Marcia Thomason, a 20-year-old high school dropout, hunched over the hive in her yellow raincoat and beekeeper's veil. Smoke billowed from a nearby metal can to keep the insects subdued.

Gently, slowly, she pulled out a shelf thick with bees and inserted a bloated insect, a new queen, ready to send the hive out on an assault of the sweet sage blossoms covering the San Gabriel Mountain slopes. "There," Thomason said, smiling at the accomplishment. "Welcome to your new home."

Then Thomason returned to her own new home, an old single-story dormitory that once housed Los Angeles County prisoners but has become the scene of a special kind of job program that has enraptured officials throughout the United States.

The California Conservation Corps, as the state calls this collection of 1,800 young men and women, has received inquiries and visits from 35 states and seven foreign countries. Its motto, "Hard Work. Low Pay. Miserable Conditions," seems designed to turn away comfort-loving Americans in droves.

But it has a long waiting list and scores of young people who once failed its rigors are begging for a second chance.

At a time when President Reagan, ironically the man who planted the seed for the corps, is eliminating federal programs that employ young people in outdoor work, the states of Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York and Iowa are fighting to preserve or initiate programs inspired by California's example.

The corps may go down as the one unvarnished success of the controversial administration of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who revived the organization in 1976 after the "Ecology Corps" created by then-Gov. Reagan in 1971 for juvenile delinquents and conscientious objectors went stale.

"We have to get a work ethic started somewhere," said Christopher Adams, 35, the San Gabriel center's tall, golden-bearded director. "These kids really want it."

It is a program built on calculated callousness, inspired by the favorite speech of the former corps director, now Brown's chief of staff, B.T. Collins. "I do not care about you," Collins, a former Green Beret who lost an arm in Vietnam, would tell new members. "I am not concerned with your happiness. I am concerned with the expenditure of the taxpayers' dollars. I know I'm going to work you to death, and I know you're going to work hard or I'll fire you."

The 18- to 23-year-old corps members who passed the rough initiation came to love this approach, as did California taxpayers and state legislators.

Center directors like Adams and corps members like Thomason make almost a fetish of this hard edge, trading insults like combat veterans which, given the corps work in the Medfly crisis and northern California floods, is about what many of them are.

Adams introduced a curly haired 20-year-old mechanic, Alan Taylor, who was absorbed in making an engine, then steered his visitor away from an equipment shed he said was "the pits."

"That's largely because of Alan, but we're working on it," Adams said.

"Hey, I cleaned it up," said Taylor, clearly distressed.

Thomason's mother directed her and her sister Karla, 18, to the program when she saw a corps television ad, a young woman maneuvering a huge chain saw. Marcia called a state employment office to ask about the corps.

"They said it was military-like, but I said, heck, I was unemployed and I'll take anything."

The pay was minimum wage, only $580 a month minus $145 for room and board. She was required to register to vote, to get up at 5 a.m. and to study for her high school equivalency degree, the last being particularly troublesome because it required two nights a week grinding through workbooks.

Thomason, recently promoted from the regular work crew to acting farm and garden specialist, says she will have the degree in two months. "I got better things to do with my Tuesday and Thursday nights," she said.

Asked what that might be, she pointed toward 19-month corps veteran Bill Imler, 25, a crew leader she met here. Shortly before he joined, Imler had served six months in jail for car theft. He has been permitted a second year in the corps, a privilege offered to only a few, and is determined to make a career in forestry work.

In 1978 the federal government picked up the youth corps idea. By 1980 it was spending more than $200 million for young workers in federal parks and forests, and giving about 24 percent of that money to state programs like this one.

By June, the Reagan cuts will have eliminated all the federal money, and all the young volunteers will lose their jobs even earlier. California's legislature appears likely to make up most of the $7 million lost here, but other states are struggling.

Adams has worked at good centers and bad, survived the early years when the corps was denounced as a "Dale Carnegie course in the woods" and a holding tank for juvenile delinquents who could, and in a few cases did, slip into nearby towns and commit serious crimes.

"These young people will keep you honest, in my opinion," said Adams. "Corps members frustrated at management problems will slash your tires. At one camp they gave a pig some laxative and put it in the director's office."

The corps deputy director in Sacramento, Robert Burkhardt Jr., a former plumber and professional juggler with a degree in English from Princeton and a doctorate in education, decided the desire for self-expression could be better directed. An order went out: "EVERYONE WRITES EVERY DAY."

Now directors of the 24 centers and training academy insist members keep journals, which staff supervisors read and comment on for grammar, spelling and content.

A school dropout like Thomason reveals herself a straightforward essayist: "I've got too many people giving me advice about BS," said one entry in her old 6-by-9-inch notepad. "I hate feeling this way." At another place she said:

"Well, here it is Thursday morning. We had to go to a play last night. It was a terrible play. All about sex and birth control and the man's point of view. It was very crude. I mean, how many ways can we be told about birth control?"

Collins' successor as corps director is John E. (Jack) Dugan, a former Army colonel with a Silver Star, two tours in Vietnam and a threshold for nonsense as low as Collins'. The rules at the camps are simple and inviolable: no booze, no dope, no violence, no destruction of property, no refusal to work.

Only 47 percent of the women and 39 percent of the men remain as long as six months in the year-long program. But those who do have a firmer idea of where they are going, and an excellent reference to get them there.

"It can open a lot of doors," said Thomason, who wants to try for work in the Peace Corps next, and eventually settle down and raise her own bees.

As states continue to look for funds to start their own corps program, bills have been introduced in Congress to revive federal funding, with modifications. Even so, Dugan said, "If I could get away with avoiding federal money, I would."

Although the California corps is 31 percent female, 15 percent black and 16 percent Latino, Dugan said he worries that federal insistence on protecting the disadvantaged might weaken the right to fire anyone who misbehaved.

With federal involvement, he said, "You get bozos running around asking all the wrong questions and you've got to deal with them. We have a quality program here, and we don't need that."