A honey bee pollinating a flower.
A honey bee pollinating a flower. Louise Docker/CC BY 2.0

In January, The Great Falls Tribune wrote about a theft that, for a small-ish town paper in Montana, deserved something more than the police blotter but something less than a full-on investigation: the disappearance of 488 bee hives, or more than enough to fill a tractor trailer. According to their owner, Lloyd Cunniff, the hives, which were in away California to pollinate almonds at the time of the theft, vanished overnight.

Suspects in the case were not immediately apparent, and in the following days Cunniff raised more than $11,000 to help make up for what he said would be something in the neighborhood of $400,000 in lost income.

The story might have ended that way—just another bizarre news item in a rapidly growing menagerie—except, on May 12, the Tribune provided an update. Suspects had been arrested and charges filed. Most of the hives, improbably, have been returned. And the great bee heist of January 2017 had, in fact, somehow gotten stranger. Authorities said that Ukrainian-Russians were involved, possibly because, the Tribune writes, a group of them “have turned to agriculture thefts, particularly bees, to fund organized crime rings.”

Cunniff wasn’t the only victim. Other hives have gone missing across California, where almond farmers frequently rent bees to pollinate their crops. Apparently the thieves went on to re-rent Cunniff’s bees, netting them an estimated $100,000.

Cunniff recovered around two-thirds of his stolen hives and equipment. A lot of it is damaged, but he told the Tribune that he should be able to recover, thanks in part to insurance money. He also plans to be more cautious. For next year’s pollination season, their stay in California might be a little shorter. The bees are simply worth too much.