Virginia Webb has an international reputation as a leading expert in bees and honey. Its Sourwood honey has been selected four times as the best in the world at the World Honey Show. And, its Sourwood Honey has been voted the best in the country for the past five years against over 2,000 entries and 17 categories.
When she announces the best honey in the world, Virginia isn’t kidding.
Virginia and her late husband Carl are well known nationally and internationally for their work with honey bees. In fact, her colleague, Katie Goodman, describes her and her late husband as “bee royalty.”
“When I first started attending conferences with Virginia and Carl Webb, I felt like the crowds were parting for them as they would for royalty to let them through,” says Goodman. “Virginia continues her work and is highly regarded in the beekeeping world.”
Virginia, however, is low-key about her work in the beekeeping industry.
According to Virginia, her favorite title is “farmer.” Virginia notes, “Habersham is still an agricultural county. I want to be counted among the farmers, and there aren’t many women farmers in the county.
And Virginia is proud of its workforce.
“I’m the biggest employer in the county,” she says. “Each hive has 60,000 to 80,000 bees that work in the summer. And right now I have 200 beehives. That’s 12 to 16 million bees that work for me every year.
Whatever title you use, beekeeper or farmer, spending a day in the Virginia field is an educational experience. Webb is passionate about everything she gets involved in, and this especially shows in her passion for bees.
Become a beekeeper
Virginia Webb received her first beehive in 1964 as a birthday present from her father. He still worked with bees as a hobby. Over time, Virginia’s talent with bees grew, as did her own collection of beehives. He was busy working in an Atlanta bank, and his bees were definitely a hobby. That’s until she meets Carl Webb.
Carl was a beekeeper when he and Virginia met at a beekeeper reunion. Although he is a little older than Virginia, they had so much in common that they got married in 1998. He asked her to move to Clarkesville for a year and see how she felt about it. live in a rural area. Virginia agreed, believing that a year was as long as she could earn in a rural setting. However, she never looked back and has been in Clarkesville ever since.
At one time, Virginia and Carl owned as many as 400 beehives, spread throughout Habersham County, neighboring counties and even North Carolina. When Carl got sick, they had to reduce the number of beehives they could take care of. Carl passed away over a year ago, but Virginia continues to operate and is ready to increase the number of hives again.
The science of bees
Albert Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying: “If the bee were to disappear from the face of the earth, man would only have four years to live.” According to Virginia Webb, this is not the reality. “But,” she said, “we would be living without the colors and varieties of foods that we now enjoy!” This is because bees play an important role in growing the fruits and vegetables that we value, but often take for granted.
Virginia points out that only three natural foods can exist without bees: wheat, rice, and mushrooms. No matter what happens to honey bees, we will always have these foods available. But, really, would we ever be happy with this kind of diet.
Honey bees play an important role in the production of all cultivated foods. They move from flower to flower, collecting nectar from each, which they bring back to the hive. This nectar is brought back to the hive to become honey. In the process, bees pass pollen from one plant to another. According to Virginia, a pod must be fertilized seven to nine times each in order for the pod to become a marketable vegetable.
Virginia and Carl were also chosen to be part of a small, select group of beekeepers who worked to import Russian honey bees into the United States. Russian bees were resistant to Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attacks and feeds on American honey bees. The mites were so successful that they almost wiped out the honey bee population of America.
Virginia remains a certified specialist working with the United States Department of Agriculture in breeding Russian honey bees for use throughout the United States. There are only 25 certified breeders in the United States who are required to collect scientific data to ensure that the DNA of Russian bees is passed on to the honey bees they breed. Virginia is the only certified beekeeper on the program in Georgia
The process of making honey
Each box the bees work in is actually a beehive. Each group of beehives, usually between 20 and 30, is called an apiary. And, the beekeeper can be called a “beekeeper” as well as a beekeeper. Up close, the hive is a series of trays, placed on top of each other. The queen of the hive resides on the lower level, and the beekeeper never touches all the honey created there as that is what will be needed to keep the colony alive during the winter.
The apiaries are spread over areas that provide the flora and fauna that bees need to make honey. For example, Sourwood honey is made from the nectar of Sourwood trees, so beehives in a Sourwood apiary must have access to these trees.
Wildflower honey is made from bees that feed on the variety of flowers in the region. For example, clover is one of the flowers that bees feed on. Each little tip of the clover ball is actually a separate flower. Honey bees will take nectar from any of them.
An interesting fact is the amount of nectar that must be collected to produce honey. To collect enough nectar for a one-pound jar of honey, bees in a hive will visit two million flowers and travel 55,000 miles in the process.
To make honey, bees create a digestive enzyme that turns raw nectar into honey. When this process is complete, the bees cover the honey with pale wax. This wax lets the beekeeper know that the honey is ready to be harvested.
Virginia has state-of-the-art equipment to process the honey it collects from its bees. A machine actually cuts the wax layer, revealing the natural honey. The honey tray is then placed in a processor which removes the honey from the tray and then is processed to remove anything that is not honey. Finally, the pure honey is collected in large vats, ready to be bottled.
The best honey in the world
It’s hard to convince Virginia to explain why her honey has won international awards. She credits much of her success to the region her bees work in – the mountains of northeast Georgia. Virginia notes, “There are other beekeepers who produce excellent honey in this area. We make wonderful honey here.
Perhaps Virginia’s advantage lies in her desire to create the best honey possible. Katie Goodman has worked with Virginia for several years now and has watched her at work. Katie shares, “Virginia is really passionate about her bees and honey. And she constantly monitors the hives, making sure the bees are healthy. She is a horse for details. She checks, then rechecks every step of the process to make sure the honey is as perfect as it gets.
Virginia is busy with her honey business, but not too busy sharing her passion for bees with others. She is sought after as a lecturer and teacher on bees and honey. She teaches at Arrendale State Prison for Women and John Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. She is also a member of local and national beekeeping organizations and has assumed the leadership of these organizations.
Know your beekeeper
Virginia’s advice to anyone who loves honey is to buy locally and know your beekeeper. Apparently, half of all honey sold in the United States is imported. Virginia suggests talking to the beekeeper and hearing how they make the honey. And, she encourages us to try many local varieties.
One last fact learned with Virginia: honey can last forever. Doesn’t it make you want to go get some honey?
Save the bees
One of the things Virginia and Katie are both proud of is their work to develop the Save the Honey Bee license plate for the state of Georgia.
The Georgia Beekeepers Association created the label and had it approved by the state.
A portion of the funds raised through the sale of the labels is provided in the form of grants to support educational and research work in the field of bees and beekeeping in the state of Georgia. For more information, see the Georgia Beekeepers Association.
There are only two ways to buy Virginia honey – online or at her honey stand down her aisle. If you live in the Clarkesville area, honey is cheaper at Honey Stand because there is no additional charge. You can buy honey online at MtnHoney.com.