How to Steal 50 Million Bees

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Lloyd Cunniff felt terrible, literally sick to his stomach, about trucking his bees to California, but fate had painted him into a corner. Bad weather, bad luck, scrawny, needy bees—a whole mess of headaches had upset the economics at Beeline Honey, his third-generation apiary in Montana. It was colony collapse in 2015 that had really tipped things sideways. The mysterious affliction, which causes worker bees to vacate a hive en masse, had destroyed half of the Beeline colonies. Cunniff and his wife, Brenda, were down to 489 hives, when he bit the bullet and did the thing he really didn’t want to do.

In January 2017, Cunniff piled 488 of his 489 bee boxes—24 to a pallet—onto a semitruck trailer, strapped them down, and headed west to chase the sweet, sweet almond dollars that were drawing so many of his beekeeping brethren to California’s Central Valley. Loaning his bees out for a season, 1,000 miles away, made him very uncomfortable. But if your business is bees, California is where the big money is. Or it is at least in February, when 1.2 million acres of almond trees don’t get pollinated without the help of honeybees, which love almond flowers. California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and over the past 15 years the trees have come to dominate the valley, pushing out all kinds of row crops. There aren’t enough California bees to pollinate them, so every year the call goes out to keepers: Bring your boxes west. An acre of almond trees needs at least two hives, meaning that every February, 2.5 million colonies—two-thirds of the commercial honeybee colonies in the U.S.—are clustered in a few California counties. Beekeepers command as much as $200 per hive for the season, which runs a few weeks.

Cunniff has a long-standing relationship with Strachan Apiaries, a Yuba City-based business that’s one of the most famous names in American bees. Don Strachan, the founder, helped Cunniff’s grandfather get his apiary up and running. For years now, Valeri Strachan, Don’s granddaughter, has sent a few trucks of California bees to Montana to make clover honey in the summer, when there’s little for those bees to eat or do in the Central Valley. So when Cunniff decided to participate in the 2017 almond season, the Strachans were happy to help out an old friend. They arranged for farmers to hire his bees and offered to keep them for a few weeks until it was time to head south from Sutter County toward Fresno and the trees.

When Cunniff arrived in Yuba City, the Strachans directed him and his truck to a dike running along some sunflower fields southwest of town, between the Sacramento River and the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge, and that’s where he unloaded his bees on Jan. 17, arranging the boxes in tidy rows. Leaving them that evening, Cunniff felt better about things. The bees seemed happy; that’s what he told Brenda when he called her from his hotel.

The next morning he rose early and drove back to the site. The fog had rolled in overnight, and Lloyd couldn’t see 100 feet past his nose, so he wandered around to make certain he wasn’t fog-blind. Then he double-checked to be sure he was in the right place, because goddamn if something weird hadn’t happened: The hives were gone.

Almost 50 million bees, in 488 white boxes with cedar lids, every one of them hand-crafted by Cunniff, had vanished into the fog.

The first thing Philip Strachan, Valeri’s son, thought when Cunniff called him in a fugue state, muttering about stolen bees, was that this was the work of professionals. No normal criminal would think to steal bees or have the equipment or know-how to pull it off. Cunniff was thinking the same way, and the evidence was right there in the dirt. He could tell by the thieves’ tracks that they’d used single-axle, dual-wheeled straight trucks, and not semis, probably because they knew there wasn’t room to turn a semi around in a hurry. He also saw signs of a forklift, so they’d come prepared to lift pallets.

Hives go missing; that’s no surprise. But historically, Strachan says, it’s been “one here, two there.” Just some drunk opportunists in a pickup. But this was a methodical operation. Cunniff’s weren’t the only hives taken. In total, more than 700 of them, valued at as much as a million dollars, went missing in a single night. In addition to the heavy equipment, the burglars needed the gear required to subdue and corral the boxes—namely, full keeper suits and hand-held smokers. Whoever did this knew how to handle bees.

And this wasn’t the first time, either. What sounds to novice ears like the plot of Fargo Season 4—a crew of guys in white suits and beekeeper hoods boosting hives in the fog—is a small but growing niche of agricultural crime. Two years prior, someone stole a bunch of hives in a neighboring county, and the next year more were taken, Strachan says. Counting the loss of Cunniff’s bees in 2017, then, “it was three years in a row that we had large thefts in this area.”

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, hive heists are an epidemic. There the motive is manuka honey, a highly prized variety that goes for $150 a kilogram (or 2.2 pounds), and authorities suspect an organized crime syndicate may be to blame. “It doesn’t matter if it’s beekeeping or meth; this is just the new gold rush,” one apiary manager told Reuters.

The culprits in California were almost certainly not local. Beekeepers are a close-knit community. They share wisdom and are aware of one another’s operations and equipment, particularly within a given area. Anyone new showing up with a bunch of hives for hire is going to stand out. “I wouldn’t steal my neighbor’s car and park it right next door,” Strachan says. “And it was pretty obvious that if you were going to take them from this area, they’re probably going to take them straight down to the almonds.”

Cunniff grew up around bees and hears their buzz in his sleep. His grandfather tended hives on the high plains of Montana, so did his father, and so did he, as soon as he was old enough to participate, at age 13. The morning of the theft, Cunniff drove around in a daze, his hope dwindling. He stopped every time he saw a beekeeper tending to boxes, but their reactions sunk his spirits further. The bees, folks said, were almost certainly gone forever. Stolen bees just aren’t found. “One kid said that he’d lost 300 colonies the year before and never saw anything of them,” Cunniff recalls.

He’d hated the idea of moving his bees in the first place, but this was far worse than anything he imagined. He’d lost so much more than the $100,000 in pollination fees. His entire livelihood was gone. One day, he had almost 500 hives. The next, he had one. “I was 57 years old, and I had to start over from scratch,” he says. “Where I had been thinking about retiring, now I got to … there’s no way I can retire now.”

Valeri Strachan, a former president of the California State Beekeepers Association, mobilized that organization. The CSBA has a fund for rewards, and it put up $10,000 for information that could lead to an arrest and conviction for the hive thefts. More important, law enforcement took notice. Agriculture crime detectives in Madera, Sutter, and Fresno counties were all put on the case, and the FBI even offered assistance.

Around the state, bee people were on the lookout for boxes that fit the description of those stolen from Cunniff and several others, but with 2.5 million hives in a concentrated area, the task was daunting. California law requires commercial keepers to brand their boxes by burning or cutting a state-assigned number into the wood. But the law isn’t strictly followed. Some beekeepers can’t be bothered, whereas others, such as Cunniff, are from out of state.

Market forces wouldn’t help, either. Demand in almond season is often desperate, something thieves can exploit. “You’re going to come across somebody who may not have bees on his almonds yet, and you’re like, ‘Do you want bees?’ And that guy is not going to ask questions,” Philip Strachan says, “because without those bees, he’s not going to have a crop.”

Cunniff’s main business is honey. That’s how it used to be for most apiaries, especially those on the high plains of the western U.S., where the air is clear, the water is clean, and the forage, as keepers call the many plants bees plunder for pollen and nectar, is plentiful. Bees in Montana and the Dakotas produce more honey per hive than any other bees in America, and that’s been good enough to keep three generations of Cunniffs housed and fed, with money left over to vacation in Hawaii and send the kids to good colleges.

But the business isn’t what it used to be, for them or anyone else who raises bees commercially. Today’s commercial beekeeper can never relax. He can expect to lose 30 percent of his bee stock every year, from bad flower years, pesticides, disease, and bears, which really do love honey, just like the cartoons say. Climate change is a problem, especially as it pertains to drought, because bees need lots of water. They both drink it and collect it to take back to the hives for the queen and her nurses, which is why you always find bees floating in pools and buzzing around leaky sinks.

“We spend so much money to keep them alive,” Cunniff says. “We feed them pollen substitutes that we never, ever dreamed of.” Those are $2.50 a pop for each hive. “They used to make enough honey to make it through the winter. Now they won’t make it. You got to feed them corn syrup at 40¢ a gallon.” Twice a year, he treats for varroa mites, a scourge his father never had to deal with. The treatment used to cost $1 a hive. It’s now $4.

“It’s probably twice the labor it used to be to maintain the beehives,” says Valeri Strachan, who took over the Strachan Apiaries business when her father passed away and will soon hand it over to Philip. Honey is third on the list of revenue streams for the Strachans. Above that is queen bee breeding. If an apiary in America is using Carniolan queens, they’ve almost certainly been bred by the Strachans, who’ve perfected the art. Valeri’s specialty, and it’s a rare one, is instrumental insemination. She’s one of a handful of Americans who can extract semen from drone bees and use it to inseminate virgin queens, a delicate skill requiring a steady hand, tiny tools, and a microscope. The Strachans produce close to 50,000 queen bees a year. “We use some, some die, and then the rest are shipped,” Philip says. A healthy Carniolan queen costs $31 (or $28 if you buy bulk); she’ll be sent overnight by UPS in a tiny box with screened sides along with six bodyguard bees that tend to her needs in transit.

At the top of the pyramid for the Strachans is pollination. The company maintains an average of 10,000 hives in a given year, an exponential leap from the 600 Valeri’s father started with and the most it has the space for. Bees move from almonds to prunes to any one of many other crops: apples, cherries, melons, sunflowers. This summer there are eight Strachan hives in a cilantro field; others will soon be sent to farmers of alfalfa seed.

Back in 2013, a Whole Foods in Rhode Island wanted people to recognize how important bees are to their daily diet. For a few days, the market removed all produce that grew on plants that depend on pollinators. More than half of the section was empty: 237 of 453 products in the section, or 52 percent of the store’s produce, were gone.

In late May 2017, four months after Cunniff’s hives vanished in the fog, someone who knew enough about bees to recognize an odd sight called the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office to report something suspicious: A vacant lot at the intersection of two roads about 20 minutes east of downtown Fresno was filled with bee boxes—many more than any reputable beekeeper would store at a single location. And it wasn’t just too many boxes. These were scattered all over the one-acre lot, stacked haphazardly, and in various shapes, sizes, and colors.

When a Fresno County Sheriff’s deputy arrived at midday to inspect the site, bees impeded his investigation. They’re most active in warm temperatures, and these bees were agitated—too agitated for him to get anywhere near the boxes without getting stung.

Cops returned later, this time after dark, and found what Fresno Detective Andres Solis called a “chop shop” for hives. A man in full beekeeper regalia—veil and all—was sitting in a passage between some stacked boxes that seemed to be his workspace. He appeared to be in the process of splitting each colony into two, so he’d have twice as many hives to market. (Half the hives would then be without a queen, of course, but healthy hives often split anyway, when they get overpopulated. The bees make a new queen from a fertilized egg.) Nearby was a station where someone had been sanding and repainting, as well as a stencil for the name that had been sloppily spray-painted on many of the boxes: Allstate Apiaries Inc.

That was the name of the apiary operated by the man detectives arrested there, a 51-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Pavel Tveretinov, who’d been renting hives to local almond growers and selling them to buyers around the U.S.

Detectives asked a local beekeeper named Ryan Cousins to come down to the lot and help them ID the hives so they could begin the process of getting the very angry insects back to their rightful owners. Cunniff’s boxes weren’t marked, but they were handmade and had a unique configuration of frames inside. Cousins recognized them from photos Valeri Strachan had posted on Facebook.

The police called the Cunniffs in Montana, and Lloyd and Brenda drove immediately to Great Falls to catch a flight to Fresno. They were on a stopover in Salt Lake City when a detective called with an update. “He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we found two more locations with your bees since you got on the plane this morning!’ ” Cunniff recalls.

In California he went immediately to one of the lots and wandered through the rows of tipped and broken boxes, angry bees buzzing around his head. “Hives were tipped over and mixed together,” Cunniff says. “Oh God, it was like a nightmare.” Many had been split from their normal two-story configuration into single hives, not to mention painted over and affixed with the new stencil. He spotted some hives that looked familiar. He pulled out his phone and called the young man he’d met near Yuba City the day his own hives were taken, the one who said he’d lost 300 hives and was sure they were gone forever. He thought he ought to tell him he was right: None of his bees were left. “It was just empty equipment,” Cunniff says.

The authorities recovered more than 600 hives at the three locations, stolen over the course of at least three years. They charged Tveretinov, along with another Ukrainian immigrant, Vitaliy Yeroshenko, with 10 felony counts of possession of stolen property, and estimated that the value of the stolen equipment and bees was at least $875,000, making it “the largest bee-theft investigation we’ve ever had,” says Arley Terrence, a sergeant in the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

Beekeepers from three states flew in to assess the damage and salvage what they could. “We had no intention of bringing anything home,” Cunniff says. The insurance company had told him not to. “But once we got down there, there was so much equipment, we just couldn’t leave it.”

Cousins called some friends, who brought a truck and a forklift and helped Cunniff load his gear and the remaining bees. The truck wasn’t big enough to carry it all, so they left some overnight, and when they went back in the morning it was gone. “They had come in and stolen some of the stuff, again,” Cunniff says. It was later recovered, again.

In beekeeper circles, it’s widely believed the arrested men are part of a larger criminal enterprise. But neither the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office nor the district attorney assigned to the case is pursuing that angle. The trial has yet to be scheduled, and the defendants have pleaded not guilty. Detectives initially feared the men would be a flight risk, but they’ve appeared at every hearing. “I’m a little surprised that they keep showing up,” Sheriff’s office spokesman Tony Botti says. “But they’re still insisting they’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t understand it.”

Sometime this fall, Kelsey Peterson, a deputy district attorney and agriculture crimes prosecutor, will open the state’s case against the two defendants in a courtroom at the Fresno County Courthouse, which itself looks very much like a honeycomb. As of late May, her investigator, Doug Bolton, was still pursuing leads in the hope that she might be able to add theft charges on top of possession. “I’d like to do that for the victims,” Peterson says.

Cunniff trucked his bees home last summer, but he and Brenda had already started over with all new hives, most of them started with Carniolan queens either given to him or sold at an extreme discount by the Strachans. “We were starting over, and then all of a sudden these other bees show up,” he says. He had to quarantine the old bees, to make sure they hadn’t picked up any diseases. “That’s like a whole different operation. You can’t go work on those colonies and then come work on the new colonies unless you sterilize all your equipment and change gloves,” he says. “I had to hire three or four guys just to try to keep up with all these different things that we were doing at the same time.”

Insurance covered a chunk of his losses, but not the loss of income from the missed almond season or all the honey he couldn’t make last year. This year his policy premiums jumped $8,000. The insurance company also decided it would no longer cover lost bees, only equipment.

That’s why, when January 2018 rolled around, Cunniff was once more doing the thing he’d hated to do in the first place, the thing he’d thought he’d never do again. He stacked his hives—456 of them—on a truck, strapped them down, and headed for California. This time he took precautions. Instead of bringing in the hives early to settle in and acclimate—but also give “everybody that’s crooked a chance to scope everything out and drive around and find stuff that’s easy to get to”—Cunniff waited until the last possible minute to take them west.

Unlike last year, the bees all came home. “They made some money, and we got them back in pretty good shape,” he says.

 

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