Stealing bees the new buzz in New Zealand as honey prices soar

Tom Westbrook and Charlotte Greenfield

WELLINGTON, March 15 (Reuters) - New Zealand's bees are

being stolen and traded by organised crime syndicates seeking to

profit from skyrocketing honey prices, police and beekeepers

said on Tuesday.

"It doesn't matter if it's beekeeping or meth, this is just

the new gold rush," Laurence Burkin, apiarist manager at The

True Honey Co in Dannevirke, north of Wellington, and himself a

victim of hive thefts, told Reuters by phone.

Hive heists were rising, with 400 bee or honey thefts

reported in the six months to January, police said in an emailed

statement, without providing figures for previous periods.

"There is nothing to suggest at this stage that

beehive/honey theft is directly linked with a particular gang,

but we do believe this offending is organised and likely being

carried out by groups," said Senior Sergeant Alasdair MacMillan,

Coordinator of Community Policing at New Zealand Police.

The crime spree comes while New Zealand's honey industry is

booming. Exports jumped 35 percent to NZ$315 million ($219

million) in the year to June according to the Ministry of

Primary Industry, with about a third of that sold to China and

Hong Kong.

Apiarists contacted by Reuters said soaring prices for

native Manuka honey, which official figures show has tripled in

value since 2012, is driving the rise in bee-related crime.

"It's rife. Honey is overpriced mate, it's ludicrous.

There's easy money being made if you buy and sell hives," said

Bruce Robertson, managing director of Haines Apiaries in

Kaitaia.

A native product prized for its antibacterial properties as

much as the taste, Manuka honey fetches as much as NZ$148 per

kilogram, government figures show, with a hive worth as much as

NZ$2,000 ($1,390.00).

Robertson said he recently spent NZ$5,000 boosting security,

after finding one or two of his 3,000 or so hives were being

stolen weekly.

Police are now working with Apiculture New Zealand and the

MPI to improve investigative techniques and to develop a

database for tracking hive movements around the country.

"We were actually ignorant about bees because you think,

bees, they're just hanging around the garden," MacMillan told

television network TVNZ.

"I have learnt so much over the last 18 months, just the

makeup of hives themselves is amazing."

($1 = NZ$1.4415)

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing

by Nick Macfie)