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Stolen Beehives Devastate French Beekeepers

A beekeeper inspects honey frames in 2018 in Ploerdut, western France. There's been an increase in stolen beehives in 2021.
A beekeeper inspects honey frames in 2018 in Ploerdut, western France. There's been an increase in stolen beehives in 2021.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.