In a short-sleeved shirt and wielding only a soft whisk broom, Washington's volunteer bee collector yesterday rescued a swarm of more than 5,000 honey bees that had settled on the window of a downtown restaurant.

A crowd of onlookers watched in amazement as Thomas Potter, a D.C. health official and amateur apiarist, gathered the migrating bees into a portable hive outside Chez Camille at 1727 DeSales St. NW.

It was the fourth time in three days that Potter had driven to spots around the nation's capital in his old, red Volkswagen to scoop up swarms of migrating honey bees.

Potter was stung once on his bare arm yesterday. He told the crowd of well-wishers, "More people die of bee stings every year than die of snake bites . . . But bees are usually docile and I don't mind an occasional bite. It's good for arthritis."

He was not stung at all on Thursday when he captured more than 10,000 bees in two noontime swarms, one at Connecticut Avenue and N Street NW, and another "in the 4700 block of 48th Street, or was it the 4800 block of 47th Street." But a few "got me on Tuesday from a swarm on 7th Street Southeast."

Potter, who has been Washington's volunteer bee collector for several years - it is not a position many have sought - always keeps a safari hat, bee veil and portable beehive in his car at the end of April and the first few weeks of May.

"That's when bees swarm, when the old queen takes off with part of the hive to form a new colony," Potter said. And if they get sidetracked, as yesterday's swarm did on a restaurant window beside some potted geraniums, "then you need somebody to rescue them. You could spray them with insecticide, kill them, but bees are beneficial and should be protected."

Potter releases all the swarms in orchards at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Station near his home.

Yesterday's passing swarm, which Potter thinks is from a hive in the eaves of one of the older downtown buildings, arrived on DeSales Street exactly at 1:36 p.m., according to police officer W.E. Gilmore Jr. "I was writing a parking ticket and looked up and saw this cloud over the street."

Gilmore, who also was the first to spot Thursday's swarm when he was doing his duty with illegally parked cars at Connecticut and N, called for reinforcements and the been man,

Potter, a deputy chief in the restaurant inspection division of the city's Environmental Services Department, can be reached on an emergency bee and insect number at 576-7389.

"Are they killer bees?" Potter was asked by several passersby. "No, just plain old honey bees, nothing to worry about."