Heist puts industry on edge

The beekeepers knew something was wrong when they pulled up to their apiary in Opportunity. The 200 or so boxes holding the honey they had come to harvest, usually stacked high along Interstate 90, were missing. All that remained was a few chunks of honeycomb strewn about the bee yard, still glistening and fresh. They had just missed the rustlers.

"Somebody just wheeled in there and took the boxes off the hives," says Nick Clark, a 25-year-old beekeeper who helps run the family business. "They took every box of honey."

The thieves got away with as much as 5,000 pounds, a small proportion of Clark Honey Inc.'s annual harvest but worth enough to, say, buy a new car. The heist also comes as a jolt to Montana's 60 or so commercial beekeepers, who worry that the growing practice of bee rustling in California could be making its way here.

The theft in Opportunity sometime on Sept. 1 or 2 is the first of its kind in the state, as far as Montana Department of Agriculture entomologist and apiarist Cam Lay recalls.

"This is not a casual theft," he says. "This is somebody who knew that this time of year, those supers would be full of honey. They knew this is the time of year when somebody's harvesting, knew that most apiary sites in Montana aren't guarded."

In other words, as Clark puts it, "It's a beekeeper, I think."

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American honeybees have become increasingly valuable amid the mysterious, ongoing collapse of colonies. Commercial beekeepers in states like Montana make most of their money by taking hives on a circuit around the West Coast in early spring, where they pollinate almond and fruit orchards. So while bees might seem like their own security systems, some unsavory insiders have found profit in stealing others' hives. The Clarks have had a couple hundred nabbed in California over the years, Nick says. And just days before the yard in Opportunity was raided, an Alberta farmer reported the theft of 600,000 bees from his apiary.

Lay is quick to point out that the Opportunity heist is of a different type. The thieves were after the honey, leaving the hives behind (though likely in disarray), at a time when honeybees' sweet byproduct is at its highest price ever. Whoever stole it would have needed bee suits and a flatbed truck to stash the boxes as well as machinery to extract the honey, Lay figures.

It may have the mark of an experienced hand, but Lay and Clark say they'd be surprised if the thieves were Montana beekeepers. Lay's somewhat poetic guess—and hope—is that the theft was "a crime of opportunity" by an apiarist driving through. Despite the state's high honey production, the beekeeping community here is small and tight-knit. Clark's family has talked to every other Montana commercial beekeeper about the situation, he says. They're also offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or recovery of the stolen honey.

"Really, everyone's on the hunt," Clark says. "It got them on edge now, too, because it could happen to any of us."

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