-serving”. 

It strikes me that most of these terms could also be applied to bee rustlers.

Footnotes

  1. Scottish slang for a hooligan, thug, yob, or petty criminal.
  2. Microsoft’s Bing image is 3-5 years out of date – compare how the trees have developed.
  3. It’s not unusual for me to open a hive and think “Hmmm … I thought I knew what was happening here. I obviously have only a rudimentary knowledge of the craft” … abbreviated to WTF?
  4. Do the maths … the theft was reported on the 21st of July. Assuming nucs were made up with foundation, bees and the stolen (or another mated) queen, there would be no sealed brood until early August. This is really too late in the season to be purchasing a weak and clearly unbalanced nuc. Without experience, good weather and TLC it’s unlikely to have a strong chance of surviving the winter.
  5. I should add a comment here regarding shook swarms and EFB. EFB is a notifiable brood disease and a shook swarm is a recognised way of dealing with low levels of infection, but the standstill order – preventing bees from being moved – remains until a subsequent inspection shows the colonies are free of disease. Colonies with a high level of infection (50% or more of larvae symptomatic) are more usually destroyed.
  6. By which I mean a nuc to start beekeeping, not a top-quality breeder queen for €450!

15 thoughts on “Thieving b(ee)’stards

    1. David Post author

      Thanks Roger
      That article is a good account of the events that led to the arrest of Pavel Tveretinov who was one of the two beekeepers (and he definitely was a beekeeper as he both rented colonies out to the almond growers and sold bees) arrested for the $1M of hive thefts in California. Tveretinov and Vitaliy Yeroshenko were charged and the trial is pending.
      They’ve pleaded not guilty …
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  1. Kathy

    Thank you David for the excellent posts which I find both informative and amusing.
    This week’s post makes for unpalatable reading as do all posts reporting thefts of bees and hives. The thought that a fellow beekeeper is responsible leaves a nasty taste.
    My apiary is situated on the (secure 24/7) site of a local business and to access my hives I must first log in to the firm’s security system, then negotiate padlocked gates and rolls of razor wire before I can proceed any further. I found this assault course a bit of a bind at first but soon appreciated my good luck in having this site as it is virtually thief-proof (hope I haven’t jinxed it now!)
    Not many beekeepers can be as fortunate and must take other precautions. I particularly like the idea of the bung in the floor of the hive that stays behind when the hive is stolen. Although it won’t prevent thefts in the first place, I don’t imagine may thieves will drive away still wearing protection in whatever form 😂😂. I’m a firm believer in ‘what goes around, comes around’ and THAT is the amusing part – love it!
    Keep up the great work David.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Kathy
      The only issue I’ve come across with really secure sites like you describe is that the businesses can be a bit funny about accessing them at odd times. Particularly in these long summer evenings, I’m often moving nucs about after 10pm when the bees stop flying. On the University sites I’ve used I’m regularly challenged by the security people … which, of course, is even more reassuring.

      Perhaps even more distressing than hive thefts are the mindless vandalism you sometimes hear about. Anyone kicking over and smashing a full hive hopefully gets exactly what they deserve 🙂
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Mick Smith

    David,
    How odd that you should publish this, I just lost (had stolen), 2 nucs both with Virgin queens in and a brood box with 10 frames with drawn wax, some with dead brood in, undergoing acetic acid treatment. One of the nucs you would probably recognise, it was home made and has a patent, quite heavy roof !! If the queens didn’t mate then the loss will be obvious after a couple of weeks or so but if the acetic acid leaks out in someone’s car they might get a surprise !! As always a very interesting read, thanks David.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Mick
      If it’s the nuc I’m thinking of then it was almost certainly pinched for the Chippendale-like quality woodworking … nothing to do with the bees at all 😉
      How annoying. Acetic acid is very unpleasant stuff. It’s not good for unprotected metal let alone humans “Acetic acid is rapidly corrosive to all tissues. Eye contact may cause severe burns and loss of vision. Contact with the skin may cause severe burns which may be delayed in onset. Acetic acid vapor is irritating to the skin, eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract, causing irritation, coughing, chest pain and dyspnea (breathing difficulties).”
      Seems an odd thing to steal, but I’m sure that’s no consolation at all.
      I hope the rest of the season is treating you well.
      David

      Reply
  3. Ray

    Good reminder to us all to be on our guard, thanks David. I always think the most horrific part of bee theft, unlike other forms of thievery, is the fact that it is beekeepers doing the deed. Sad.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Ray
      I think it’s the abuse of trust and the use of the specific skills that beekeepers have that is distressing. We all know we’re putting our valuable stock in the fields or on the hills and that there’s precious little we can really do to watch over it. However, it’s not the same as leaving a car unlocked or a laptop in a cafe … only a few people have the equipment and training to handle a hive full of bees.

      May their veils be unzipped when they try and pinch a particularly feisty colony 😉
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Ray

        I’ve made up a fun ‘sticker’ for my hives. This came about when a fellow beekeeper says he writes ‘EFB?’ on one or two hives in his apiary. Just maybe a little nagging doubt to get potential thieves thinking.

        Africanised bees

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Ray
          The only problem I can see there is someone being stung and then blaming you (or your bees). The implication is there. Who knows what would happen in court m’lud?! I suppose it’s not very different from the “I’ve got a psychopathic dog on the premises” sign you sometimes see.
          The EFB? label might give the passing regional bee inspector something to think about 😉
          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  4. Alan Jones

    My brother lives in New Zealand and beekeepers there screw a ground anchor in to the ground and attach the hive floor with a two metre steel cable, anyone stealing the hive after dark would get yanked back by the cable and drop the hive, a mess to put right but better than stolen.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alan
      Thorne’s used to sell a similar ground anchor system. I bought a couple for our first research apiary, but eventually just surrounded them with a huge fence and CCTV! They were pretty solid and well made. I’m not sure they still sell them and couldn’t find them on the website.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. calum

    yep, hive thefts are increasing here in Germany too.
    I am sure there is a baseline of beekeepers that steal colonies every year as it saves on feeding and treating against varroa year on year.
    But driving the increase, is, in my opinion the general increase in beekeeping that is driving the prices making theft more attractive. The best and most profitable way to combat this is for every able beekeeper to make up some extra hives and sell them through their local beekeepers club.
    Every year I am selling 15-20 colonies, next spring I plan to sell 25. The current prices here are 140euros for a 10 frame colony – which is about 100euro profit for me. If we can keep the prices down and market satisfied the risk/reward return for theives will hopefully keep thefts down, and when clubs have reliable scources for colonies for new members, they will not be inclinde to buy from unvetted sources.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      I think you’re right Calum. However, I suspect that there are a lot of beginner beekeepers who go nowhere near a club when they start … they like the idea of ‘honey at the bottom of the garden’ and buy a box of bees from someone in the pub, or a friend of a friend of a friend at work. They receive no training and possibly don’t even know there’s a local beekeeping ‘community’ in their area. I’ve met several who started like this and – almost inevitably – failed after a year or so.

      Those that do join associations could or should be looked after better, but even then demand can far outstrip supply. Associations know that the “start beekeeping” courses they run over the winter are very profitable … 40 people at £75 a head for 6 winter evenings in the church hall certainly helps the association balance sheet. But, once it’s Spring, can that Association come up with 40 nucs to meet the demand of the group that they have trained? Sometimes yes, and I know associations where this is extremely well organised. But not always. I’ve posted about this previously.

      Why isn’t this better organised through associations? I suspect it’s a combination of variable supply – they can’t guarantee the Spring nucs as they’re dependent (like all of us) on how the season progresses and winter losses etc. – and a reticence to handle the, sometimes awkward, money side of things. This should be straightforward. If it was known there were going to sales through the association, more of the experienced members might be encouraged to prepare one or two extra nucs, sell them to the association at a 10-20% ‘discount’ who then sell them on to the newly-trained beekeepers. The beekeeper gets a guaranteed sale and the association makes a small amount for organising everything and ensuring some level of quality control.

      Here overwintered nucs are often in the region of £150-175 … not very different from the price of an imported and/or thrown together nuc headed by an imported queen in April/May.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
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