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Theft of almost 400 bee colonies near Hopland part of industry trend

Millions of honeybees mysteriously vanished around the end of January from a Hopland property in Mendocino County. There was little indication, though, that the colonies just flew away and took their hives with them.

Sometime between colony inspections on Jan. 19 and Feb. 1, it became clear that Sonoma County-based Tauzer Apiaries, which owns the bees, had fallen victim to a thief or thieves who made off with 384 colonies.

By several accounts, the theft reflects a consistent burden members of the apiary industry face, especially during this time of year when bees are pollinating and in high demand by growers.

Around 600 hives were stolen across California last year and more than 800 have been taken so far this year, said Butte County Sheriff’s Deputy Rowdy Freeman who is not only a law enforcement liaison to the California State Beekeepers Association and president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, but also and a fellow beekeeper.

The average person may find honeybee thefts highly unusual, but those within the industry say this type of crime has been common for years. Often, they’re committed by other companies or at least people who know how to handle bees.

“It’s bad beekeepers stealing from good beekeepers,” Freeman said. “It’s all driven around the opportunity to make a lot of money fast.”

A Tauzer Apiaries employee discovered the Mendocino County theft on Feb. 1. But, one day later, the hundreds of hives were recovered after an anonymous tip led investigators to agricultural property two hours away in the Yolo County town of Brooks.

All but four of the hives, which house a single bee colony, survived.

"The bees were definitely damaged and traumatized in the process of the theft,“ said Claire Tauzer, the family-owned company’s director of brands and process improvement.

Mendocino County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Van Patten said the Tauzer case is being investigated as a grand theft and the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office is participating in the investigation.

No suspects have been identified and investigators suspect the theft required large trucks or trailers to haul away the wooden boxes containing the hives.

“This is the first of at least this magnitude I’ve ever experienced,” Van Patten said of the theft.

Around two-thirds of the produce grown in California, including almonds, apples and citrus, depend on bee pollination, said Freeman, adding that while such thefts create an immediate hardship on beekeepers, they can have a significant impact on the agricultural industry.

According to the 2020 Sonoma County crop report, local apiary production value was $306,100 that year. That’s down from $564,600 in 2019 and $422,000 in 2018.

The dip is attributed to conditions from COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that affected farmers markets and reduced bee activity due to California’s drought and that year’s wildfires.

Beekeepers participate in various business practices, including honey sales and providing bees for other businesses.

A California Farm Bureau story from 2019 says California honey bees can produce approximately 40 pounds of honey per hive per year.

“Most of it is people’s livelihoods. It’s their business,” Freeman said. “When honeybees are stolen, it affects a lot more than the beekeeper.”

Tauzer estimated her theft involved anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 bees per hive and that the total loss came to about $154,000.

During their recovery, however, investigators also found a Tauzer forklift that was stolen in January 2021 from property in Woodland.

“That was a cherry on top of things,” Tauzer said of her $50,000 forklift, which had been kept in storage.

Yolo County Sheriff’s Lt. Juan Ceja said a 40-year-old suspect was arrested on suspicion of possessing the stolen forklift.

Juan Manuel Vargas Ceja, who is not related to the lieutenant, could face additional charges pending further investigation, officials said.

While the health of the recovered bees was being evaluated last week, Tauzer remained hopeful that her company’s supply wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

The average bee lives 45 days, but the colony inside a hive is constantly replenished by a queen that lays 1,500 to 3,000 eggs per day.

“This is a big hit to our company, but luckily we’re diversified enough that this won’t put us out of business. But it’s very serious,” Tauzer said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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