In a "fit of bad judgment" 28 years ago, Byron Anderson woke up one morning and decided that he needed a new hobby.

Not golf or woodworking or Flamenco dancing. No, what he really needed was something that was educational and entertaining but would also sweeten his bank account.

So after doing some research at the library, Byron went out and bought himself a beehive.

He started out in the spring with 6,000 honeybees, but by summer, they'd quickly multiplied. Soon, there were more than 40,000 bees flitting around his backyard in West Valley City. Time for another hive.

Byron's wife, Gloria, a patient woman, didn't protest when those two hives led to four, then six, then more than 20. Today, the Andersons have almost 300 hives, scattered throughout northern Utah but no longer in Salt Lake County.

"Everything's been built up so much, there's no room anymore for the bees," says Byron, who makes regular trips to Box Elder and Carbon County to gather honey and check up on his hives. "We could really use some more beekeepers in Utah. They're on the decline."

So are the honeybees. For several years now, headlines have buzzed with stories about the mysterious plight of bee colonies that have been wiped out in large numbers. Honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate, with experts blaming their demise on everything from disease to cell phones.

This spring, Byron lost more than 200 of his colonies, but he's not about to feel stung. "I started new colonies with 224 queens," he says. "Each queen costs $15, so it wasn't cheap. But this is too much fun to give up."

Hoping to encourage others to put a hive or two in their backyards, Byron recently took time for a Free Lunch chat before driving to Willard to give his bees some extra boxes for storing their honey before it is harvested this fall.

For anyone interested in taking up a sweet hobby, he suggests that you drop by the Utah State Fair this week, where members of the Wasatch Beekeepers Association are answering questions while showing off a working beehive enclosed in Plexiglas.

"There's nothing more fascinating than watching bees do their jobs," says Byron, 66, who recently retired from the construction business. "Did you know that a queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day? And in a bee colony, it's the female bees that do all the work."

Some might argue that the same can be said for the rest of the world, but Byron says we should feel a little empathy for the male bees. Drones have a rough life: After tak-

ing a flight with the queen to mate, they die immediately.

"A bee's life span is short but very productive," he says. "There are still so many mysteries about them. Part of the fun of being a beekeeper is trying to figure those mysteries out."

The biggest unknown, of course, is the cause of colony collapse disorder, which has killed 50 percent of the honeybee population in recent years.

"People don't think about it — we take bees for granted," says Byron, "but we need them to pollinate our fruit crops and our almond trees."

Imagine how bland life would be, he says, if we didn't have honey to spread on our peanut butter sandwiches.

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to [email protected]. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.