AS INSECTS GO, YOU'D HAVE TO SAY honeybees have a pretty shaky reputation. They hang out in gangs, have wild sex lives and carry weapons. Now consider 600 hives of them hopped up out of their minds on caffeine.

That's what John Klapac, a beekeeper from Silver Spring, sees every winter. In cold weather he feeds his bees with the dregs from commercial containers of soft-drink syrup -- 1,200 gallons of the glop. "The distributors want to get rid of the waste syrup," he says, "and the bees love it -- they get hyper from all the caffeine. It works out all around."

There is a practical reason for this strange diet. "I rent my hives to farmers on the Eastern Shore to pollinate cantaloupes, squash and cucumbers," says Klapac, "but bees don't get much nectar to make honey from those crops, so they need extra food during the winter." Sugary soft- drink syrup is just the ticket.

Klapac sprays the syrup into trays of wax honey cells, which he then returns to the 600-odd hives he owns. The bees convert the syrup into a honey-like substance that they thrive on.

The 55-gallon drums of syrup usually arrive with several flavors mixed, but Klapac says he sometimes gets a run of one particular kind.

"If I get straight lime syrup, the bees produce and store up a kind of green 'honey' that tastes like lime," he says. "Strawberry syrup makes a red product with strawberry flavor, and cola syrup produces an almost black substance with a cola-like taste."

The end product can't legally be called honey because it's made from less than 51 percent natural nectar, but Klapac has sampled it and pronounced it good.

"Makes great pancake syrup," he says.

What happens if the little buzzers get hold of syrup for the diet soft drinks that humans are so wild about?

"The distributors have agreed not to put any diet syrup into the mixture," Klapac says solemnly. "If the bees eat it, they die." :: -- BILL SAUTTER