Tiny microchips help identify stolen beehives

Issue Date: January 21, 2004
Christine Souza

At the start of almond pollination last year, hundreds of beekeepers throughout California lost thousands of dollars worth of beehives and beehive income to theft. Based on last year's high losses, many in the bee business feel that additional protection, such as microchip or global positioning system technology, is needed to reduce thefts.

"The industry is very interested in getting something where we could identify beehives through a satellite tracking system, like use of a GPS system," said Modesto beekeeper E.L. Christiansen, a member of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. "I know wildlife groups have tracking devices placed on animals so their movement can be tracked from a desktop. In one case they were tracking a bear in the mountains. This bear went out of its environment and the technology showed that the bear wasn't moving anymore. They flew to the spot and determined that the bear had died. The transmitter was still going. I know that the technology is out there, whether it is expensive for individuals like beekeepers to use, I don't know."

California's apiary business experienced a dramatic increase in beehive thefts in 2003, as the price of honey increased from 50 cents per pound to $1.50 per pound. Most of the crimes occurred prior to almond bloom in February, as a shortage of bees caused desperate almond growers to offer top dollar to rent bees for pollination.

California beekeepers are estimated to have up to 500,000 colonies. To pollinate the state's approximately 500,000 bearing acres of almonds, it takes an estimated 1.1 million colonies. Beehive thefts occur every spring and beekeepers like Stanislaus County Farm Bureau member Orin Johnson of Hughson, who operates Johnson Apiaries, said it is usually other beekeepers or those who are familiar with the business who steal the colonies. It is not unusual for beekeepers to drive out to the orchards to check on their beehives and find that their bees have been stolen and the boxes left behind or the hives completely missing.

In Johnson's case, even though the wooden beehive boxes are branded with his name and address, he still fell victim to theft. At the start of almond pollination last year, he lost 64 beehives valued at $10,000. Soon after the hives were taken, about 300 stolen hives were spotted at a rural property. They included the majority of Johnson's hives. The suspect who lived on the property, a beekeeper, was taken into custody and charged for the theft. Although the suspect was captured and charged for the crime, Johnson was not repaid for lost income. Based on that experience, he said that additional theft protection would benefit beekeepers.

To deter thieves, a microchip technology initially developed to identify lost pets is now being used to assist the beekeepers. The microchip technology, developed for pet identification by veterinarian Hannis Stoddard of Norco, has unique identification numbers that cannot be altered. The chip is so small that it can fit easily into a hypodermic needle. Beekeepers are now inserting the same chip technology in the wooden frames of their beehives.

The two-part microchip system includes the microchip and a scanner that reads it. Each chip has its own identification number that appears when a scanner is passed over its location in the hive. When the scanner is turned on, a radio wave signal is sent to the implanted chip. The chip sends its number back to the scanner, where it is easily read in the viewing window. The interaction between chip and scanner takes less than a second, allowing the readers to identify animals or property on demand. For further protection, beekeepers may post signs that warn potential thieves of the following: "Beehives on this property are permanently identified with AVID microchips."

The chip can be embedded into almost any material by drilling a hole just wide enough to slip the chip into the object. The hole can then be filled, making the chip invisible. The chips are also being used to mark valuable possessions such as antiques, guns, framed art and carvings. The scanner can easily read microchips embedded in wood, bone, glass, fabric, fur, paper, ceramic, plastic and more.

The non-sterile chips, by American Veterinary Identification Devices (AVID), cost $2.70 each and come in easy-to-dispense cartridges of 25. The microchip has no power supply, battery or moving parts. It is designed for an operating life of more than 25 years. AVID scanners are battery powered and carry a one-year warranty.

Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, a research scientist from the University of Montana, helped transition another microchip technology. This paper-thin microchip, used mainly in stores and by manufacturers to track the movement of goods, can be placed on the outside of beehives to help recover stolen hives. Unlike the AVID chip, Bromenshenk said this technology can be re-coded with another identification number and be read by a scanner at distances of up to 20 feet.

Members of the apiary business added that research is currently under way that will give beekeepers and others the ability to physically track stolen goods via GPS.

For more information about AVID microchip identification systems, go to www.avidmicrochip.com or call (800) 434-2843. To learn more about Bromenshenk's paper-thin chip, contact him at (406) 544-9007.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.