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Beehive IDs Ease Sting of Thievery

As insects' value rises, keepers are turning to microchip technology to help thwart theft.

March 28, 2004|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — A flatbed truck drives down a dirt road that pierces a blossoming almond orchard. It stops suddenly in front of a cluster of unguarded white boxes propped on crates, home to hundreds of thousands of honeybees.

It's the middle of the night, and the bees -- after a full day of pollinating the fields -- have settled into their hives. It's the perfect time to steal.

The thieves load the colonies onto the truck and drive off, hoping to sell the cargo to unsuspecting almond growers desperate to put the bees' pollinating power to work in their orchards, no questions asked.

For decades, there was little beekeepers could do to fight such thieves. Poaching was considered an unfortunate cost of doing business.

But a steady decrease in the bee population nationwide, the rise in honey prices and the increase in the popularity of crops they pollinate has made the bee industry take a stand. Beekeepers like those across the San Joaquin Valley began inserting rice-sized microchips, commonly used by veterinarians to track pets, into their hives this year.

"It's basically a theft recovery system," said Jerry Bromenshenk, a research scientist at the University of Montana who helped develop the technology. "It's been used in biological sciences for well over 20 years."

Joe Traynor, a broker from Bakersfield who matches beekeepers with growers, came up with the idea of drilling into the frames of hives and inserting the $2 microchips.

"You've seen enough of these programs where you track fish or wild animals," he said. "It wasn't much to think about."

He then attached signs to each hive, warning trespassers that the bees were "permanently identified with AVID microchips." If a hive is stolen, a transmitter placed a few inches away will emit radio waves that can identify the embedded chip.

This sudden reliance on technology is an uncommon move for an industry that has experienced few changes in a century.

Beekeepers today use the same tools as their fathers and grandfathers. The beehives are still made of wood, the smokers used to pacify the bees are the same and the technique of separating hives into frames hasn't changed.

"Basically everything we do was a craft that came to be over 100 years ago," said beekeeper Wayne Morris, standing in a Bakersfield office where the most modern piece of technology was an old typewriter. "Nothing's really changed to automate our industry."

But with each hive now costing $50 to $140, keepers no longer can afford to stick with tradition.

When 180 hives were stolen from Steve Gregg in Tulare County last year, he said that he suffered a $10,000 hit to his business.

"When you lose your hives, it's no different than when somebody steals a $10,000 car," he said.

Because California is the world's main source of almonds and the country's top provider of honey, bees have become a highly sought-after resource.

With 530,000 acres of almonds -- providing almost 85% of the world's supply -- each requiring two beehives to work the fields, the San Joaquin Valley needs nearly 1.1 million hives during the six-week almond season that begins in February, experts say.

But it's that demand that has driven some beekeepers to steal, keepers say.

"All of a sudden it makes it lucrative to steal something," said Morris, who trucks in bees from Montana. "When the price of honey was worth nothing, it wasn't worth the risk to steal."

The Fresno County Sheriff's Department, which recorded the highest number of bee thefts in the state last year, said keepers are finally heeding police advice to start using the tracking technology.

"We've been preaching this for years and years," said Sgt. Frances Devin, who is in charge of the department's agricultural crimes task force. "They're now recognizing that this isn't going to change and that if they don't do something about it, they're going to continue to lose their bees."

Traynor already has seen a difference in Kern County, one of the largest almond-producing regions in the Central Valley. He said more than 450 hives were stolen from his beekeepers last year, but none this year.

"It mostly is a deterrent," said Dave Winter, who lost 60 hives to thieves last year in Kern County. "Mostly it's going to keep people from doing it."

Still, the system is not perfect. It can show only whether a recovered hive belongs to the victim. And it can only do so if the transmitter is a few inches away from the chip.

Devin, who said beekeepers in her county have lost more than 220 hives this year, encourages the industry to continue seeking more sophisticated technology to protect themselves.

"Most law enforcement officers are not going to go and get really close to the beehive because obviously we don't want to get stung," she said.

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