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Thursday, Jan 23 2014 05:35 PM

Stolen bees recovered from local 'chop shop'

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    By Photo courtesy of American Honey Producers Association

    Several hundred stolen hives were located by a fenced compound on the west side of Weedpatch Highway (Highway 184) about 1/10 mile north of Panama Lane.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Stolen honeybees valued at about $40,000 have been recovered in what one of the victims called a "chop shop" operation in southwest Bakersfield.

Bakersfield resident Gabino Jordan Pena, 32, was arrested Saturday and charged with possession of stolen property, destruction of evidence and possession of stolen property with altered identification marks. On Sunday he posted $15,000 bail and was released.

Another man believed to have sold the stolen bees to Pena remains at large, Kern County Sheriff's Detective Casey Brunsell said.

At least some of the bees had been brought to town from North Dakota for next month's almond pollination, the biggest honeybee event in the country.

While bee theft is a fairly common occurrence in Kern County, Brunsell said Saturday's recovery of 256 hives -- each containing a few thousand bees -- stands apart.

"This is probably one of the bigger recoveries I'm aware of in recent memory," he said.

One of the victims, North Dakota beekeeper Joe Romance, said he helped recover the bees by acting on a tip from an associate suspicious of Pena's offer to rent out some of the bees.

Romance, who had only noticed the bees missing the day before, went to Pena's house in the 6100 block of Panama Lane, saying he was an almond grower looking for bees to rent.

While there, Romance said he noticed some of his distinctively colored bee hives. Identifying marks had been ground off and many of the hives had been repainted.

"I was so mad I couldn't even see straight," he said. "They had a chop shop for bees there."

Romance and his associate called the sheriff's department, which sent deputies who made the arrest. Besides Romance's bees, deputies recovered hives owned by a second beekeeper.

A representative for Pena's North Dakota employer, R G Bees Inc., said Pena did not have access to a truck or a loader and did not appear to have stolen the bees himself. He added that his company's bees had not been stolen.

Honeybees have increased sharply in value in recent years, partly because almond prices have risen but also because large numbers of bees have died from a mysterious illness known as colony collapse disorder.

Romance said he loses at least some bees to theft every year.

"It's a chronic problem that we're going to have because bees are worth a fortune," he said.

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