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From The TimesApril 27, 2009

Bee burglers plunder hives to sell on growing black market

Kaya Burgess

Thieves are braving stings and swarms to steal vast numbers of honey bees from beekeepers in Britain, and may be selling them on an apian black market.

Break-ins at bee farms around the country have resulted in the theft of entire hives, leading bee farmers to suspect that the thieves must have good knowledge of bees and how to sell them on in large numbers.

Rising interest in beekeeping has coincided with a dramatic reduction in the bee population in Britain caused by disease and wet summers, leading to a sharp increase in the value of a common-or-garden honeybee.

This month bee burglars broke into Common Farm in Staffordshire and stole 18 hives of honeybees — about 800,000 bees worth up to £6,000 — in an act that has horrified the bee-keeping community.

Richard Lindsey, a bee farmer who runs the Great Little Honey Company at Rowley Hill Farm in Stretton, was shocked at the scale of the theft. “It’s soul destroying,” he said. “I went to check on the hives and all that was left were the stands. It had been cleaned out completely.

“It must have been someone who knew what they were doing — someone in the trade. You would need equipment to load them on to a truck and they’re not easy to lift.

“And you would have to know what you were doing — if you drop them or let them out you’d get badly stung up without protection.”

The bees were kept in large square wooden hives in an apiary in a wood on a strawberry farm in Staffordshire. Mr Lindsey’s bees were used to pollinate the strawberry crop as well as to provide honey, which has also increased in value because of the shortage of bees.

“It will cost me £6,000 to replace them,” Mr Lindsey said. “And that’s without taking into account the loss of breeding stock I had, and I’ve lost the honey crop off them this year, which was worth £50 per hive at least.”

According to Mr Lindsey, bee thievery is a lucrative business. “There could well be a black market. Bees aren’t identifiable and the demand for bees from beginners far outweighs supply. I know of someone who had 12 hives stolen, another five hives and another four.

“It’s definitely worth someone’s while to steal bees, divide the hives up and sell them on.”

The bee population has been ravaged by diseases such as Colony Collapse Disorder and a variety of parasites and viruses.

Pollination of crops by honey bees is worth up to £200 million a year to British farmers, and their indirect contribution to the food industry is estimated at up to £1 billion.

Two-thirds of the bees in London are estimated to have died this winter and two consecutive wet summers have further reduced the population around the country.

John Howat, secretary of the Bee Farmers’ Association, said: “I imagine that the increase in demand for hives from the public following all the press coverage about bees over the last year, together with the very high prices now being demanded due to shortages following losses has prompted this spate of thefts.

“Worryingly, it is obvious that whoever is doing it has experience in keeping and moving bees.

“I always thought we beekeepers were a small but honest crowd of people.”

Mr Howat recommends branding or marking beehives to make them more identifiable, and even wearing darker-coloured bee suits to avoid being conspicuous to passers-by.

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