By James Alexander
Hives full of bees can be worth thousands of pounds
The British countryside is being menaced by a new type of criminal - bee rustlers.
Beekeepers say the increasing shortage of bees and the rising price of honey have made hives, complete with their inhabitants, a target for thieves.
They say thefts have been reported at bee farms across a wide area - from the New Forest in Hampshire to Whitby in North Yorkshire.
Because specialist knowledge is required to move and keep bees, experts believe that in some cases rival keepers may even be to blame.
The biggest theft so far happened at a strawberry farm near Telford in Shropshire, where 18 hives containing about a million bees used to pollinate the strawberry crop were stolen.
Police are investigating but there is nothing to suggest local rivalries are to blame in this case.
The theft came as a shock to the bees' owner Richard Lindsey.
"I couldn't believe it," he says. "The apiary was cleared out. There was nothing left except the stands the boxes stood on."
Mr Lindsey estimates the haul could be worth up to £6,000 on the black market.
"You just never expect something like this to happen. You hear about sheep rustling and cattle rustling, but you never think in your wildest dreams that bees could be targeted," he says.
He runs the Great Little Honey Company with his wife, Marieanne, who says it was "heartbreaking" to discover so many hives had been stolen.
"Beekeeping's not an easy job even at the best of times," she says. "It's been a real struggle in the past few years with the decline in bees generally. Really, this is the last thing we need."
The collapse in bee colonies in recent years has been rapid and steep. The British Beekeepers' Association says the bee population fell by nearly a third between 2007 and 2008.
Disease, wet summers and certain pesticides have all been blamed for the fall in numbers, but no definitive cause has yet been found.
Richard and Marieanne Lindsey lost 18 hives to thieves
The shortage of bees means those that survive are all the more valuable, according to John Howat, of the Bee Farmers' Association.
He is convinced some of those behind recent thefts must have insider knowledge.
"It's got to be someone who knows what they're doing," he explains. "It's not the sort of thing the average hoodie might do on a whim. You've got to plan it."
He says the culprits would need protective gear to avoid getting stung and would also need to know how to handle and move bees.
"I always thought we beekeepers were an honest crowd of people, but I suppose in every activity you get a rogue element."
Although there are no exact figures available, the government's National Bee Unit - set up to protect the honeybee in England and Wales - says it is "aware" of an increase in thefts.
It advises keepers to brand wooden hives with their name and address and to keep bees out of sight where possible.
A spokesman says: "It's always going to be difficult to keep a constant watch on an apiary, but there are practical steps beekeepers can take to reduce the opportunity for theft and increase the chance of recovering stolen equipment."
The Lindseys are already taking steps to protect their remaining hives.
They are considering installing satellite tracking devices so the hives' whereabouts can be traced should any be stolen in the future.
Mrs Lindsey feels the police and the authorities need to take the problem more seriously.
"It's easy to make jokes about because bees seem fun and it doesn't seem that important, but this is our livelihood and it's devastating."