For the owners of Wild Hill Honey in Sioux City, Iowa, the heartbreaking sight that greeted them on the morning of Dec. 28 seemed cruel — and downright senseless.

Strewn about within the apiary that Justin and Tori Englehardt own on 18 acres were the remains of 50 beehives, toppled over sometime the night before by vandals. Tools and other equipment from a nearby shed had also either been destroyed or thrown into the snow.

"They knocked over every single hive, killing all the bees. They wiped us out completely," Justin Engelhardt told The Sioux City Journal last month.

A few of the ruined beehives toppled over late last month at Wild Hill Honey by vandals. A few of the ruined beehives toppled over late last month at Wild Hill Honey by vandals. (Photo: Wild Hill Honey/Facebook)

While a toppled beehive during the warmer months isn't always a loss, exposing one to frigid cold is a veritable death sentence. Bees in winter form what's known as a cluster, a phenomenon in which the colony transforms itself into a tightly packed group about the size of a basketball. Using stores of honey as food, the bees are remarkably able to keep the temperature within the cluster around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 18 degrees Celsius).

But should the fragile cluster break, bees exposed to freezing temperatures will quickly die. In the Englehardts' case, they estimate based on the winter cluster average of 10,000 bees per hive (down from a summer peak of almost 100,000 bees per hive), that they lost some 500,000 bees within a few minutes. The total damage was estimated to exceed $60,000.

After dusting for fingerprints and measuring footsteps still present in the snow, police later arrested two boys, ages 12 and 13. They each face charges of first-degree criminal mischief, agricultural animal facilities offenses, third-degree burglary, and possession of burglar tools.

Police arrested two juveniles ages 12 and 13 for destroying $60,000 worth of bees and equipment at Wild Hill Honey. Police arrested two juveniles ages 12 and 13 for destroying $60,000 worth of bees and equipment at Wild Hill Honey. (Photo: Wild Hill Honey/Facebook)

News of the senseless loss quickly went viral online, sparking a GoFundMe campaign for Wild Hill Honey that amassed over $30,000 for the business.

"Killing bees should be a crime, and without them, we've got nothing," wrote one commenter on Facebook. "They're so important to keep our environment alive. I hope these boys are made to work on your farm to at least clean it up, and that they will be on punishment for the rest of the year. This is a travesty."

For the Englehardts, what initially appeared to be a dire start to 2018 has taken a more positive turn thanks to the generosity of nearly 1,000 donors.

"Thank you to everyone for your generous contributions and your amazing show of support," they wrote on Facebook. "Because of you, we will be able to continue our business in the spring. We are deeply moved by your compassion. Between the contributions and the equipment we were able to salvage, our needs have been met. There are so many great causes to support. Our wish is that this spirit of compassion will be used to help others now. All fundraisers for Wild Hill Honey are now closed. Thank you."

As for the punishment facing the two juveniles, Justin Englehardt told the DeMoines Register that he only hopes "it helps transform them into better people."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Young vandals kill 500K bees at Iowa apiary
Donations pour in to help save Wild Hill Honey in Iowa, which lost 50 beehives when teen vandals toppled them