Bee Hive Thefts in Southwest Florida Prompt Formation of Task Force

By MICHAEL BRAUN, The News-Press | August 30, 2016

None of the hundreds of stolen hives have been recovered, law enforcement agencies said.

Southwest Florida bee farmers are having a difficult summer because thieves have been stealing their hives, lots of them, to the tune of $150,000 or more.

More than 500 hives have been taken from large corporate-type bee farms to small, mom-and-pop operations since June in Lee and Charlotte counties.

Statewide, around 1,200 hives have been taken this year.

The thefts have prompted the formation of a multi-state task force and have hurt some smaller bee operations enough that some are considering quitting what had once been been viable honey and pollination operations. Worker bees pollinate plants when they go from flower to flower.

Wonderful Bees, with operations in Lee and Charlotte counties, is one of the larger bee providers in the United States. The company has reported nearly 400 hives stolen in two locations in Lee County and another with a similar number of hives in Charlotte County since the end of June.

Gene McAvoy, agricultural agent for Hendry County and a regional vegetable agent with the University of Florida, said Wonderful Bees has had 732 hives stolen in recent weeks. With hives worth roughly $215 to $250 each that would make the company’s losses more than $150,000 since June.

The number of hives and their value were not included in the Charlotte County report but the charge for anyone arrested in this case was listed as felony grand theft, which is based on the theft of items totaling from $20,000 to under $100,000.

Mark T. Carmel, spokesman for Wonderful Bees, said he couldn’t comment due to the police investigation. The company is offering $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction of those responsible.

“We take any theft of our property very seriously and are working closely with local law enforcement,” he said.

None of the hundreds of hives stolen have been recovered, local law enforcement officials said, and the only evidence at the theft sites were tire tracks.

Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers recently released an alert about the thefts and offered $1,000 for information leading to an arrest. Those with information can call 800-780-8477.

McAvoy said Hendry County has experienced its share of bee thefts over the years but not the scope of Wonderful Bees’ recent losses.

“There’s a lot of thefts in agriculture in Hendry County,” McAvoy said. He said the bees are an attractive target because they are a critical component in farming with the insects responsible for pollinating crops such as citrus, cucumbers and watermelons.

“A lot of people don’t realize there are about 2 million bees moved around this country,” McAvoy said.

There are many reasons for the hive thefts, such as wanting to resell them, wanting to build an operation for pollinating almond growing operations in California, or local pollination or honey production, said Melissa Councell. She operates Councell Farms Professional Bee Removal in Cape Coral with her husband Keith.

She said an established hive can be worth up to $300.

Cape Coral beekeeper Thomas Morgan has lost a number of hives to thieves this summer and, earlier in 2016, a smaller beekeeper in Lehigh Acres had 12 hives taken.

Morgan, a beekeeper and honey producer for 37 years, might close his nearly thousand-hive Southwest Florida operation by December because of the thefts.

Thieves took most of the honey and a few of the hives from 200 of his boxes. A fence protecting the hive area had been cut.

“I don’t do this just for me,” the Cape Coral beekeeper said. “I’ve supported a family, two families actually. It’s like someone taking the crabs out of a crab pot. It’s affecting my livelihood.”

The crime is not just local. According to a report aired on NPR, California reported 1,734 hives stolen during peak almond pollination season in 2016. In one area, Butte County, the number of stolen hives jumped from 200 in 2015 to 400 this year.

“These are real professional thieves,” Morgan said. “They aren’t beekeepers. You have a new breed of thieves here, they are pushy and ruthless.”

He said it is not difficult for thieves to take hives because the boxes are usually placed in cow pastures or fields and can be hidden by trees and brush. All it takes is a front-end loader and a flatbed truck to load the hives.

He has taken to placing hives behind locked gates, but even that hasn’t helped. “What am I supposed to do,” he said. “It hurts. It hurts a lot and puts a lot of pressure on me.”

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