About nine years ago, Pat Haskell of Annandale was attending a home and garden show when she came across a booth pushing something a bit more unusual than lilacs or petunias.
It was run by the Beekeeping Association of Northern Virginia.
"They were selling honey, but more importantly they were selling beekeeping," Haskell recalled.
Haskell bought her first beehive shortly after the show. Now she has 30 and is president of the beekeeping association.
"Bees are just absolutely fascinating little creatures," said Haskell, 63, whose association represents beekeepers in Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria. "I love the smell of the hive. I could sit and watch them come and go for hours. On a warm day, the sound, the hum of activity is just so pleasant. I am just absolutely in love with them."
Such devotion is common among beekeepers, who practice an art that historians say dates back at least 6,000 years: the care and management of bees for the purpose of collecting their honey, using them to pollinate fruit or just for the joy of their company.
But being a beekeeper is not easy. Over the past decade, the number of Virginia beekeepers has fallen roughly by half, to between 2,000 and 3,000, state officials said. In Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington, beekeepers estimate there are 65. The number of local beekeepers has been constant for several years, Haskell said, but the number of hives has dropped.
The main culprits are two parasitic mites that feast on bees and have killed large numbers of them since the 1980s. Many beekeepers, faced with the loss of most of their bees each year, have quit in frustration.
And, in increasingly densely populated Northern Virginia, urban beekeepers face an extra hurdle: Bees in the back yard might not sit well with the neighbors.
Ilaine Upton found this out a few years ago when she installed two large honeybee hives in the yard of her Fairfax County home to pollinate fruit trees. In what might be called the ultimate case of NIMBYism (or perhaps nimBEEism, given the buzz of this not-in-my-back-yard dispute), some of her neighbors responded with a petition drive to remove the insects.
"It was a real eye-opener for me," said Upton, who initially moved the bees to nearby woods after the dispute went to a mediation session at George Mason University and then removed them entirely.
Laszlo Pentek of Fairfax ran into objections from a neighbor who called Fairfax County officials to complain when he put hives in his back yard. Inspectors determined that his apiary fit within county ordinances that limit the number of beehives on a lot, depending on the lot's size. There are no similar restrictions in Alexandria and Arlington.
"The problem with bees and neighbors is this: It's perceived by some to be a nuisance and that the minute you have bees in the neighborhood, someone will get stung," Pentek said. "But there is a place for bees in the suburbs, within reason."
Pentek and other beekeepers say most neighbors are understanding, and they attribute any problems to misinformation. The honeybees they cultivate, they say, rarely sting unless they feel threatened. Most stings are from the more predatory wasps.
"Wasps give bees a bad rap," said Dane Hannum, an Arlington beekeeper with more than 30 hives, some in his back yard and some at other locations. "Unless you are working in a hive or you step on a bee who is visiting a flower, your chances of getting stung by a bee are about like the chances of getting hit by lightning."
Beekeepers acknowledge concern about their declining numbers. They attribute the trend partly to the ravages of time -- most beekeepers are older, and many have died. "That's one thing everyone comments about when they go to a meeting: There's a lot of gray hair," said Keith Tignor, a Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employee who is the state's apiarist.
The decline is particularly troublesome because people who take care of bees have never been more important, experts say. The number of wild bees is down substantially because of the mites, pesticides and loss of habitat caused by urbanization. And everyone connected to bees emphasizes the importance of maintaining the insects, which perform the vital function of pollination -- a process of fertilizing blossoms, enabling plants to produce fruits.
"I don't want to quote Einstein, but he is purported to have said that without bees the human race would die," said John E. Ferree, a beekeeper in the Alexandria section of Fairfax who maintains hives in his back yard and in a nonpublic area of Mount Vernon, where the bees pollinate an orchard.
In response, members of beekeeping associations are mounting an educational campaign, speaking at schools, garden clubs and other places about the joy of doing what they love. In Northern Virginia, they also emphasize what they call a "good neighbor" policy.
"Before you get your bees, you go around and talk to your neighbors and ask if they have any objections," said Haskell, of the Northern Virginia association. "And you try to educate them on the importance of beekeeping to the community."
That tradition extends back at least 6,000 years, said Tignor, who is an expert on the history of beekeeping. Cave drawings found in Spain, dating back that far, show a person collecting honey from a nest. Drawings dating to about 1,450 B.C. on some of the Egyptian pyramids also show beekeepers with rustic beehives, Tignor said.
Modern beekeeping began in the 1850s with the invention of the modern beehive, which greatly increased honey production and allowed beekeepers the mobility to travel the country and rent or sell beehives to farmers.
Today, most beekeepers are considered hobbyists, with one to 50 hives. Other categories include "sideliners," who sell products such as honey, and commercial beekeepers, who make a living renting out or selling bees or bee-related products.
Beekeepers include doctors, lawyers and bus drivers. "There is no one profession that dominates," said Hannum, a former police sergeant in the District, who turns 64 today.
"I like working with bees. It's a challenge," said Hannum, who hasn't kept track of how many times he's been stung in his 18 years of handling the insects. Beekeepers use protective gear including gloves, veils and "smokers" that puff smoke and make the bees more docile.
"If you're going to keep bees, eventually you're going to get stung," he said. "But if you go in and very gently puff some smoke in a hive, be careful and don't grab a hold of a bee, your chances of getting stung are diminished greatly. If you haul off and smack the side of the hive with a tool or you reach in there and mash some bees, then your chances are greatly increased."
Ferree, 43, a computer programmer, said he was initially "very intimidated, a little put off by the bees. For a few years, I would get stung just about every time I went out there." Now, he is rarely stung. "A lot of it is learning how to read the bees, whether they're mad or not," he said.
Beekeepers say the hobby is easy to start; the initial hive can be obtained for about $150, including safety equipment. And little time is required to manage the insects.
Plus, said Ferree, being a beekeeper "is a great conversation starter."