LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Thieves have stolen hundreds of thousands of bees along with their hives destined for Britain's royal family, police said on Thursday.
Disease and dwindling bee numbers have led to a sharp rise in the value of hives and the cost of honey, tempting thieves to carry out audacious raids.
Thefts worth thousands of pounds (dollars) have been reported across Britain in recent months, with the latest and most high profile taking place on hives run by royal beekeeper Murray McGregor in West Lothian, Scotland.
About 11 hives, containing up to 500,000 bees, many destined for the Balmoral royal estate in Scotland to make honey for Prince Charles's Duchy Originals luxury food label, were taken in the raid last month.
"There have been a number of thefts going on," said McGregor. "It appears to be happening quite often. We are very vulnerable to it because the hives are left unattended."
Numbers of bee colonies across Britain have fallen dramatically, hit by the varroa parasitic mite, viruses and poor weather over the last two summers.
In 2008, more than 25 percent of bee colonies were found dead, forcing the government to step up investigations into the falling numbers of bees in Britain.
The price of blossom honey has increased by about 60 percent in the past 18 months, while the cost of starter colonies have risen by about 35 percent, McGregor said.
The bee thefts come on the heels of reports earlier this week that rustlers had stolen cattle from British Queen Elizabeth's Sandringham estate in southeast England.
Lothian and Borders Police said their investigation into the theft of McGregor's hives, estimated to be worth about 5,000 pounds ($8,187), was centered within the beekeeping community.
McGregor said production of Duchy Originals honey would not be affected.
"We will send other hives in their place," he added.
Reporting by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Paul Casciato