Honeybee Chop Shop

An EcoChi Vital Abstract

This podcast was recorded on July 30, 2019 and hosted by Peter Gwin, National Geographic.

What is a honeybee chop shop, and why do they exist? As pollinators, honeybees are essential to bringing most of the food we eat to our tables, and their use in large-scale commercial farming is a very expensive and lucrative process. Writer Rene Ebersole and honeybee farmer Joe Romance talk with us about the shady business of stealing bees.

PETER GWIN (HOST): It’s bad enough when someone steals from you. It’s even worse when they light the thing they stole on fire.

JOE ROMANCE (BEEKEEPER): They had a burn pile, it was just glowing red hot. It was about three feet high.

GWIN: But that’s what happened to Joe Romance. He’s a commercial beekeeper in California and he says, one day he got a call from a friend.

ROMANCE: He says, ‘Hey Joe, there's some guys that are new in town and I went to see who they were and I saw some of your green pallets and, in the back, kind of tucked away.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I just had some stolen.’

GWIN: The green pallets had been stolen and so had the wooden bee boxes that sit on top of them. Joe’s friend gave him the address of where he might find them and when he pulled up to the house --ROMANCE: They were having a party. Kids and a jumpy gym and everything.

GWIN: It was loud. There was music, people, food and behind the house -- that’s where he saw the flames. And it was in that burn pile that he recognized remnants of his beeboxes.

ROMANCE: When I saw them in the yard, I knew that that was them. And I know that was all our old frames.

GWIN: And the bees? Who knows where they were. This was like a honeybee chop shop. Joe was fuming.

ROMANCE: You're right in the lion's den. You're surrounded by people that just stole a lot of money from you and you’ve gotta stay calm.

GWIN: Joe had had bees stolen before. He knew by now, his bees were probably making money for someone else. He called the cops and they investigated, but finding stolen bees is a tricky process. And this was right before almond season, when there’s a lot of demand for bees. Each hive was probably worth $200 or more. Joe was lucky this time because this theft didn’t put him out of business. But he says stealing bees can really wreck a beekeeper’s business.

ROMANCE: You know, a farmer -- if he gets nuts stolen, he still has the farm. When you get your bees stolen, they just stole everything. They stole the farm and everything, basically. Because that’s all of it.

GWIN: What happened to Joe isn’t unusual. It’s a shady side of the colossal system that puts food on our plates.

GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard at National Geographic. A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo — and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

RENE EBERSOLE (WRITER): The first thought is why? Why would anyone want to steal bees? Like, that sounds like a really painful idea.

GWIN: Yes, seriously. Rene Ebersole is a science writer. She investigated the theft of bees for National Geographic. She says hive theft is something that keeps beekeepers up at night.

EBERSOLE: One guy said to me, ‘you know, every time I go into the into the orchard area or I go out to get my bees from the yard, I just sort of hold my breath to see, you know, hoping to see that they're there.’

GWIN: And when they’re missing, it’s because they were taken by someone who knows what they’re doing.

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