SYDNEY — The world’s most valuable pollinator is under attack.
Bees, responsible for an estimated $15 billion of crop output in the U.S. alone, play an essential role in almond production. With the nut fetching record prices, the insects have become the asset to own — or steal — in Australia’s biggest almond-producing region.
Thieves have stolen hives with as many as 5 million bees in the northwest corner of Victoria state and the robberies have intensified in the past two months. With the insects in short supply, police say there’s high demand for hives in the local almond orchards, where farmers are cashing in on surging global demand amid a fourth year of drought in California, the world’s biggest producer.
“From a producer’s perspective, you can make a lot of money at the moment trading your almonds,” said Marc Soccio, an analyst at Rabobank International in Melbourne who specializes in consumer foods and rural economics. The thefts are “symptomatic of a relative shortage of bees. People are scrambling around to pollinate their crops.”
Almonds stand out in a year where almost every other commodity from oil and coffee to copper and zinc has fallen. Almond tree blossom lasts only a few weeks. That means growers short of hives at the critical pollination period need to find bees fast to profit from the nut’s soaring price.
“No bees, no almonds,” said former beekeeper Trevor Weatherhead, executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, based in Queensland. “There are a lot of people who rely on us for their incomes.”
The crime wave is proving a headache for the police force at Swan Hill, a country town about 220 miles northwest of Melbourne.
More than 150 hives have been stolen in six separate robberies, said Detective Leading Senior Constable Mal Simpson. In the largest theft, about 60 went missing. Only a professional could manhandle that many bees at once, Simpson said by phone.
A single hive might contain as many as 35,000 bees at this time of year, according to the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council.
The robberies underline the inextricable link between food and commercial pollinators such as bees. Worldwide, 87 of the leading 115 food crops depend on animals for pollination, accounting for 35 percent of global food production, according to the U.S. government.
Olam International Ltd., the world’s second-biggest grower of almonds, spent $18 million last year pollinating its orchards, according to its website. This year, about 70,000 hives housing about 2.2 billion bees went to work on its Australian trees, Rob Wheatley, general manager of the company’s almond orchards in the nation, said by phone.
“Without bees, we couldn’t set an almond crop to commercial terms,” Wheatley said. “Globally, almonds are doing very well as a health snack and super food and there’s high demand for nuts. Australia is taking advantage of that.”
Australia will produce 75,000 metric tons of almonds in 2015, an almost fivefold increase from 2006, and trails only the U.S in output, the Almond Board of Australia says. The figure will rise in coming years as younger trees start to yield nuts, the board says.
Australian almonds fetched $8.86 per kilogram in July, a 51 percent jump from the end of 2014, according to the most recent data from the board. Prices have almost tripled since March 2011, a presentation by Australian grower Select Harvests Ltd. shows.
The U.S. is responsible for about 85 percent of the world’s almond output and more than half of the nation’s commercial bees are needed to pollinate the orchards, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.