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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)