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'It was a nightmare': Authorities bust major bee theft operation in Central Valley

Fresno County authorities say they have uncovered a nearly $1-million beehive theft operation that targeted Central Valley almond orchards.

Investigators say Pavel Tveretinov, a 51-year-old beekeeper from Sacramento, was behind the thefts and likely stole hives from all over California during the last three years, according to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Tveretinov was arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen property and released on $10,000 bail.

The beehive thefts triggered concerns last year within the apiary industry, and an advisory went out to beekeepers, bee brokers and almond growers urging them to stay vigilant.

Detectives got a break in the case on April 28, when they visited an orchard in Fresno to follow up on a theft report. There, they spotted Tveretinov in a beekeeper suit tending to more than 100 beehives.

Authorities later discovered the beehives were stolen from a Madera County orchard in March, said Cmdr. Bill Ward, a spokesman for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.

Tveretinov is accused of stealing 2,500 hives worth about $875,000, according to Fresno sheriff’s investigators.

Authorities believe Tveretinov stole the hives at night, when bees are dormant, and moved them on flatbed trailers around California and to other states, sheriff’s investigators said. Tveretinov likely rented the hives out for cash, authorities said.

Most of the stolen hives recovered by sheriff’s investigators belonged to out-of-state beekeepers, who rented out their colonies to California almond tree growers looking to pollinate their crops.

One of those beekeepers is Lloyd Cunniff, whose beehives were stolen in January.

Cunniff, who owns the Beeline Honey Co., relied on California’s almond pollinating season to make additional money during the winter and before the honey harvest in July. Last December, Cunniff shipped his bee colonies from his home in Choteau, Mont., to a rural property in Northern California.

The hives were supposed to remain on the property for a few months before being trucked to almond tree fields in Fresno.

Cunniff’s bees never got to pollinate the almond trees though, because they were stolen.

Last week, Cunniff flew to Fresno County and picked up his stolen bee colonies. Tveretinov had kept the bees on a large piece of property with bees of other breeds, which Cunniff said was a problem. Interbreeding can lead to problems such as aggressiveness and poor bee health.

“It was a nightmare,” he said.

Cunniff recovered 622 colonies and most of his pallets, which had been repainted and branded with the name of another beekeeping company. He has quarantined the bees, which he said could contain mites or other diseases.

“Some of it looks kind of good,” he said. “Most of it is not that good.”

Cunniff hasn’t ruled out returning to California for the pollination season, but he said he has concerns about the safety of his bees and worries they could be stolen again.

“This theft ring is a big operation,” he said. “They are just beginning to scratch the surface.”

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: VeronicaRochaLA

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