Spate of beehive thefts linked to organised crime costs honey industry millions

By Sam Hurley

Beehive thefts across the country have been linked to organised crime. Photo / 123RF
Beehive thefts across the country have been linked to organised crime. Photo / 123RF

A spate of beehive thefts across the country is linked to organised crime and is costing the New Zealand honey industry millions of dollars every year.

Police confirmed to the Herald today organised criminal groups were behind the surge in offending, which is connected to high honey prices.

Co-ordinator of community policing Senior Sergeant Alasdair MacMillan said police were "very concerned about the rising number of reported beehive thefts across New Zealand".

"[Police] believe this offending is organised and likely being carried out by groups.

"There is nothing to suggest at this stage that beehive/honey theft is directly linked with a particular gang, but we do believe this offending is organised."

He noted that any group of three or more people working together in criminal activity is deemed as "organised crime".

The thefts, which are being reported across New Zealand, are costing apiarists millions of dollars each year, MacMillan said.

He said between July 1, 2016 and January 31 there were 408 incidents reported to police linked to bee and beehive thefts.

Laurence Burkin, apiarist manger for The True Honey Co just outside Dannevirke, told the Herald a theft of nine hives last year cost the company $14,000, now worth $19,000 in today's market.

He said the value of the industry's high-quality manuka honey and the relative ease of stealing a hive were key reasons for the rise in hive heists.

The company has now installed security and surveillance systems and embedded electronic tracking chips in its hives to combat criminals, Burkin said.

The thefts come as the New Zealand honey industry rapidly grows, and exports to large overseas markets including China, Hong Kong, Australia, and the UK.

A security image of thieves stealing a hive. Photo / NZ Police
A security image of thieves stealing a hive. Photo / NZ Police

There are now about 600,000 registered beehives, almost twice the number registered six years ago, police said.

"The high value of honey, particularly manuka honey, is likely to be contributing, and because of the scale we believe it's an organised operation in most parts of the country," MacMillan wrote in the monthly police magazine Ten One.

While the high volume markets tend to pay $21-$28 a kilogram, higher value markets will pay $30-$50/kg and medical grade manuka can fetch up to $1000/kg.

New Zealand is the world's third-largest exporter of honey by value, behind China and Argentina.

However, it is only the 16th biggest global supplier on a volume basis, reflecting the premium price garnered for manuka honey, which accounts for as much as 80 per cent of New Zealand honey exports and is prized for its health benefits.

MacMillan said police are working with several partner agencies, including Apiculture NZ and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), to reduce the honey thefts.

"This group is working to improve the intelligence we have on beehives, honey and those stealing them, as well as improving investigative methods used when such occurrences do happen," he said.

"A national database is being developed to improve information gathering. Similar databases already exist now in specific areas and allow us to monitor hive movements more proactively."

Last July, police swarmed an Otahuhu property and found 200 litres of manuka honey. Linked to an organised criminal group, it was thought the honey was being prepared for export.

Honey exports to China have increased in recent years. Graphic / MPI
Honey exports to China have increased in recent years. Graphic / MPI

MPI reports on its website that half of the honey New Zealand produces each year is exported to almost 40 countries.

Despite exports of pure honey in the year to June 30, 2016 being down slightly to 8831 tonnes, revenue was up by 35 per cent on the prior year to $315 million, according to an annual MPI report.

MPI has also invested in the High Performance Manuka Plantations Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme, which aims to improve the yield and reliability of supply of medical-grade manuka honey.

The programme intends to lift the value of the New Zealand manuka honey industry from an estimated $75m in 2010 to $1.2 billion a year by 2028.

Suggestions for apiarists to help ensure the safety of their hives

• Keep hives in paddocks away from public view.
• Consider using pressure pads, tracking devices, and outdoor surveillance cameras.
• Engrave or fire-brand registration numbers into the hive and top of frame.
• Report movement of hives to police immediately.

- NZ Herald

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