Do you hear that? Buzz buzz. Vroom vroom. Buzz, buzz. Vroom vroom. That’s the sound of the car bees.
Per CNN, a New Mexico man shopping at an Albertson’s in Las Cruces left his window partially rolled down on Sunday, March 28, returning to find a mass of bees. The Las Cruces Fire Department wrote in a Facebook post the man somehow managed to load his car with groceries, get in, and start ambling back home before he realized he had what the department estimated to be around 15,000 passengers.
“Firefighters arrived to find a swarm of bees inside the vehicle,” the department wrote. “Firefighters learned the owner of the car returned from shopping, placed groceries in his vehicle, and started to drive off before noticing the swarm in the backseat.”
The department wrote it doesn’t normally remove bees, but two factors were different in this case. One, they wanted to mitigate the “mid-afternoon hazard the large swarm presented in a relatively high-traffic area.” Two, a local fireman just so happens to moonlight as a beekeeper, and was able to lend his expertise in the subject to safely remove the bees without undue harm to any of the parties involved (including said bees) beyond a few stings.
“After blocking off the immediate area to ensure the safety of nearby shoppers, Las Cruces firefighters called upon the services of off-duty firefighter Jesse Johnson who, in his spare time, is a beekeeper,” the Las Cruces Fire Department added in the post. “Johnson arrived with the proper tools for the trade—a hive kit, lemongrass oil, gloves, and proper attire—and was successful in removing the bees from the car and relocating them to a more suitable location.”
Fire personnel were on scene for two hours before Johnson managed to remove the swarm and rehome it on his own property outside of town, according to the department—one of the perks of the job, we suppose.
Docile, run-of-the-mill European honey bees first came to New Mexico in the 1500s when they were imported alongside livestock. Their more paranoid, agitable, and invasive Africanized honey bee cousins have a more interesting backstory. According to Modern Farmer, they were originally accidentally released into the wild in the 1950s by Brazilian geneticist Warwick Kerr while he was trying to create a hybrid of an African honey bee subspecies (a prolific pollinator) and the European one (which produces more honey). The escaped hybrid, which has less predictable behavior than the European version and tends to be much more aggressive in self-defense, eventually migrated everywhere.
Coverage of the Albertson’s incident didn’t specify which type was involved. New Mexico State University entomologists write virtually the entire Southwest has been “infested” with Africanized bees for decades, and wherever they pop up they tend to replace European honey bee populations. The difference may be largely academic, as the two types of bees have thoroughly interbred.
While Africanized bees have a bad reputation due to their penchant for forming large defensive swarms, deaths from them are rare and almost always caused by allergic reactions. Dying from bee stings isn’t much more likely than being fried by lightning; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 35 deaths per year in the U.S. from lightning from 2003 to 2012, while from 2000 to 2017, the confirmed death toll from all bee, wasp, and hornet stings in the U.S. combined from 2000-2017 was 62 per year.
Meanwhile, as honey bee populations are rapidly plummeting across the U.S., safely preserving rather than exterminating them when they become a problem is crucial. In 2018, a Las Cruces woman discovered a swarm estimated at nearly 100,000 individuals of the latter group taking up residence in her rafters. Pyong Livingston, a bee removal specialist, told the Las Cruces Sun News they were able to remove about 70,000 of them alive and rehome them outside city limits.
Johnson, the beekeeping firefighter, told the New York Times that he had used a box scented with lemongrass oil to lure the bees out of the grocery shopper’s car.
“I’ll do anything to keep people from killing the bees,” Johnson told the paper. “… Luckily, when bees are swarming, they’re pretty docile. They don’t have a home to protect for a moment. It’s much more intimidating than it is dangerous.”
“One guy got stung on the lip, and we made fun of him the next morning,” he added.