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Thieves lift hives as UK bee numbers drop

Beekeepers feel sting of 'apian black market'

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The UK's beekeepers are facing a new threat to their hives in the wake of a dramatic decline in honeybee numbers - the wholesale theft of colonies for sale on a burgeoning "apian black market", as the Times describes it.

The value of honeybees has risen sharply as populations succumb to a combination of threats including Colony Collapse Disorder and wet summers. Accordingly, thieves who apparently have experience handling bees and the inside knowledge to sell them on have begun to illegally exploit the crisis.

Earlier this month the Great Little Honey Company at Rowley Hill Farm in Stretton, Staffordshire, was relieved of 18 hives whose occupants pollinated the farm's strawberry plants. Beekeeper Richard Lindsey explained: “It’s soul destroying. I went to check on the hives and all that was left were the stands. It had been cleaned out completely.

“It must have been someone who knew what they were doing - someone in the trade. You would need equipment to load them on to a truck and they’re not easy to lift. And you would have to know what you were doing - if you drop them or let them out you’d get badly stung up without protection.”

He continued: “It will cost me £6,000 to replace them. And that’s without taking into account the loss of breeding stock I had, and I’ve lost the honey crop off them this year, which was worth £50 per hive at least.”

John Howat, secretary of the Bee Farmers’ Association, told the Times: “I imagine that the increase in demand for hives from the public following all the press coverage about bees over the last year, together with the very high prices now being demanded, due to shortages following losses has prompted this spate of thefts.

“Worryingly, it is obvious that whoever is doing it has experience in keeping and moving bees. I always thought we beekeepers were a small but honest crowd of people."

Lindsey suggested the thieves were out for financial gain, rather then the bees themselves. He said: “There could well be a black market. Bees aren’t identifiable and the demand for bees from beginners far outweighs supply. I know of someone who had 12 hives stolen, another five hives and another four. It’s definitely worth someone’s while to steal bees, divide the hives up and sell them on.”

Lindsey and his fellow apiarists will doubtless be hoping that the government's "Healthy Bees" plan - announced last month - will do something to restore the UK's honeybee populations and make their hives less tempting targets.

The plan's main objective is to "sustain honeybee populations by supporting beekeepers to ensure effective biosecurity measures are adopted to minimise risk from pests and disease", and there are full details here. ®

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