Something was unsettling beekeeper Chris Kelly. He felt he was being watched.
He must have been misplacing things more than usual, he thought. A honey strainer went missing. Then, some other specialty equipment. Nothing valuable, he said.
But a couple of weeks ago, Kelly noticed something strange in a bee yard he’d been using to breed queen honeybees. Frames from one of his hives had been replaced with ones that were unfamiliar. He only noticed because “Koravel” was written on the top of one.
Some of his Long Island Survivor Stock bees, a hearty bunch he hand-raised and has been breeding for decades, had been stolen — and replaced.
The tale grew stranger. Within a few days, Kelly — the owner of Promised Land Apiaries on Long Island — had heard from two other properties where he has hives. More bees had gone missing.
“It’s not something wildly obvious, but it’s been a series of things that are just off,” Kelly said of the sequence of events, “and the sum total is actually really quite disturbing at this point.”
The saga of Kelly’s heisted honeybees would rattle the beekeeper and the clients who sought his specially bred bees. It would leave Kelly looking over his shoulder, hiring a private detective and wondering how anyone outside the tightknit beekeeping community could walk off with a living hive. He wondered whether the culprit was one of their own.
Bee rustling, or honeybee theft, can be a lucrative industry. It’s more widely reported in commercial settings, where beekeepers drive truckloads of hives around to pollinate crops such as almonds and blackberries. The thievery has created a worldwide black market, with instances of stolen bees stretching from New Zealand to the United Kingdom.
So Kelly wants to know: Who is after his bees? He doesn’t understand the draw to his operation.
“I’m a small potato,” Kelly said. “I’m under no illusion that I’m a big beekeeper. I’m a small-time beekeeper.”
According to the apiarist community, most bee thieves are actually just washed-up beekeepers making a last-ditch effort to save their businesses. Bees are fragile to begin with, and anyone going to the trouble of stealing a hive would probably want to keep it alive, meaning the thieves would need some knowledge of the insects.
When someone stole 300 of Texas beekeeper Randy Verhoek’s colonies in winter 2017, he posted on Facebook calling it an inside job. In 2012, a California beekeeper was arrested and accused of stealing 80 of a competitor’s hives and mixing the pilfered bees in with his own.
In 1977, 23-year-old beekeeper David Allred was sentenced to serve at least three years in prison for the theft of $10,000 worth of hives from another California beekeeper, Mother Jones reported.
The outlet deemed Allred “California’s most notorious beenapper” after he allegedly continued his spate of heists in 2013.
Kelly, a Cornell University-trained entomologist who teaches dozens of students every year and takes on beekeeping apprentices, has been keeping bees for 50 years. His apiary has more than 100 hives and he manages 100 other colonies in the area.
He said the greatest sadness of this situation is that the thief “[has] to be a beekeeper.”
“There’s one level of hurt because you stole my babies, OK,” he said. “But there’s another level of hurt because you’re part of a community that normally is the most beautiful, ethical type of individuals you’re ever going to meet.”
A Facebook post from 1760 Homestead Farm, one of the places Kelly’s hives were stolen from, read, “This was not the work of an amateur and we don’t know what effect this incident will cause on our other hives.”
Larry Kaiser, the farm’s owner, said he’s troubled by the possibility of this crime being more nefarious than a standard theft.
He’s worried that the replacement bees could be infected with a disease or parasite, which could lead to the collapse of all 10 hives on his farm. He sells honey and relies on the bees to pollinate his watermelons, hot peppers, lavender and more.
He said he could lose thousands of dollars if this theft affects future honey production, and the monetary ramifications could ripple across his business if the hives collapse.
Kelly saw bee rustling firsthand decades ago, he said. In 1986, he was working for someone who had him move hives to an orange grove in Florida. The day after he dropped them off, “there wasn’t a bee left,” he said.
But this situation feels completely different, the beekeeper explained. The Florida case was a larger operation — not theft from a small apiarist. He said knowing someone is after his bees in particular has been unnerving.
Kelly breeds what he has termed Long Island Survivor Stock bees, a special group that he said are more adaptable to Long Island’s volatile weather than standard bees. His honeybees aren’t commercially available; you can only get them from him.
Kaiser said the idea that Kelly might be being targeted doesn’t shock him.
“In my opinion, he’s the top of his field — he’s well respected in the community,” Kaiser said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that someone goes after someone who they think is more successful.”
Kelly said he filed police reports on the stolen bees and started putting surveillance cameras up in his bee yards Thursday at the suggestion of law enforcement. Reached by phone, employees at two departments where Kelly filed reports said they hadn’t heard of honeybee hive thefts before now.
Kelly also had a private investigator check his phone and truck for tracking devices.
The monetary loss to his operation was about $500 per hive, he said, but the loss of the bees themselves is significant to him. He just wants the stealing to stop.
“At the end of the day … this isn’t where I want to be focused,” he said. “I want to be focused on really keeping my bees safe and healthy. I want to be focused on the joy of beekeeping.”