Scientists say the honey bee population is dropping like flies.

Try telling that to a New Mexico man who made a quick trip — about 10 minutes — into a grocery store in Las Cruces. The man returned to the car to find a swarm of 15,000 honey bees, estimated to weigh a collective 3½ pounds, in his backseat.

It was a warm, sunny day, and he’d left a back window open. The bees shrugged their little shoulders and buzzed on in.

The man’s reaction was, let’s just say, a little more extreme. Wanting nothing to do with this unexpected bees-ness, he backed away and used a shaky finger to punch up 911.

Enter our hero: Jesse Johnson, a 37-year-old father, firefighter, paramedic, amateur beekeeper and all-around excellent human bee-ing.

Johnson, enjoying a family barbecue at the time, received the bee-distress call from the fire department, wiped the bee-bee-que sauce off his lips, cracked his knuckles and hustled to the rescue.

“I’ll do anything to keep people from killing the bees,” Johnson later told journalist Neil Vigdor, who penned a story for the New York Times.

Resplendent in a white beekeeper’s protective jacket and veil, Johnson seduced the bees into a hive box treated with lemongrass oil, which just happens to smell more than a little like a queen bee.

“Sweet!” buzzed the swarm, flexing their little bees knees and making a beeline for the hive box.

Within half an hour, the car was bee free; the interlopers had been all boxed up for a ride in Johnson’s truck. They’ll live with him from here on out, presumably immune to the considerable temptation of open car windows.

Johnson explained that it’s not uncommon for bee colonies to split in the spring, with the queen leading a swarm on the wing for a new place to hive. He guessed that this particular swarm came from a nearby home or other structure and that they saw the car as a convenient place to shack up temporarily on their hunt for a permanent domicile.

“Luckily, when bees are swarming, they’re pretty docile,” Johnson said. “They don’t have a home to protect for a moment. It’s much more intimidating than it is dangerous.”

Johnson and the bee-wildered motorist emerged unscathed, but, for good measure, the bees stung a grocery store security guard and a firefighter, who took it on the lip.

Otherwise, the story had a happy ending. No one was badly hurt, and a desperate journalist was able to extract a column from the episode.

But the troubling plight of the honey bee is nothing to poke fun at.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the country’s honey bee population declined from 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008. Disease and pesticide are most often blamed.

Sounds like we still have a lot of bees, right? Well, we need more.

According to the Planet Bee Foundation, honey bees not only pollinate wild and native plants, they’re the most common pollinator of commercial crops in the United States, instrumental in contributing $15 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

So, if you happen to find a swarm in the backseat of your car, make it your bees wax to arrange safe passage to a new hive.

After getting the heck out of there.

Editor Scott Underwood’s column is published Mondays in The Herald Bulletin. Contact him at scott.underwood@heraldbulletin.com or 765-640-4845.

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