Beehives worth close to $100,000 have been stolen in the past eight months as high prices for "liquid gold" trigger a new form of crime in the Mid North.
Kerikeri beekeeper Graham Wilson, who has been in the industry for 29 years, says until last year his hives had never been stolen. Now thefts are frustratingly common. Because beehives are often in isolated areas and the thefts take place late at night, honey crime is hard to combat.
However, Kawakawa police are about to launch a campaign they hope will make a difference to an industry beleaguered by thieves.
Mr Wilson said the thefts started with the advent of high-price manuka honey, though manuka made up only part of Northland's honey harvest.
"It's pretty frustrating. The guys work hard to prepare the hives, then they come back and they've gone."
He had lost up to 40 hives since October from the Kerikeri, Kawakawa and Kaikohe areas. Some thieves took the whole hive; others took just the queen and brood (young bees). As well as the expense and hassle for beekeepers, the thefts put the industry at risk. Thieves were unlikely to register the hives' new locations, so if a bee disease broke out it would be hard to control.
Sergeant Kevin Milne, of Kawakawa police, said beekeepers had reported 17 thefts totalling more than 260 hives over the past eight months. At an average value of $300 per hive, that was a loss of almost $100,000. Mr Milne suspected many thefts went unreported so the true cost could be much higher.
The number of hives taken ranged from two to 30 at a time, most likely on the back of utes.
He believed the thefts took place between 10pm and 4am.
Bees were active during the day and thieves were unlikely to operate around dawn or dusk, when legitimate beekeepers did their work.
Constable Courtney Sandilands, of Kawakawa, said there were two types of bee thieves - the opportunists, who saw hives by the road and decided to take them, and those who stole hives from "the back of beyond", on farmland far from any public road. The latter had to have inside information, she said.
"But even the opportunists have to know what they're doing or they'll get stung. Literally."
She believed a small number of people were responsible because many thefts were similar. Catching even one would make a difference, she said.
Ms Sandilands is urging people who are on the road late at night, especially truckies, to call *555 if they see beehives being moved between 10pm and 4am. Take a note of the vehicle's registration and, if possible, the number of hives, their colours and identification numbers. All beekeepers are supposed to be registered with the NZ Beekeepers Association and identify their hives with numbers. Police can check sightings against a database of genuine beekeepers and seize any suspicious hives.
Ms Sandilands also recommends keeping hives out of sight of roads, even by moving them just a few hundred metres, and urges beekeepers to talk to each other. With the massive growth in the industry in recent years, beekeepers no longer know who is acting legally and who is not.