THINK BEEKEEPING is all sweetness and sunshine? Not so much.

Tom Vercoutere, president of the Beekeepers Guild of San Mateo County, wasn't exactly encouraging about his hobby at a recent class for beginners.

"I think you're crazy for wanting to become beekeepers," he said dryly. "You're going to get stung."

A pastime that promises bee stings may not be immediately appealing.

But for backyard beekeepers in the Bay Area, the stings are outweighed by the rewards of gallons of honey, wax for candlemaking, pollination for fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and the joy of nurturing a living, humming hive.

And cultivated hives are more important than ever. Ten years ago, a bee-killing mite — its Latin name is the ominous-sounding Varroa destructor — arrived in the Bay Area. Like elsewhere in the country — Maryland lost 90 percent of its native bees — the varroa mite has been bad news for Bay Area beekeepers, making the hobby more of a challenge, but also ultimately even more critical for maintaining the bee population.

Beehavior

California has dozens of native bee species, but the ones kept in backyard hives are always the common European honeybee, Apis mellifera, which live communally and produce well-organized honeycombs, as opposed to the solitary, native bees.

Unlike wasps, which eat flesh, bees are vegetarians whose main food sources are carbohydrate-rich nectarfrom flowers and protein-rich pollen to feed their young.

Just like you learned in elementary school, every honeybee hive has a queen bee, the egg-layer, who controls the rest of the hive's occupants using pheromones. Five percent of the tens of thousands of bees in a hive are drones, male bees whose job is to mate with the queen. The rest are female worker bees that build the honeycomb out of wax they secrete from their abdomens. The workers are also the ones that fly out into the world, hanging around in flowers and gathering pollen and nectar — and in the process of going from one flower to another, pollinating them, allowing them to bear fruit.

Vercoutere, a geologist who lives in Redwood City, got into beekeeping when his wife, Martha, became concerned about having enough bees to pollinate their apricot, pear, peach, plum and apple trees.

"The honey was a byproduct," he says. "But it turns out it's a great byproduct. Most people who go into it are either into it for the honey or just the activity, the process of watching something appear that you have very little control over. You magically get honey out of these bees without doing so much."

Sweet rewards

Thomas and Tina Keller, the San Mateo guild's vice presidents, got into beekeeping because Thomas had allergies.

They started seeking out local honey, believing that having him consume local pollen in honey would help his body react better to the pollen in the air. He says it's worked.

Two years ago, they attended a beginning beekeeping class. Last summer, they had seven hives going in the backyard of their home in unincorporated Santa Clara County, but the half-hour per week of maintenance each of the hives required became burdensome, Tina says. This year they gave one away

and combined two others.

They also ended up with 70 gallons of honey, some of which they gave away, and some of which they sold — another nice benefit of a honey-making hobby.

"You do, after two or three years, make your money for the equipment back, but you don't make your money back for the time," she says. "You just do that for the love of the bees.

The basic beekeeping setup costs about $300.

Of course, remember: "The objective of a hobby is to spend money and have fun," Vercoutere says.

The set-up includes a wooden box hive; frames, on which the bees build wax honeycomb; a full suit to protect you from stings; a smoker to calm the bees; and a package of bees, complete with queen. 

There's a wealth of information about bees on the Internet, but Vercoutere recommends joining a club where you can meet experienced beekeepers.

"The best way to learn about bees is to go into a hive with them," he says. "And it's better to go into a hive with somebody who knows what they're doing."

While many people paint their hives in bright colors, others go toward a more muted palette — greens and browns. Camouflage, basically.

Neighbors tend to be nervous about bees moving in next door, and cities usually limit the number of hives that can be in each backyard, but beekeepers insist that their bees don't bother people unless the hive is threatened.

Vercoutere says his neighbors had no idea he kept bees until he brought them gifts of honey a year and a half after he got his hives.

But you can hardly blame anxious neighbors, because again — there's the stinging.

While a small percentage of the population has allergic, sometimes fatal reactions to bee

stings, for most people, stings just cause redness and irritation.

Beekeepers, who open up their hives to check out the bees' progress about once a week, tend to get stung much more than the general population. And they become blase about it.

Once you're stung a certain amount, your body stops reacting to the venom, says longtime guild member Ray Hicks.

"You become quite immune to bee stings," he says. "I'd rather be stung by a bee than a mosquito."

Elizabeth Jardina is a Bay Area Living staff writer. E-mail her at ejardina@sanmateocountytimes.com or call (650) 348-4327.

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Bee facts:

- Beekeepers leave "bee space" — about 7.5 millimeters — between the frames in a hive, which is the perfect amount of crawl space for bees. Bigger than that and they'll build comb to fill it; smaller, and they'll fill the space with a tough gluey material they gather from plants.

-In the spring, when a queen has gotten old and the bee population booms, bees are likely to swarm. Thousands of bees leave the hive and look for a new home — which might be in a tree, a bush or in the trash. These bees are not dangerous, are full of honey and will not sting. If a swarm lands in your yard, check the yellow pages under bee removal; call the non-emergency number for the police, who will refer you to a beekeeper, or visit the Web site of a beekeeping society to find a beekeeper who will collect the swarm.

- The arrival of the bee-killing mites in California has been a huge worry for agriculture, because many of California's top crops — including almonds, strawberries, apples, cherries, melons and plums — require bee pollination. Scientists at University of California, Davis and elsewhere, are working hard to find solutions to the problem.