SAN JOSE, Calif. - "I am the official Google beekeeper," said Bill Tomaszewski, sounding as if he couldn't quite believe it himself.
Dripping honey from his hands, from his white, sting-retardant bee suit and even from his face, he looked like a giant, slightly deranged Pooh Bear. He also looked happy. As he stood in one of the cafes on the search giant's Mountain View, Calif., campus, Tomas-zewski held a jar of the golden nectar from Google's first honey harvest.
The Bee Group is among the more exotic clubs sanctioned by a company where employees have created a honeycomb of groups for outdoor activities to make sure the worker bees are attentive when they return to the glass-and-steel hive. Tomaszewski is Google's official, paid bee whisperer, but he makes his living as a lawyer for the website Wine.com.
The bee's image has undergone an extreme makeover in recent years, having overcome generations of fear instilled in children that one false move in the yard could result in a bee sting. With hives springing up in backyards from Gilroy to the Googleplex, bee enthusiasts say a "honey wave" is breaking over Silicon Valley.
The bee's importance to the food chain has long been understood by scientists such as Albert Einstein, who once warned, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." But when it comes to creating the kind of buzz that can be good for an endangered insect species, it would be hard to find a better ally than the Internet's 800-pound gorilla.
"It's becoming hip," said Tomaszewski, who believes the Googlers found him by using a certain search engine and typing in "beekeeper." "The more people learn about honeybees, the less afraid they are."
Before heading back out to the four Google hives - which are painted red, blue, yellow and green, the colors of the company logo - Tomas-zewski told a gathering of about 30 curious Googlers he expected some of them to suit up in protective beekeeper suits and veils to help with the honey extraction. Jocelyn Miller's hand shot up.
After donning the gear, Miller said she was eager to get a hive for the backyard of her Palo Alto, Calif., home. "The feeling of being surrounded by tons of bees was overwhelming," she said later of the 5,000-strong swarm. "I felt kind of sorry for them because I realized that basically what we were doing was destroying everything they had worked for."
An anthropology major in college, Miller saw a direct link between the behavior of the busy bees outside and the thousands of drones in corporate cubicles. "I'm interested in the idea of the whole hive working as a community, and that being a mirror of society," she said. "I think any corporation, where you have people working together toward a larger goal, is very hive-like."
When Marc Rasic, an executive chef at the company, came up with the idea to install beehives and use the honey in the dining rooms he oversees, he quickly got the go-ahead from his boss. The idea was to use the honey as a social glue, binding together strangers from different divisions of the massive company.
But initially, not everyone was happy. "People were a little freaked out about it," Rasic said.
"Some Googlers didn't think it was a great idea because we have a lot of (outside) events here."
When Rasic and software engineer Rob Peterson, who co-founded the company's Bee Group, set up the hives in April, the first to howl were members of Google's Volleyball Group, who felt the bees were buzzing too close to their court. Peterson decided one evening he should move the hives, by then fully occupied with bees. He didn't yet have a beekeeper's suit, and he had no experience handling bees.
"So I went down there wearing a hat and a ski suit, with my sleeves and my ankles duct-taped," Peterson recalled. "By the time I got myself fully kitted out, it was pitch black." The duct tape caused him to sweat profusely, although not as profusely as the sound of so many angry bees.
As he looked for a more remote location in the deepening darkness, the sprinklers suddenly went off. Hoping to avoid trouble, he stuffed a sock in the entrance to each hive, which are the size of small filing cabinets, but then tripped while carrying the last one.
Peterson withdrew the socks, and as he started to run for his life, he heard what sounded like a giant engine revving up behind him. "I thought this would be a fitting end to me," he said, watching the honey harvest. "To see me running across campus, chased by bees, wearing a ski suit and bee hat."
Not everyone at Google is as heedless as Peterson. "We have some people who have a lifelong fear of bees," he said, "who asked if they could suit up and stand in front of the hives to see how it feels."
Last week, "hive leader" Greg Robinson discovered a mite - apparently the bedbug of the beekeeping world - and immediately commenced mite extermination procedures that involved refrigerating bee larvae.
Freezing mites might not conform precisely to Google's "don't be evil" code, but it prompted a larger question: How would Googlers feel if they knew their yogurt pops were next to bee larvae in the office fridge?