BUTTE COUNTY, California — Buzz Landon hoped this year would be different. But on Jan. 30, he felt the sting of stolen property yet again. Except for a piece of honeycomb, a small wooden cage and some deep tire impressions, the thieves left no evidence of who they were — or where they had taken Landon's bees.
Luckily, he knows someone who might be able to find them.
“A lot of people have called me a bee theft detective,” said Deputy Rowdy Freeman, of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. He’s investigated everything from fraud to homicide, but in recent years he's become a specialist in this particular type of agricultural crime.
California’s $7.6 billion almond growing industry requires a massive amount of pollination — more than 2 million bee colonies' worth every year.
Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. beekeepers lease their bees to Central Valley almond farmers, for up to $350 per hive, every February. This hive demand, combined with the soaring price of honey, has created a golden opportunity for sticky-fingered criminals to cash in. More than 500 hives in California have already gone missing so far this year, compared to 72 in 2014 and 101 in 2015. The crime can carry penalties of up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine, depending on the value of the hives stolen.
Two years ago, a group of criminals stole more than 700 California hives worth nearly $1 million. Freeman managed to track the bee bandits down, thanks in no small part to his side gig: He's a beekeeper himself, with more than 400 hives.
“I understand bees and the beekeeping industry and how it all works,” he said, noting he's got lots of connections with the local beekeeping community. “It’s something that needs special attention from someone.”
But bee poachers are a tricky breed to catch.
Stealing millions of angry bees requires a deep knowledge of how to correctly handle the insects. Thieves break into the almond orchards under cover of night to snatch freshly delivered hives. This arduous task requires equipment unique to the beekeeping industry: a special beekeeping forklift or a flat bed to put the hives on, full beekeeper suits, and hand-held smokers to subdue the bees.
For that reason, Freeman and the beekeeping community in general believe that other beekeepers are the main culprit.
“It's a hard crime to detect because they look like they're a beekeeper that owns the hives,” Freeman said.
VICE News embedded with Freeman as he investigated a bee nabbing, and struck gold busting a small theft operation in Biggs County.
But Buzz Landon's bees have yet to be found.