Thousands of humming insects huddle in a corner of a pine and glass box, mercilessly eating away at an unfortunate intruder and burying her alive with a waxy substance that they secrete from furry glands.

"That's called 'balling' in bee terminology," said Silver Spring beekeeper Lawrence Myers, peering into the hive he keeps in his cluttered kitchen.

"She would have been the queen bee, but she went into the hive too early and the other bees rejected her. Now they're killing her. Those bees on the other side of the hive, they're building a nest for their chosen queen."

Myers works by day as an estimator for his brother's sheet-metal roofing business and tends 60 area beehives in his spare time. Half are at his home at 510 University Blvd. and the others at orchards in Burtonville and Lanham.

Myers is one of an estimated 17,000 Maryland beekeepers engaged in gathering honey, renting hives to orchards and freezing bees for their venom, used to treat arthritis.

The keepers range from local Boy Scouts with one or two hives in their back yards to professionals, who are concentrated in western Maryland and often spend the winter months in Florida to rent their hives, Myers said.

For Myers, who is in his 30s, beekeeping is a hobby, inspired more by curiosity than economic incentive.

"One-third of everything that crosses your breakfast table is bee-related," he said, listing fruits, nuts and honey among the more than 80 common foods that could not be produced without honeybees or their pollination.

"And the bees, well, they're the greatest thing you could ever imagine," he said.

The red-bearded beekeeper served as an Army paratrooper from 1968 to 1969 and then attended the University of Maryland, majoring in English. He said his hobby was inspired in part by one class, entomology, and in part by William Shakespeare.

In the first act of Shakespeare's Henry V, honeybees are described as "creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a people kingdom . . . the singing masons building roofs of gold."

"Beekeeping has not changed much since Shakespeare's time," Myers said, pointing to a fragile, yellowing beekeeping manual published in 1868.

Although the once-rural character of Myers' native Silver Spring is fast giving way to urban sprawl, upper New Hampshire Avenue is still home to plenty of apple and peach orchards, which have a need for pollination that makes them a ready market for local beekeepers.

Myers profits from sales of honey, wax and venom. But he said he also enjoys showing his hives to children, including Boy Scouts seeking merit badges in beekeeping. Neighbors who suffer from allergies swear by his honey as a remedy for hay fever symptoms, he said.

His kitchen is a virtual museum of classroom-type bee illustrations, bee journals and the hive.

In his back yard, stacked like shoe boxes among his tomato plants, are half of his blue and white beehives. Myers builds them himself, by inserting crude wood frames into homemade pine boxes about the size of desk drawers.

Each box is home to 50,000 bees, lured inside by soft, sugary candy. They build their octagonal wax combs along the frames.

The beehives, along with the garden and a small, rickety greenhouse, are on two acres of land owned by the Myers family since 1938.

Myers has lived in the house nearly all his life and shares the house, and his hobby, with his father Jim, 73.

Beekeeping is hardly easy money, Myers said. "I'd have to have at least two thousand hives to make a living out of it," he said. "Either that or a super crop of honey."

He earned $650 a pound last year for his frozen bees, he said. But to sell them, he had to drive all the way to the University of Pennsylvania and, he said, "it takes an awful lot of bees to make a pound."

Selling honey and renting the hives is easier, Myers said. When weather permits, he loads the boxes onto his pickup truck and drives them to the orchards. Apple, pear and cucumber growers keep the bees two or three days, then pay Myers $15 to $30.

"The orchards get the pollen, and my bees get the nectar. Because they're getting the better end of the deal, I have to charge them," he said.

Other weekends, he extracts the honey, which he sells for $1.50 a jar.

It's a job that should be done on a warm day, Myers said, while most of the bees are outside the hive. To drive out the remaining bees, he places a "fume board" (pine lined with cotton soaked in foul-smelling benzaldehyde) on top of the hive, then snatches the wood frame from the box and slices the honey off the comb with a hot knife.

Fortunately, Myers said, he is not allergic to bee stings: "I've been stung, but it doesn't bother me. It's almost like a mosquito bite."

One beekeeping friend in Silver Spring, he said, is married to a woman who is violently allergic.

"It can be a real drag," he said. "Always living in fear of being stung. . . . It does tend to take some of the fun out of beekeeping."