CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia beekeeper Mark C. Baker had high hopes for his valuable hives as he readied them for the cross-country journey to California's almond groves.
Instead, bandits stole nearly $10,000 worth of his brood.
"It's like taking your heart out and expecting you to prosper," Baker said.
As the number of beekeepers in West Virginia has grown to 1,159 from 200 in the past 15 years, so has their vulnerability to unscrupulous beekeepers, brokers and growers who steal bees valuable for their pollination and honey production, said state apiarist Paul Poling.
The economic consequences of the thefts are potentially devastating for an industry already in trouble. The sharp decline in the honeybee population following the arrival of varroa mites and Colony Collapse Disorder has led to premium prices for top-quality bees.
A pound of honey today can bring three times as much as it did just a few years ago, while the price for renting a hive for pollination services nearly quadrupled to about $200 per hive during the blooming season.
Although the seasonal rental fee is expected to drop to between $130 and $150 per hive for next spring's pollination season, heists are becoming more of a problem on both sides of the Atlantic as thieves sell the bees for profit or use them to supplement their own colonies.
This past summer, thieves stole about 500,000 bees destined for the Balmoral royal estate in Scotland to make honey for Prince Charles' Duchy Originals luxury food label. Last month, police in Scotland launched an investigation into the theft of another 240,000 bees.
Bee thieves struck hard last winter in California's Central Valley, where the nation's almonds grow, nabbing hives from farmers' fields where bees were pollinating blossoming nut trees.
California beekeeper Dion Ashurst said the sluggish economy isn't helping.
"A lot of people are getting desperate," said Ashurst, who was been victimized several times by bee thieves.
"It's really disheartening when you work so hard on your own hives and crops, and they can get snatched in the blink of an eye," Ashurst said. "What really bugs most beekeepers is it's one of our own," someone with the equipment and experience to safely move bees.
Baker said his first foray into the lucrative bee-renting business last year was an eye opener. He joined two cooperatives involving dozens of beekeepers in West Virginia, Maryland, Michigan and Pennsylvania who paid thousands of dollars to ship their bees across country in time for the pollination season. What was hoped to be a lucrative deal turned into losses that nearly wiped out at least one member of the co-op.
Baker said the venture was doomed "from the minute our hives were put on the ground in California" as he believes the bees were stolen by the men who brokered the deal for the cooperatives.
"It was very obvious that we didn't know who we were dealing with," he said.
Pinning the crime on the guilty party is another matter entirely. A criminal investigation was launched, but Baker said he doubts he and the other co-op members will ever recover their losses or see anyone punished.
Stolen frames are easily disguised in new hives often relocated hundreds of miles away. Thieves are also difficult to catch because they often strike at night when bees have returned to the hives, which are located in isolated areas.
Although microchips implanted in hives and frames are becoming more popular as a crime deterrent, they can be expensive and can only be traced at close range using a hand-held scanner. California beekeeper Orin Johnson said in some cases, microchips can "cost you double the value of your hives."
Beehive thefts also tend to fall to the bottom of police departments' priority lists, said Johnson's wife, Patricia, treasurer of the California State Beekeepers Association.
Suspects, including the one who stole 70 of Orin Johnson's hives several years ago, can easily claim they bought the bees from someone else.
"Most of the time they don't get them back," Patricia Johnson said of the owners. Such thefts have always been a problem, but they are "more lucrative now" because of the rising value of healthy bees and honey.
Bill Barbe, a beekeeper in West Virginia's Mineral County, has shipped bees to California for the past four or five years with "tremendous success," grossing enough profit to pay all of his expenses for the next year. He hasn't had problems but knows several beekeepers who haven't been as fortunate.
"You're taking a tremendous risk with some brokers," he said, which is one reason he deals directly with growers he knows.
"You have to be careful," Barbe said. "The best thing to do is try to meet the person and make sure you know who you're dealing with."