‘I felt violated’: Beekeeper offers $100,000 reward in brazen Fresno beehive thefts

Boxes holding beehives are stacked on the back of a flatbed truck in a green field scattered with dozens more boxes
Late winter is a crucial time for bee pollination in California’s Central Valley. It’s also a time of costly beehive thefts.
(Fresno County Sheriff’s Office)

Andy Strehlow felt a deep and familiar sting when he saw the beehives were missing.

Just days before, the bees had been trucked more than 1,700 miles from his bee farm in South Dakota to a sprawling almond orchard near Firebaugh in Fresno County. He’d unpacked the boxes — 416 hives housing millions of buzzing bees — and placed them strategically around the property so his bees could work their magic, pollinating the almond blossoms in time for a late-summer harvest.

Three days later, on Jan. 31, he sensed a gap — a dismaying silence where bees should have been active — and it didn’t take him long to realize 96 hives were missing, brazenly kidnapped sometime in the night.

“I felt violated,” said Strehlow, a commercial beekeeper who has grown Strehlow Bees Inc. into one of the largest beekeeping operations in the U.S. “Quite likely it’s another beekeeper, and that’s what really stings about it: beekeepers stealing from other beekeepers.”


And it wasn’t the first time his hives had gone missing. In the 25 years he’s been raising bees, Strehlow estimates he’s had close to 1,000 hives stolen. It was time, he thought, to take a stand.

So Strehlow is advertising a $100,000 reward for information on the bee thief — about three times more than the 96 hives are worth. He’s hoping that sizable sum is enough to get someone close to the culprit — a wife, sister, brother — to turn him in.

“It’s not just me, but for my friends,” Strehlow said. “It’s more important to get the guy found just so that he can be stopped.”

Late winter is a critical time of year for beekeepers and the Central Valley orchards that rent their services. Pollination of the vast acreage dedicated to almonds alone requires many millions of bees. In Fresno County, where almonds have long been a top crop, yielding more than a billion dollars in annual revenue, bees are an important asset in the local economy.

But that high-value demand also creates a lurking danger for legitimate beekeepers, who might spend a whole year gearing up for the pollination season. Too often, February is also a time when criminals tend to strike, taking beehives to sell or rent to eager farmers who may not realize the bees are stolen.

There have already been nearly a dozen reports of bee theft this year, involving hundreds of hives in Fresno, Madera, Glenn and Butte counties, according to data compiled by the California State Beekeepers Assn.


About two miles from the Fresno orchard where Strehlow’s hives went missing, beekeeper Andy Beld had 96 hives stolen the same night, sometime between 5:30 p.m. and dawn the next day. Beld told Fresno County sheriff’s deputies he’d seen a Chevy 3500 flatbed truck with a red-and-yellow sticker and a yellow Hummerbee forklift both idling nearby as he moved his hives. Strehlow suspects the same person who targeted Beld’s hives hit him and other beekeepers working in the county.

While the sheriff’s department has not identified any suspects in the rash of thefts, they suspect the culprit is someone with knowledge of beekeeping, including how to handle and transport hives, said Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a consistent thing we deal with,” Botti said. Most times, their investigations hit a dead end.

People unfamiliar with beekeeping might think kidnapping active hives poses a high risk of being stung. But hive thefts can happen quickly and quietly. Working at night, when bees are dormant, the thieves wouldn’t have to wear protective gear that might make them stand out. Employing a forklift can make pilfering a large number of boxed hives an easy half-hour turnaround. The stolen hives can rent for anywhere from $150 to $200 apiece, bringing a lucrative payday.

While commercial beekeepers typically engrave their boxed hives with their names or business logos, thieves often discard the original boxes or repaint them with another logo. So some beekeepers are turning to GPS tracking devices and surveillance cameras to hunt down their hives.

Cord Anderson, a third-generation Montana beekeeper who works in Madera and Fresno counties during pollination season, is ready to join that trend. Last week, he discovered 108 beehives missing from a Fresno County orchard he is servicing. He said the theft will mean $40,000 in lost income.


“It hurts. It’s tough on the industry,” Anderson said. “It would be very nice if we could catch these guys and put this to a stop.”

Anderson said he doesn’t have the resources to offer the kind of reward Strehlow is floating. But he’s glad someone is taking a stand.

“The majority of a beekeeper’s revenue is pollination, and it takes an entire year of work and investment to have your bees ready to go this time of year,” he said. “In an hour, [thieves] come in and cash out on your investment.”