EVERSON - Twenty-eight honeybee hives were stolen in rural Whatcom County by the owner of Guilmette's Busy Bees, a local business that makes a popular wildflower honey.
Joseph Eugene "Skip" Guilmette, 31, won't serve time in jail for the felony theft. Instead, he has to repay $14,450 to the rival farmer for hauling off seven pallets of hives, bees and honey with his forklift, Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett ruled last week.
Guilmette's brand - the jars with a smiling bee wearing a red ball cap and red shoes, sloshing around three pails full of honey - sells well at farmers markets and grocery stores in northwest Washington.
He's sorry, in hindsight, for the theft, he told a reporter this week. But he says he had been duped into a fake business deal, and that's how he wound up on the wrong side of the law.
In spring of last year, many of Guilmette's bees had been rented out to county farmers so they could pollinate their fields. So he and a farmer with Rader Farms made a verbal agreement, Guilmette said, to replenish his dwindling honeybee stock by buying hives from a berry field on Hopewell Road, a couple miles south of Everson.
Guilmette figured he could pick up the new bees sometime in the spring. It seemed like such a done deal he didn't come up with a backup plan. Then the months passed, the farmer stopped answering inquiries, and the deal didn't come to fruition.
Guilmette saw that as the other farmer going back on his word. By that time, about 130 of his queen bees were dying. Guilmette suspects that had been the plan all along, so the Rader farmers could cripple his business and capture the local market.
"Everybody's faced with circumstances sometimes, where you have to either stand up for yourself or get screwed over," Guilmette said. "When somebody hits you, do you let them hit you, or do you hit them back?"
Juan Garcia, the farm manager for Rader Farms, declined to comment on the accusations.
On a Saturday in early June, the farmer on Hopewell realized the hives in question were missing. A deputy cruised out to the farm, where the farmer pointed out distinct tire treads, from Guilmette's forklift, in his field, according to charging papers filed in Superior Court.
So the deputy drove to Guilmette's apiary on South Pass Road. He told him he'd been an investigating a bee theft and that he'd heard Guilmette knew a thing or two about bees.
As they walked around the property the deputy saw wooden hive lids coated in fresh white paint. Some still had a visible marker: WA285. (That's the other farmer's mark, not Guilmette's.) Other lids bore the mark of a third beekeeper who stored his hives in the same field on Hopewell Road.
That farmer recovered one hive, a few bees and some boxes. The victims told Guilmette to keep the rest. Otherwise, they said, it might kill off his entire stock, according to the charging papers.
Guilmette pleaded guilty last week to second-degree theft, third-degree possession of stolen property and bail jumping. The sheriff's deputy reported he found 1.6 grams of methamphetamine in Guilmette's shorts pocket at the time of the arrest; prosecutors dropped the drug charge in a plea bargain.
Guilmette admitted guilt, he said, so he could stay out of jail and keep his business going.
"In my opinion, I did what anyone else would have done in that situation," he said.