Miami beekeeper turns sleuth to find stolen hives. A surprise suspect gets stung.

Davey Hackenberg pulls a hive full of orange honey in a grove near Dade City. Beekeepers in South Florida have hives in farm fields to pollinate crops and empty land where property owners take advantage of tax breaks, but struggle with vandalism and theft in remote locations.
Davey Hackenberg pulls a hive full of orange honey in a grove near Dade City. Beekeepers in South Florida have hives in farm fields to pollinate crops and empty land where property owners take advantage of tax breaks, but struggle with vandalism and theft in remote locations. AP

It wasn’t exactly the crime of the century, but it was enough to leave one beekeeper buzzing mad: Somebody kept swiping his bee boxes.

So after a decade of struggling with hive collapse, mites and a host of other woes that have ravaged the nation’s bee population, Miami-Dade County beekeeper Wainsworth Brown and his leasing agent hatched a plan to catch a thief.

“We’ve got a beekeeper just taking it on the chin,” said American Bee Project President Adam Locke, who connects beekeepers with landowners. “His business is suffering with the vandalism and the theft. So I told him we’d get to the bottom of it.”

So Locke and Brown rigged a camera in a remote field in the county’s northwest corner and waited. It didn’t take long to nab their suspect. But he wasn’t who they expected: a Miami Lakes pastor.

Earlier this month, Miami-Dade police charged Yoel Torres, 54, after Locke and Brown handed over a recording showing him snatching 25 bee boxes, each containing thousands of bees, on three different days in January. The video shows Torres climbing through a barbed wire fence, donning a beekeeper suit and then loading up the boxes in a pick-up truck, according to a Miami-Dade police report.

Just a month earlier, Torres had posted pictures of himself on Facebook tending to hives, happy to share his “new hobby.”

“My queen (my chichi),” he wrote, “is not afraid of anything.”

According to a church web site, Torres is a pastor at Iglesia Nuevo Comienzo, or Church of New Beginning, and was ordained in 2012 after graduating from John Wesley University in North Carolina.

Torres did not respond to a message left at Miami Lakes United Church of Christ, which leases space to Nuevo Comienzo for services, or a Facebook message. A phone number listed on the Nuevo Comienzo web site was answered by a Gainesville man, who said he’s had the number for four years, and does not know Torres.

bee thief
Miami-Dade police charged Yoel Torres, 54, with grand theft, trespassing and criminal mischief this month after he allegedly stole about two dozen bee hives. Miami-Dade Police

“I feel bad that somebody who’s a pillar of the community got caught,” Locke said. “But nobody is above the law.”

Bees have not had an easy time in recent years. Over the last decade, commercial beekeepers who produce honey and lease out hives to pollinate crops have struggled with widespread hive collapse that occurs after worker bees suddenly flee.

It’s still not precisely clear what triggered the collapse that began in 2006 and 2007, but scientists say it’s likely tied to disease, compounded by the stress of climate change, shrinking foraging grounds, pesticides and an invasion of Africanized bees. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency reported the disorder wiped out 60 percent of U.S. hives, but the problem seems to have eased in recent years.

bees in a box
Bee boxes like this one in Homestead in 2017 are used to hold hives that produce honey and are placed in fields to pollinate crops. Bryan Cereijo Miami Herald file

Florida has tried to counter dwindling numbers by broadening beekeeping. In 2012, state laws changed to encourage backyard hives. Landowners can also get tax credits for allowing hives on property, which prompted Locke to expand his tax business to begin connecting beekeepers and landowners across South Florida. About seven years ago, he said he started using empty fields at Northwest 170th Street and 97th Avenue.

Then last year, Brown began complaining about vandalism and theft. Someone was stealing boxes, or taking the lids off boxes and disturbing the bees.

“This is something that’s been going on for quite some time in Florida and it’s happening everywhere,” Locke said. “Somebody comes along and steals not just the [bee] boxes, but the honey.”

But catching suspects can be tough. Hives are usually placed in remote farm fields or large tracts of empty land.

“There’s no WiFi or anything that can help you set up any type of alarm system,” he said.

bee theft map
A beekeeper videotaped a Miami Lakes pastor wearing a bee suit and climbing over a fence to steal hives from a remote field in northwest Miami-Dade County on four different days. Google maps

But as the thefts continued, Brown became more frustrated.

So they mounted a camera and waited. In late January, cameras recorded Torres climbing through a barbed wire fence, taking several pictures, leaving and returning later in the day to snap more pictures.

A day later, he showed up again, pulled on a protective suit and began stacking boxes in his truck. Two days later he returned, donned his suit and again began taking boxes with the help of an unidentified woman. He returned again the next day and took more boxes, the report said.

One of the recordings caught the tag number on his truck.

When police found Torres this month, he said he thought the boxes were abandoned, so he tracked down the company he believed owned the land: Graham Companies, the former dairy farm owned by former Gov. Bob Graham’s family. Torres told police he called the company offices and spoke to a woman, who gave him permission to take the hives, according to a police report.

bee boxes
Bee boxes like this one are appearing more frequently in backyards and open land in an attempt to save the U.S. hive population, which has been hit hard by hive collapse. Bryan Cereijo Miami Herald file

But Graham Companies vice president Andrea Graham Rechichi said the company does not own the land and never gave anyone permission to remove hives.

“They were definitely not on our property, so no one from the Graham Company gave him permission,” she said.

Locke says he and Brown were able to retrieve about 40 boxes, each containing about 50,000 bees and worth about $1,000. He hopes the arrest serves as a warning.

“My guys are all generational beekeepers,” he said. “It’s a good business, but it’s a hard business.”

The urban beekeeping movement is spreading, and a young beekeeper wants Miami to support its distressed population of honeybees by placing public hives in neighborhoods that would nurture them.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich