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Casey Christie / The Californian

Several bees keep busy pollinating flowers in full bloom on this tree and several others in the area of the Kern County Museum parking lot on Chester Avenue. This is a file photo.

For someone who just lost $40,000 to $100,000 worth of bees to theft, beekeeper Andy Strehlow kept a pretty good sense of humor Tuesday.

At least the bee rustlers who struck Sunday night near Lost Hills were nice enough to wait until the end of the almond bloom, he said wryly.

"Very loving of them," he said, adding that he would have been out close to $36,000 more in pollination fees alone if the thieves had hit just a few weeks earlier.

But one thing still bugging him is that he invests most of his earnings right back into making his colonies stronger. The thieves stole that investment.

"That to me," he said, "is the stinging part."

Bee hives get stolen probably every year in Kern County, though such thefts typically occur before the bloom. Strehlow's loss of 248 hives stands out for its sheer size: It's enough to fill a 24-foot flatbed truck.

The theft is at least the second large bee heist to hit Kern this season. A southwest Bakersfield man was arrested in January on suspicion of receiving 256 stolen hives in an operation one beekeeper called a "chop shop."

At the time, a detective with the Kern County Sheriff's Office said that bust in the 6100 block of Panama Lane was "one of the bigger recoveries" he was aware of in recent years.

Since January there have been reports of bee thefts amounting to several hundred hives around the state, likely a result of strong demand for bees.

Hive rental prices have shot up to record highs in recent years as bees afflicted with various ailments have died off in large numbers. At the same time, surging demand for nuts overseas have driven almond prices to new highs.

Recent thefts have prompted the California Bee Breeders Association to put up a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a hive thief. The California State Beekeepers Association has a similar, $10,000 offer on any beekeeping property, not just hives.

Strehlow's bee broker, Bill Fletcher, said the theft took place in an almond orchard near Highway 46 and Corcoran Road. He reported the incident Tuesday to the sheriff's office.

He, too, was struck by the timing.

"I think somebody needed some bees and they thought this was a good way to increase their number," Fletcher said.

Strehlow, a South Dakota beekeeper who trucked in 5,340 hives to California for this year's almond pollination, said bee hives make an easy target, in that they generally sit unguarded by the side of the road.

Whoever stole his hives may simply add them to their own inventory, take them to Oregon or Washington for the upcoming apple pollination, or possibly put them to work making honey for sale, he theorized.

"I guess our best hope would be if the NSA (National Security Agency) had such great tracking abilities we could just look on the smartphones," he said.

"But, really, what could I do? You know how big California is. They could be anywhere."