WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Pesky stings are only a minor irritant to those who revel in the beauty and wonder of raising "cute, fuzzy," honeybees.
In Contra Costa County, Calif., and beyond, about 150 men, women and children of all ages delight in watching the big-eyed, hairy insects that gather pollen, as they flutter their wings and "buzz," clustered together in backyard hives.
"They are the most fascinating insects that I know of," said 76-year-old Mike Osborne of Pittsburg, Calif., during a recent Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association workshop in Pleasant Hill, Calif. "Just to stop and think that one little bee can make honey. It just does wonders."
He and dozens of other novice and veteran beekeepers - many decked out in white protective suits with netted hoods - talked lovingly about the creatures they tend with both respect and awe. Leading the workshop was Steve Gentry, 61, of Orinda, Calif., who parlays his hobby into a moneymaking venture by selling honey at local farmers markets and select grocery stores.
"The nectar from the flower - that's a taste that only a beekeeper can get," Gentry said, dipping his finger into the sticky golden goo and slurping it in the afternoon sun. "Getting a taste of nectar is a dreamy kind of thing because you're tasting the flowers."
Gentry helped form the club in the early 1980s and now trains newcomers in the art of beekeeping. It has caught on with so many people that the Walnut Creek-based club is now the largest west of the Rocky Mountains, Gentry said.
"It's a craft and not a science," Gentry said. "You're trying to manage stinging insects. It's formidable and challenging. And of course, there's a very fast learning curve. Make a mistake, get stung."
The backyard beekeepers raise their beloved yellow insects in screened wooden-box hives with removable trays inside, on which bees deposit nectar and make their wax homes. As in natural hives, the colonies consist of one queen bee who lays eggs, hundreds of male drones who mate with the queen and worker bees who keep the hives neat and tidy. Each colony includes about 10,000 bees.
"They have big eyes," said 10-year-old Martha Morse of Lafayette, Calif., closely watching a handful of drone bees. "They are kind of fuzzy and they are very cute to me."
In the suburbs, bees can produce honey year-round, gathering nectar from backyard plants. The amateur beekeepers are helping keep the endangered bee population strong in Contra Costa County and are benefitting their neighborhoods by nurturing pollinators who perpetuate prolific, pretty plants up to five miles from their hives. The bees can either be purchased commercially, usually from outside Contra Costa County, or collected from the wild in "swarms" as a public service. Beekeepers provide habitats for such wild bees seeking new homes.
"Their little silver wings start to flutter, and it's a beautiful sight to behold," said Concord, Calif., resident Annie Bisbee, "particularly if you're a bee lover."
In recent years, colony collapse disorder has wreaked havoc on the nation's bee population, wiping out about 40 percent of commercial bees, Gentry said. Though researchers are still trying to determine the causes behind colony collapse, Gentry advises club members whose bees have died to buy new hive frames each year, helping fend off the potential spread of diseases.
Pleasant Hill, Calif., resident Gary Lawrence, who has raised bees for 17 years, lost seven of his nine colonies in the past year.
"I am destroying all my old wax and burning the inside of the hives with a torch so as to kill any residue that might be there," Lawrence said.
He offered his backyard for the beekeeping workshop, where swarms of amateur beekeepers descended into his garden to observe Gentry and other longtime beekeepers starting new hives, collecting honey and dishing out home-grown advice. Those in attendance paid rapt attention, peppering their docents with questions, while curiously eyeing clusters of bees, who busily crawled and cavorted in and around their hives, seemingly oblivious to their admiring onlookers.
But the happy event was not without mishaps. While some beekeepers took apart a hive of "aggressive" bees to remove the honey, club member Larry Areias of Lafayette was stung.
"That's OK," Areias said, chuckling a bit, as he nursed his throbbing thumb. "It only hurts for a little while."
Moments later, he was stung again.
"That one, the stinger just barely touched the skin," Areias said, with a touch of exasperation. "Once you get stung, they smell it!"
Gentry said he's been stung thousands of times. It helps keep his immune system strong, he said.
"Not everybody wants to be a beekeeper," Gentry said. "But those that do, they're quite passionate. It's not like raising tomatoes."
Whole Foods Market in Walnut Creek will donate 5 percent of its proceeds on July 1 to UC Davis for bee colony collapse research. Whole Foods is one of several local markets that sells Gentry's honey. He may bring a demonstration hive to the store on that day.