Beehive Thefts

Beehives along a private driveway

Beehives along a private driveway

There's been a rash of beehive thefts lately.

The price of manuka honey is soaring at the moment. So the bee industry is growing like crazy with lots of new beekeepers coming in to the industry to try and take advantage of the honey rush.

And this means the value of beehives is increasing too. A 2 box hive used to cost around $700 a couple of years ago, now its above $1000.

When anything becomes too valuable too fast, this is also an opportunity for less scrupulous people to take advantage also. Hence the increase in beehive thefts.

Where are the bee thefts from?

Now I am not the police, or any official body, so all that follows is anecdotal only. But it seems that beehive thefts have been occurring in quite a few places.

Here are the ones that I have seen mentioned just in the last month:

  • North Waikato
  • Wanganui
  • Tauranga
  • Hokianga
  • South Wairarapa

Doesn't seem to be such a problem in the South Island, but maybe that's just because the beekeepers there haven't complained where I look.

What have the thieves been doing?

Well, this is where it gets a bit bizarre.

There's the usual - what you might expect - thieves take whole boxes, often 2 box hives at this time of year - cart the whole lot off and leave a dent in the grass. In one case they took the boxes but left the bases.

And how many hives are taken? It depends a bit how many hives are in an apiary. And how many make a ute load. But the numbers seem to be from 12 to dozens.

Often they have cut through padlocks to get into paddocks, or lifted the whole lot over wire fences, no easy task.

But, another variation is the thieves took just the frames and bees out of the boxes, and left the boxes behind. 

Then bizarrely, there have been a couple of cases it seems, where the thieves took the frames, and replaced them with new plastic foundation frames. Is that weird or not? Well, maybe, maybe not, see the next section for some theories.

Who are these bee thieves anyway?

Anyone who steals beehives has to know what they are doing. They will be experienced, or semi-experienced, beekeepers. 

There is likely to be at least 2 working together - 2 box hives are too heavy to lift alone usually.

They will have all the specialist equipment required - well, except those things they might steal from you. This means bee suits, and trucks or utes, and hive tools and all that.

Most beehives are situated away from main road, so the thieves will likely be someone with local knowledge.

One beekeeper who was stolen from quite a few times, and had the thieves finally arrested, said that in every case the thieves were employees, people related to employees, or ex-employees. So for his case, all thefts were inside jobs in some way. This might explain the replacing the frames with empty ones - it looks like they are just doing their business to onlookers, and the boss.

In any case, it has been suggested that the stolen frames will be put into new boxes, as often the boxes have identification marks on them. Which also explains the 'steal only the frames' scenario.

And what do they do with the stolen hives? Your guess is as good as mine, but to make money out of them - the supposed point of stealing you would think - it is likely they will either sell the hives on, say on trademe, or harvest the honey and sell it. Or both.

How to protect your hives

If you have your hives sitting out on your back lawn and you can see them out your kitchen window, and you never go anywhere anyway, you are sweet.

The problem with hives is they are usually in some remote place away from human habitation, so anything that happens to them is unseen. Add to that, the fact that some beekeeping tasks, especially moving hives, need to happen at night, and it is really difficult to keep an eye on bees on an ongoing basis.

Apparently Russian beekeepers live in tents on site to prevent their bees being stolen. And some big commercials have guards on sites with lots of bees.

But what else can you do?

1. Put your hives away from public gaze - up the back of a property, off road, somewhere that can't been seen from the road. This will at least reduce opportunists.

2. Put your hives somewhere where to access them involves a drive past your/your farmer's house.

3. Lock gates.

4. Someone locks their brood box to a concrete slab with a padlock. 

5. Paint your hive boxes distinctive colours and patterns.

6. Brand your apiary/business name on the boxes. Ebay has cheap woodworking branding devices.

7. Brand your beek registration number on the top of your frames.

8. Trev's Bees (actually his talented wife Teresa) has stencils to paint on your beek number or phone number nz.bees.net.

9. Install a hunting trail camera at the road exit, to capture photos and videos of beekeepers and number plates of vehicles. These are not cheap, around $200. But hives are quite expensive, so could be good insurance.

10. Then there are tracking devices. There are a range of these - tile trackers from trademe around $40, to GPS trackers designed for cars. The issues here are:

  • you need a tracker small enough to hide in a beehive or frame
  • the battery needs to last long enough to make it useful to track
  • the range of the signal needs to be sufficient for moving the hives away from where you and your phone is
  • full GPS or 2G/3G phone coverage? Will the hives be somewhere out in the wops or in a good reception area?
  • and it needs to be really cheap - if you are a commercial operation with thousands of hives then the cost is significant

There doesn't seem to be the perfect solution yet - a business opportunity for someone perhaps?

What can the community do?

Apart from individual beekeepers taking steps to protect their hives, what can the general community do?

1. If you have been stolen from, go to the police.

2. Share theft information to local community pages, and publicize in any other local ways that might produce leads to information.

3. Watch trademe for sales of beehives, in case yours turn up there.

4. If you have hives on other landowners' farms, suggest to them to not mention to all and sundry that they have hives - less is more in terms of local knowledge.

And there were a few suggestions about taking photos of every sight of hives being moved, just in case. Or trucking companies taking photos of hives being transported, as they drive at night. It depends a bit on where you feel you are on the vigilante scale, as to how far you might go with this.