Every year about this time beekeepers drive to remote, unguarded almond orchards in Kern County and drop off tens of thousands of dollars worth of beehives, then drive off to do the same thing somewhere else.
And every year a thief drives up later on, loads those hives onto his truck and leaves.
Lately it's gotten so bad that the state beekeepers association has for the first time put out a guide for its members — and the general public — about how to guard against the theft of one of local agriculture's most precious and delicate resources.
The guide offers a range of tips, from networking with orchard owners and communicating with law enforcement to making sure hive containers, usually the size of a banker box, are clearly marked.
There are estimates that every incident costs a beekeeper an average of $10,000, though some thefts can top $100,000 in losses, said Brooke Palmer, associate director of the California State Beekeepers Association.
"It is important to keep in mind that a hive cannot be quickly or easily replaced," she said by email. "Raising quality colonies takes time and resources."
Thefts have become an increasingly common problem in recent years as pollination rental prices paid by almond growers have jumped to $200 and more per colony. They rarely rose above $40 in the early 2000s.
Two main factors play into bees' high value: Almonds acreage has expanded and bees have continued to die off at such high rates that pollinators are in short supply and beekeepers have to take expensive measures to deliver enough healthy bees.
The Rural Crime Investigation Unit of the Kern County Sheriff's Department reported it has received several reports of beehive vandalism or theft during the past few months.
That said, it normally sees an increase of such incidents every year in the months leading up to spring, KCSO Public Information Officer Danielle Kernkamp said by email.
The department increases its patrols during these periods, she wrote, and it encourages strong communication among beekeepers, growers and law enforcement.
She also suggested keeping an eye out for suspicious vehicles, gathering information that would be pertinent to an investigation and quickly reporting thefts to law enforcement.
The guide put out by the beekeepers association (online at https://www.californiastatebeekeepers.com/) offers similar advice. It also recommends that growers rent hives only from reputable beekeepers and that members of the public be aware that hives aren't normally removed from orchards until March.
It's also important that beekeepers make their hives easily identifiable from a distance and that emergency phone numbers be marked as well. Another tip is to leave any suspicious tire tracks undisturbed.
Palmer at the beekeepers association said the plan is to update and distribute the anti-theft guide every year.
Rowdy Freeman, deputy sheriff at the Butte County Sheriff's Department, said in a news release put out by the state beekeepers association that law enforcement has noticed a pattern in which thieves target unmarked hives with hard-to-see identifiers.
"It is also easier to steal hives that are in easily accessible locations, in an area of darkness or in a remote location," he stated. "Unfortunately, these happen to be the kinds of areas where most beehives are kept."
Another suggestion he offered was for beekeepers to tell almonds growers exactly when they plan to come by and what their vehicles and equipment look like.
"After all," he added, "the farmer has a huge interest in making sure bees are working to pollinate their crop."
Southern California beekeeper Steve Wernett said by email he hasn't heard much about bee rustling this year but "it's always in the back of my mind."
Fortunately, he hasn't lost more than three to five hives in past thefts. It could be much worse.
"With one truck load someone could take a quarter of our operation and that would be devastating," he wrote, "but not catastrophic."