In France, beekeepers are waking up to find their hives stolen. There's been an increase in thefts across the country, with beekeepers blaming a possible international network of beekeeper thieves.
Last year, 400 hives were stolen. But already in 2021, that number is more than 600, says Frank Alétru, president of the French national beekeeping union.
"It's a very big problem for us in France," Alétru tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition. He says the thefts are happening in several countries in Western Europe.
"Beehive theft is a phenomenon that has always existed, but is now taking on a new dimension," he says. In the past, the thieves would take the honey supers — the part where honey is collected — just before harvest, or one or two hives. "But now, we are witnessing apiaries being emptied" with more than a dozen "hives disappearing all at once."
Some beekeepers have found far more stolen. A beekeeper in Thodure, in southeast France, had 25 hives stolen at once in April, The Times of London reported. In the Occitanie region of southern France, a professional beekeeper lost 70 hives at once, according to Le Parisien, out of a total of 157 hives stolen from four people in a week in March.
Bee populations have been declining around the world for a variety of reasons, including agricultural practices, urbanization and higher temperatures from climate change. Alétru blames a kind of pesticides called neonicotinoids for "thousands and thousands" of bee colonies dying each year. According to the European Union, 10% of bee and butterfly species are endangered in Europe.
The decrease in bee populations means there's a premium in prices for the remaining ones. There's a market both for selling the hives to amateur beekeepers and for selling locally produced honey.
The sophistication needed to successfully steal several hives at once means the criminals are beekeepers themselves, Alétru says. Hives have to be taken at night, because the bees will be inside. "You need to know the bees. It's not amateurs. You need to be professional."
Some beekeepers had collections of hives worth tens of thousands of dollars stolen, Le Parisien reported.
Alétru speculates that some of the hives are being sold to beekeepers in other countries.
He's advising beekeepers to install infrared cameras in trees to catch the culprits. "This year two thieves have already been caught thanks to this system," he says. Another technique is to hide a GPS locator in the frame of the hive.
There are about 68,000 beekeepers in France. In the past, there was a "silence" from beekeepers who were reluctant to report their stolen hives to the police. But Alétru wants them to come forward.
He's hoping that penalties for theft will be stiffened as well.
"Because the bees are the mother of the life on our planet. And we must respect them. And we must respect the beekeepers."
Ian Stewart, Ariana Aspuru and Jan Johnson produced the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the web.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There is a crime wave buzzing around France. A hundred and fifty-seven beehives were stolen over just seven days in the south of France, and local news outlets are abuzz - sorry - with almost daily reports of hijacked hives. Frank Aletru is a beekeeper and is also president of the National Beekeepers Union of France. He joins us from the West Coast of France. Thanks very much for being with us.
FRANK ALETRU: Hello.
SIMON: What are you hearing from other beekeepers about these thefts?
ALETRU: So it's a very big problem for us in France. And it's not only the problem of the France. It's a problem in west of Europe. Beehive theft is a phenomenon that has always existed but is now taking on a new dimension - for example, 50 hives disappearing all at once.
SIMON: Fifty hives disappearing all at once. Why would someone want to steal a beehive? And I'm sorry if that sounds naive.
ALETRU: The pesticide have killed thousand and thousands bee colonies each year. For this reason, the price of swarms increase. It's a very big problem for the beekeepers.
SIMON: How does somebody steal a beehive?
ALETRU: There is only one method. The method is to bring the hives during the night because all the bees are in their hives. But you need to know the bees. It's not amateurs. You need to be professional. It's the beekeepers who are the guilty.
SIMON: So it's your own beekeepers who are stealing the hives of other beekeepers, you think?
ALETRU: Some beekeepers prefer to steal the bees of another beekeeper. And it's a facility (ph), but it's not correct. We need to stop this very quickly.
ALETRU: How? So we proposed to the beekeepers the installation of cameras in trees near the apiaries of photography trucks equipped with infrared camera. It has been used to track down criminals. This year, two thieves have already been caught thanks to this system. Another technique is to hide commercially available GPS trackers. We put this in - between the frames in the hives, which can be purchased for 200 euros.
SIMON: But that will cost the beekeepers more money, right?
ALETRU: Yes, it's true because the bees are the mother of the life on our planet, and we must respect them. And we must respect the beekeepers. It's the same thing if he lose his children. We have a good - big, big responsibilities. We ask to all the beekeepers, please speak. Inform the police. We need to be united between us and to find necessaries responsible.
SIMON: Frank Aletru, who is president of the National Beekeepers Union in France, thank you so much for being with us, sir. Good luck to you.
ALETRU: Thanks. Many thanks to listen to French beekeeper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.