The air is dense with honey bees when a bare-armed Bart Smith prys the lid off the hive.

A less experienced man might be unnerved by the electric hum of a swarm taking flight. But Smith, chief bee inspector for the state Department of Agriculture, doesn't seem to notice.

He and Arnold beekeeper Lloyd Luna use puffs of smoke to sedate the buzzing horde as they continue dismantling the 3 1/2-foot tall, wood-framed hive. Gently brushing bees aside with his fingers, Smith checks for signs of disease and parasites.

"Yesterday, I inspected 47 hives and I didn't get stung once," said Smith, a Crownsville resident. "But that's the exception. Obviously, if I'm handling 47 colonies, I'm going to put my hand on one the wrong way. I guess I get stungtwo or three times during a day."

Luna, who has kept bees for 15 years, grimaces. His long-sleeved overalls, which snap at the ankles,and elbow-length gloves contrast sharply with Smith's short-sleeved shirt and bare hands.

"I'm not one who likes to get stung," Luna said.

Neither are most people. Those of us who buy our honey in thestore and run frantically from anything that stings may wonder why anyone would want to keep bees.

But keep them they do. The state has 1,807 registered beekeepers who tend 12,990 colonies. In Anne Arundel, 159 beekeepers care for 693 colonies. A colony is home to about 70,000 bees.

Some are enticed by the honey production, others are fascinated by the female-dominated bee society. For Jon Clulow, president of the Anne Arundel County Beekeepers Association, beekeeping is more than a hobby. It's a environmental necessity.

People acknowledge the importance of bees every day, Clulow says, when they use colloquialisms such as "honey" or "busy as a bee." There are at least 67 references to bees and honey in the Bible, he says.

Beyond that, Clulow believes that our society could cease to exist without bees. Their benefits to wildflowers are well known. And they pollinate 85 percent of our agricultural crops, particularly grains and citrus fruits.

Clulow, a 42-year-old Pasadena resident, says we need bees now more than ever. "We defoliate whenever we develop houses, and we have to compensate for that," he says. "If we had more honey bees to pollinate all the flora around here, we could reduce runoff.

"Imagine all the flora on the banks of a stream in full bloom. It would keep all the garbage running off yards and parking lots from reaching the stream and the Chesapeake Bay."

Clulow, a nuclear cardiology research technician at Johns Hopkins University, grew up with honey bees. His father, the Rev. Glen Clulow, cultivated more than 200 colonies while he presided over Baldwin Memorial United Methodist Church in Millersville.

Although he spent endless hours helping his father tend the bees and gather honey, Clulow said he never dreamed he would become a beekeeper. But when his father retired to Florida in 1982, Clulowhalf-heartedly agreed to care for the two hives he couldn't sell.

The two colonies quickly multiplied to 60, making Clulow one of the largest beekeepers in the county. He also has produced a 30-minute video, "Beekeeping: Nature's Hobby," which is available at county libraries.

"Beekeeping is hard work, and the financial return is minimal," Clulow said. "Really, I had thought about stopping with it altogether. But then we had that Earth Day celebration last year and the renewed interest in the environment. I thought, 'This is important.' "

The country had just celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 when Winnie Wilkerson's younger brother, a health food advocate, talked herinto keeping bees. Only she has stuck with it. "He stopped being a hippie to become a capitalist," said the Sherwood Forest resident. "Beekeeping is not a money-making venture."

A computer programmer forthe U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Wilkerson is fascinated by bee society. "They are just more complex than I thought a bug could be," she said. "When I first got the colony, I think I opened the hive everyday. I guess every beginner does that."

Wilkerson, 50, now does the bare minimum, in part because she doesn't have time and also because she moved her six colonies to Hagerstown several years ago.

Wilkerson, who uses honey extensively in cooking, says she moved the bees because she prefers the milder flavor produced in Washington County's clover fields. In Anne Arundel County, most honey is produced fromtulip poplar and black locust trees. A hive produces between 30 and 50 pounds of honey a year.

Her Anne Arundel neighbors also gave the bees the cold shoulder. "Nobody complained to me about the bees, but I think they were happy when they were gone," she said.

However,Luna, 58, says his neighbors accepted his bees with open arms. He and his wife, Doris, 55, keep two colonies in their backyard in Ulmstead Estates.

When Luna bought his first hive in 1976 through a mail-order catalog, "our neighbors said, 'Let us know when your get your bees because we want to run inside behind the screens," Doris Luna recalls. "Well, now, they all say, 'Let us know when you're bringing thebees out so we can come over and see.' "

Luna, an administrator at Fort Meade, says disease may be a greater threat to bees than are anxious neighbors. Honey bees must contend with a bacteria, American Foulbrood, that kills bee larvae as well as with two mites that feast on the blood of the adults.

"When you hear everything that can go wrong with your hive," Doris said, "you can get so depressed."

Themicroscopic tracheal mite, which lodges in a bee's throat, is the most dangerous. It wiped out 35 percent of the county's honey bees lastwinter, says Smith, one of two full-time agricultural inspectors helping beekeepers combat the diseases.

Beekeepers can counter the tracheal mite with simple menthol cough drops, Smith says. But the mitemay decimate the wild bee population, making beekeepers all the moreimportant, he says.

"I don't know what hooked me on bees. I used to be afraid of them," said Smith, who keeps five colonies on a Gambrills orchard.

"But you learn a little about something, and you want to know more."

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