Three years ago Anto Machleder, then only 9, was almost in tears because a swarm of honey bees had to be rousted from the walls of the Machleder home in West Los Angeles. "It was very sad," recalls Anton's mother, Karin. "The bees had to be killed."

To soothe the boy's feelings, the Machleders arranged for him to have a hive of this own in a backyard box. He since has added two more hives and, to ease the concern of some neighbors, has moved the entire operation to a friend's more secluded home.

Anton likes bees. And so do an estimated 250,000 amateur and 1,600 commercial beekeepers in the United States.

But despite their efforts, and despite a growing demand for honey among health-food aficionados, honeybees are a dwindling breed.

Since the end of World War II, the number of hives, or colonies, in the United States has declined by 27 percent. Besides the traditional problems - spreading urbanization and rising costs-beekeepers increasingly are troubled by damage to their colonies from potent agricultural pesticides and by the mysterious "disapperaing disease," an ailment that some apiologists ascribe to traces of genetic material from an African bee.

And while it may be hard for most people-unlike Anton-to feel sympathy for a little creature whose most familiar forms of expression are a frightening buzz and a painful sting, the mounting problems of the nation's honeybee population are having an impact well beyond the hives. Honey prices, for one thing, have climbed from 15 to 20 cents a pound (at the wholesale level) in the late 1960s to 46 cents a pound last year. Although a dropoff in some industrial uses for honey has kept total U.S. demand relatively constant, the shrinking domestic supply has forced an upswing in imports. Meanwhile, tthe bee shoartage also is affecting farmers whose fruit and vegetable crops depend on the pollinating services of the busy creatures. Almond growers in California have had to rent bee colonies from as far away as the Midwest, trucking them here at considerable expense, because the number of available bees in California hives was too small to do the job.,t"It's become necessary to import more than 100,000 colonies a year from other states to meet California's pollination needs," says Len Foote, a bee specialist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The care and use of the honeybee-Apis mellifera -though modified a bit by modern mechanization, remain today much as they have been for generations.

The best-known product of the bees, of course, is honey, composed of "natural sugars, which the body can more readily digest" than the refined variety, Foote says. It is used in place of or in addition to cane or beet sugar in a host of products-cakes, breads, candies, even ice cream.

The product never has been duplicated by man. A few years ago, Japanese scientists developed a corn substitute for honey, but it was not widely accepted. Still, Elliot Johnson, general manager of the Valley Honey Association in Stockton, said with a sigh: "People keep asking me for the recipe for honey."

Besides honey, their main source of reenue, beekeepers sell beeswax-used primarily in cosmetics and church candles-for $2 a pound. They also rent the services of their charges to pollinate agricultural crops, the most import function of honeybees.

In the United States, the common honeybee of the Italian Caucasian and carniolan varieties is the sole pollinator of almonds. Bees also pollinate some 50 other crops, including alfalfa, avcados, melons, cucumbers, apples, squash, cherries, plums, clovers and other commercial vegetables and flowers.

In California alon, the nation's No. 1 beekeeping state, honeybees pollinate more than $800 million worth of crops annually, while nationwide the total is close to $2 billion.

In late February and early March beekeepers take their colonies from winter sites to begin their annual foraging rounds with almonds, the bees are then taken to alfalfa, citrus, clover and other crop fields. Beekeeper Bill Huston of Corona, Calif., moves each of his colonies an average of five times a year.

"At sundown, we load the truck with hives (bees retreat to shelter at dusk, haul them during the night and unload them after sunup-that puts the bees in the air istead of crawling on you," explains Houston, who operates the largest commecial honeybee enterprise in California.

A colony or hive, in which 40,000 or more bees may dwell, consists of four stacks of supers. A super is a wooden box without a top or bottom. Each super contains nine frames, each with a beeswax honeycomb base for the bees to build on.

Honeybees, which become active with light and a temperature of at least 55 degrees, pollinate crops as they go from flower to flower gathering nectar. The nectar becomes honey after being digested by certain enzymes in a honeybee's tongue and stomach.

Back at the hive, they store the honey for young bees. When the honey ripens, beekeepers remove the supers to extract the sweetner. Huston's extration operation is highly mechanized. He used a bee caper, a machine imported from New Zealand, to remove the beeswax that seals the honeycombs. Then the frame of honeycombs is loaded into an extractor, which impels the honey out of the storage cells with centrifugal force.

In one hour, about 3,000 pounds of honey are extracted. The sticky liquid is poured into 666-pound drums and transported to a packaging plant in Anaheim, Calif., operated by Sioux Honey Association, a cooperative of beekeepers.

Part of the decline in beekeeping in the United States in the last three decades has resulted from the changing economics of the farm.

"After the war," said Larry Atkins, an entomologist and apiologist at the University of California, Riverside, "farmers who used to have a few colonies quit keeping them just like they quit keeping chickens, goats, etc. They dropped the bees because it took too much time and they could by honey cheaper at the market.

The increasing availability of imported honey also took up some of the slac, as the number of U.S. hives dropped from a peak of 5.9 million in 1947 to 4.3 million last year, when honey production hit a postwar low of 176.3 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Honey Market News.

But in recent years the problem of pesticides has accelerated the decline of bees. The problem is sufficiently acute that, since 1971, beekeepers have been eligible for indemnity payments from the USDA for such losses.

Beekeepers, while distressed at there losses, have not tried to wage an all-out war against pesticide use, but instead have lobbied for more careful selection of the pesticides used and restraint in the way they are handled.

"If anyone should beantipesticides, it is a beekeeper," Huston said. "But without flowers in the fields, bees can't feed. I'm for modern agriculture. We have to have agriculture chemicals to kill bugs (which damage crops)."

California is the leader in pesticide control. In the last two years, California has held its number of bee colonies about steady at 500,000, largely by reducing pesticide losses to an average 40,000 a year.

Other states have been slow to follow California's lead. "The midwest is about 10 years behind us in application techniques." Atkins said.

About 85 percent of the agricultural crops in California are sprayed at night. Atkins explains that night application of pesticides is completed by 4 a.m. so that the residues from the sprays have about four hours to break down before the bees begin to forage in the morning.

However, pesticides in encapsulated form pose a new problem. "Only one encapsulated pesticide is being used with commercial registration, but there are five or six more in experimental stages," said Atkins.

Encapsulated pesticides are 12 to 18 times more toxic to bees than regular pesticide formulations. Bees gather the capsules, which are about the size of a grain of pollen, and carry them back to the hive, store them and inadvertently feed some of it to thier developing young.

"The encapsulated pesticides kill foraging bees, young hive bees and the brood [eggs]. So it is killing in three places instead of one," said Atkins. At least six states, including California, have imposed various restrictions on the use of these pesticides.

The pesticide problem has added to the already significant losses from the "disappearing disease." In the early 1960's, beekeepers in Southern and Gulf Coast states were hit by the strange phenomenon. Bee colonies, which normally cluster for warmth during cold months, suddenly began making suicidal foraging flights in the dead of winter.

The most widely cited explanation for this bizarre behavior is based on a theory by William T. Wilson, a research leader at the USDA honeybee lab in Laramite, Wyo. He believes the disease can be traced back to 161, when a USDA entomologist in Baton Rouge, La., bred a generation of European bees containing more than 90 percent of an African strain.

Pure African bee semen was imported (imports of the live bees are prohibited by law) from San Paulo, Brazil, for the experiment. The African bee is known to produce more honey than its European counterpart and to be more ferocious.

"About 20 colonies of Africanized bees were kept in the Baton Rouge USDA lab for at least four years. There was no attempt to restrain them and they mated with other bees in the area," says wilson.

Wilson hypothesizes that the bees who have disappeared had some African bee genes. Since the European bees respond to both light and temperature, they stay in the hive when it is cold. Their tropical African cousins appear to respond only to light, so on bright cold days they fly out and are unable to withstand the cold.

Others are skeptical of the African connection. They suggest the disappearing disease is simply a variant of the socalled "autumn collapse."

Atkins says autumn collapse has occurred infrequently over the years in the foothill areas where the California oak grows. Aphids, a plant sucking insect, feed on the oak, and a honey dew containing a sucrose sugar is formed.

"During a dearth period in late summer when nothing is in bloom, bees go after anything sweet-even pop at a refreshment stand. The honey dew has a fungus growing on it and under centain circuumstances, in certain years, the fungus-infected honey dew produces a toxin poiosonious to bees."

While little progress has been made in counteracting the disapperaring disease, the rise in the recent years of amateur beekeeping has begun to have some impact against another of the bees' natural enemies-urbanization.

For one thing, hobbyists in several cities have launched efforts to head off or water down local ordinances that restrict beekeeping. Last year, the Houston Beekeepers Association, a hobbyist group, and the neighboring Harris County Beekeepers Association helped block a move to ban beekeeping in Houston, Tex.

Bee fears have been fanned by the latest disaster movie, "The Swarm" which depicts what beekeepers contend is the impossible fantasy of African bees destroying a city. The species has migrated northward from Brazil in recent years, reaching as far as Venezuela. While conceding that bee stings are painful and in rare instances can be fatal, bee specialists maintain that in most cases the creatures mind their own business.

"The title insect does not think or get angry," beekeeper Huston says. "A bee is instinctively a working thing and naturally protective of the hive. But if people see bees they complain, so we keep our bees out of sight of people most times." CAPTION: Picture 1, Bees building and filling honeycombs with pollen and honey; Los Angeles Times photos by Bruce Cox; Picture 2, Bill Huston, right, shuns traditional protective gear in handling bees.