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Jesse Johnson was off duty and at the tail end of a barbecue for his dad’s 67th birthday Sunday when he was called into action.
The Las Cruces firefighter grabbed his gear, suited up and headed into town – not to extinguish a blaze, but to remove a swarm of bees that had invaded a car while a man shopped at an Albertsons grocery store.
Johnson, a hobby beekeeper who has been with the fire department for 10 years, estimates the swarm he removed from the car weighed 3.5 pounds – about 15,000 bees. The hive is now the newest addition to his own collection.
At around 4 p.m., firefighters were called to the store in Las Cruces because a driver who had left a window down while shopping returned to find inside of the car abuzz.
The driver had actually borrowed the car from a friend and Johnson said he was worried about returning it. The driver watched the proceedings nervously.
“He was definitely freaked out …” Johnson said. “He took off a couple of rows down away from us, but he was also kind of laughing too, like ‘How did this even happen to me?’ ”
Johnson, 37, said he began beekeeping with his dad when he was a child and resumed the hobby in his late 20s once he had a home and enough land. He harvests the honey and gives away the beeswax to friends and family who want to make candles, explaining its not a business, “it’s just something I enjoy doing – help the bees out a bit.”
Johnson said Sunday’s swarm happened after a nearby colony split in two. He said a queen bee must have flown into the car and the rest of the hive clustered around to protect her while scouts were sent to suss out a new home.
“The bees, really they’re docile when they’re in a swarm like that because they’re not protecting a space,” he said. “Obviously, they’re protecting the queen, but they’re not going to really try to leave her and attack anything. They weren’t trying to sting at all.”
Once he arrived at the scene, Johnson donned his beekeeper mask and gloves – his running shoes and blue dickies a far cry from his typical work togs – and got out a makeshift hive made from an empty box with some mesh. He put some lemongrass oil in the box to mimic the scent of a queen bee.
“I just set the hive in there on the seat,” he said. “I just took my hands and I grabbed as much of the ball of bees as I could … If you get the queen in the box, they’re for sure all going to get in the box. They’re going to find her, they’re going to smell her, they’re going to want to protect her.”
The process took maybe 40 minutes, he said. Johnson said that, most likely, the swarm would have moved on by itself, although it could have taken until nightfall.
Fire department spokesman Dan Trujillo said crews were on scene for nearly two hours and a security guard at the store was stung. Otherwise, “it is possible a few patrons may have had close encounters, but no major injuries were reported.”
“The Las Cruces Fire Department does not regularly remove bee swarms,” Trujillo said. “However, the large swarm presented in a relatively high-traffic area, so firefighters determined the best remedy was to have the swarm removed and relocated swiftly.”
As for the bees, Johnson said he started a new hive box for them and they’re adjusting to their new home.
“I fed them and I’ll check on them every few days, and they should be fine after that,” he said.