When 100-plus stolen beehives were found in an almond orchard in Fresno County, California, detectives arrested the beekeeper tending the hives but struggled to return them to their rightful owners. “There were hives everywhere, and we had no idea who any of them belonged to,” explains Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

Beehive theft is big business. It takes more than 1.5 million colonies of bees to pollinate the almond orchards in California, and beekeepers are paid an average of $171 per hive for pollination services. Thanks to high demand and increasing fees, beekeepers see the potential to earn bigger incomes by stealing hives and renting them out for pollination.

While there are no national statistics available, law enforcement offices throughout southern California receive reports of stolen hives on a regular basis during February and March, which is peak almond pollination season.

Some beekeepers paint their hives or carve serial numbers into the wood, but the markings are simple to scratch out or paint over. New high-tech tools have emerged to track stolen hives.

Ellie Symes, CEO of The Bee Corp, learned about the need for a device to track stolen hives while attending the Oregon State Beekeepers Association meeting in 2017. Several beekeepers approached Symes to ask if she could develop a GPS-based solution that would track stolen hives. “Beekeeping is an expensive profession, and these thefts were having a big impact on beekeepers,” she says. “Hiding a GPS device in a hive is a deterrent. It’s similar to putting an ADT [alarm] sign in front of a house: Potential thieves know that the hive movements can be tracked.”

In New Zealand, police made a bust at a beehive “chop shop” thanks to a tracking device created by MyApiary. The device allows beekeepers to keep tabs on hives and lead police straight to the thieves.

Managing director Darren Bainbridge likens the device to a cell phone in a box: If a hive is moved, beekeepers receive notifications via cell phone and can track the movements. The HiveTracker costs around $200, plus an annual subscription fee.

While it’s cost prohibitive to embed a tracker in every beehive, Bainbridge says that using one or two devices for every 30 hives is often enough to thwart thieves. “It’s not one or two hives being taken,” he says. “Thieves are pinching entire apiaries.”

Bainbridge believes that deploying technology can help with recovering them, collecting evidence and helping to build a case. Botti agrees and calls GPS hive-tracking tools “a great idea” that he would encourage beekeepers to use.

But as high-tech hive trackers become more mainstream, thieves have found new ways to steal colonies, including showing up to remote orchards with their own hive boxes and stealing the frames of bees (and leaving the GPS trackers behind).

Symes believes that the best tool is small enough to embed into the hive, making it harder to detect. For now, The Bee Corp isn’t planning to develop a new anti-theft device. “Beehive theft pisses off the entire industry, but is it enough of a problem to make it worth the cost to develop?” says Symes. “There are other, bigger issues facing bees.”