Beekeepers are stealing each other’s hives to survive the cutthroat industry

Desperate times call for desperate measures, even among beekeepers resistant to change.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, even among beekeepers resistant to change.
Image: Bee Corp
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Nearly a million-dollars worth of honeybees stolen from almond orchards in Fresno, California were located last spring. Police caught one of the thieves while he was tending to 100 of the pilfered hives; they later found his accomplice—and the 2,000 other hives the duo stole—in two other local fields. The scale of this operation is shocking. But smaller beehive heists happen all around the US every year, and the loss of even a couple of hives can seriously dent many pollination businesses.

Bee Corp thinks they have a solution. The two-year-old start up offers a program called Hive Theft Tracking, which alerts beekeepers to theft with motion sensors and GPS devices attached to hives. Bee Corp is one of the latest businesses to offer tech panaceas for apiary struggles. Despite its relative success, and the other beekeeping-related products it has in its pipeline, the company has a tough sell ahead of them. Beekeepers are slow to change, and most theft solutions complicate bee management by adding extra equipment, not a great selling point for a business that has to be mobile to succeed. But hive robbery is a growing concern, so the antiquated business might just have to jump into the digital age.

Two years after starting an undergraduate beekeeping program at Indiana University, Ellie Symes had the idea for a digital bee-monitoring service. She enlisted three of her fellow students to enter a business-plan competition held by their university. The group won funding, and Bee Corp was off the ground.

Their first step after receiving the grant: interviewing beekeepers to learn what their top management priorities were. To their surprise, theft came up often. So the small company outfitted hives with off-the-shelf motion sensor and GPS hardware, and fed the raw data they gathered into proprietary software installed, which translated it into actionable feedback, delivered to clients online.

A Bee Corp theft-deterring sensor installed on a hive
A Bee Corp theft-deterring sensor installed on a hive.
Image: Bee Corp

The federal government is a fan of Bee Corp’s work; this January, it received a National Science Foundation grant to research hardware and software solutions for honeybee diseases. Symes hopes their eventual suite of detection software can be routed through a single physical sensor.

The question, though, is do the bee businesses want Bee Corp’s help? David Tarpy, a queen-bee researcher at North Carolina State University, has seen different beekeeper tech business come and go. While it seems like Bee Corp’s wide GPS range would be appealing, he’s noticed that beekeepers are mostly indifferent to monitors, no matter the features. The “technology” they do like is old—the preferred hive designs were patented in the 1850s. “We’re literally still processing beekeeping with 19th century technology,” says Tarpy. Most commercial beekeepers would like to keep it that way.

“I think a lot of beekeepers including myself are old school, and don’t really want to put tech into our beehives,” says Mike Tolmachoff, the current California State Beekeepers Association president, and owner of 900 commercial crop-pollination hives. Tolmachoff has been robbed multiple times, as have many of his colleagues.

Even so, beekeepers generally trust that labeling their hives is sufficient to ward off potential thieves. Tolmachoff buys and sells hives often, so he stencils his insignia onto the sides so they are immediately recognizable. Other beekeepers will go a step further, engraving their names into the sides of their hives. But a thief can easily paint over Tolmachoff’s label, and experienced bee snatchers know to chip off engraved names they encounter, as well. A few of Tolmachoff’s beekeeper friends have installed 24/7 cameras, but “some are like me and just put beehives out and hope for the best,” he says. “I’m very vulnerable out there.”

Tolmachoff chooses risk over tech because most tracking options make his highly-mobile business more difficult. Commercial beekeepers truck their bees around the nation to meet every crop’s pollinating period, so unless a monitoring system is portable, it’s not going to be particularly useful. At each new location, the beekeepers need to reassemble their hives on pallets dispersed throughout the acres, in layouts that depend on the grower’s requirements.

Since Tolmachoff’s hives are always shifting in relation to one another, he’d need a sensor for each of his 900 hives. Bee Corp charges $100 per sensor a year. That’s not financially sustainable. Other bee-tracking startups would charge $400 a year for a fleet the size of Tolmachoff’s, but their positioning data is less precise and not as useful for immediate theft detection.

Theft is unpredictable, says Tolmachoff, and the idea of sometimes spending more on security than it’s worth is off-putting. And of course, the investment is useless if a thief knows what to look for, and simply rips off a sensor off a hive, leaves the tracking device behind and escapes with the honey-maker, invisible to technology’s eyes.

Even with this list of hesitations, Tolmachoff knows he’ll probably buy into a program like Bee Corp’s eventually. Each hive costs $300, but he loses $300 per hive that doesn’t pollinate fields or provide honey. In addition, says Tolmachoff, getting robbed is emotionally disturbing. “You get that deep down gut feeling of ‘I’m vulnerable, someone stole from me.’”

In 2017, US beekeepers earned $171 per hive for almonds, and growers rented out 1.5 million colonies for that one nut. Almonds are becoming more popular, and as beekeepers struggle to keep up with demand, the odds of a keeper nicking an extra hive from a colleague—it’s happened to Tolmachoff—grows, too. If Tolmachoff and other old-school beekeepers go for anti-theft monitors, it’s not going to be because they like what’s being sold. “We have to give into this tech,” admits Tolmachoff. “We almost don’t have a choice.”