Monday, 12 February 2018

Why honey thefts are on the rise

Last week, the New Zealand Herald reported:
"Theft of beehives has become a growing issue over the last few years. Where once there was the odd, isolated regional incident, today we're seeing theft occur more often," [Apiculture New Zealand chief executive Karin] Kos said.
"A lot of hives are in isolated areas and it seems to be small groups or individuals who have some knowledge of bees and how to transport them.
"We believe most of the activity happens at night," she said. That's also the time when the bees are in the hives and quiet.
An increase in honey value, particularly manuka honey, appears to be a key factor behind the rise in crime throughout New Zealand, but most occurs in central North Island, Bay of Plenty and Northland, Kos said.
Why the increase in honey thefts? The 1992 Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker identified that rational criminals would weigh up the benefits and costs of their actions, in his economic theory of crime (see the first chapter in this pdf).

A similar way of thinking about it is represented in the diagram below. Marginal benefit (MB) is the additional benefit of engaging in one more honey theft. In the diagram, the marginal benefit of honey thefts is downward sloping - the more honey thefts a criminal engages in, the more likely they are to get caught and the harder it is to 'fence' their stolen honey. Marginal cost (MC) is the additional cost of engaging in one more honey theft. The marginal cost of honey theft is upward sloping - the more honey thefts a criminal engages in, the higher the opportunity costs (they have to give up more valuable alternative activities they could be engaging in). The 'optimal quantity' of honey thefts (from the perspective of the thief!) occurs where MB meets MC, at Q* honey thefts. If the criminal engages in more than Q* thefts (e.g. at Q2), then the extra benefit (MB) is less than the extra cost (MC), making them worse off. If the criminal engages in fewer than Q* thefts (e.g. at Q1), then the extra benefit (MB) is more than the extra cost (MC), so conducting one more theft would make them better off.


Now consider what happens in this model when the value of honey increases (because of increased demand from China or elsewhere). The benefits of honey crime increase. As shown in the diagram below, this shifts the MB curve to the right (from MB0 to MB1), and increase the optimal quantity of honey thefts by criminals from Q0 to Q1. Honey thefts increase.


So, how do you combat honey crime? Becker's model suggests that you can reduce crime by either increasing the costs of crime (e.g. by either increasing the probability that criminals are caught, or increasing the penalties for criminals who are caught, or both), or by decreasing the benefits of crime (e.g. by making it difficult for stolen honey to be traded, such as by having some sort of registration and tracking system for legally-traded honey). If you increase the costs of crime by increasing policing and enforcement or increasing punishments, this shifts the MC curve up and to the left, decreasing the optimal quantity of honey thefts. If you decrease the benefits of crime by making it difficult to trade in stolen honey, this shifts the MB curve down and to the left, also decreasing the optimal quantity of honey thefts.

Which is better? Both alternatives are not without cost - more policing or longer prison sentences are both costly, as is the setup and maintenance of a system of registration and tracking of honey. To really work out which is more cost-effective, we'd need to know their costs, as well as how responsive criminals are to changes in the costs and/or benefits of crime. Given police resources can become rather stretched though, perhaps the honey industry should be looking at developing a solution themselves (and at their own cost)?

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