Above: George Wilson and Karla Eisen, Gainesville’s award-winning backyard farmers. Photo by Chip McCrea.
Making Great Honey in Gainesville
Photos Courtesy Karla Eisen and George Wilson
George Wilson and Karla Eisen have an agricultural repertoire comprised of growing winery-quality grapes and raising bees to harvest and sell along with artisanal honey through their company, The Backyard Farm. And they do this right in the heart of Gainesville.
Specialized farming has been a large part of George’s life. He was raised in Herndon when it was a farming town which gave him an appreciation of farming and a love of the outdoors. After a 25-year career as a professional horseman, he discovered wine grapes and went on to spend the next 20 years as a winegrower specializing in starting new vineyards and wineries. Chances are you’ve enjoyed a glass of Virginia wine made from grapes he planted.
Karla started keeping bees as a hobby in 2006. Her pastime quickly grew into a passion; she not only enjoyed it but was very good at it. As she grew her bees and sold them to others, she realized she wound up with more than she started with, a testament to her skill in raising and growing healthy bee populations. Today she is one of fewer than 200 master beekeepers to be certified by the Eastern Apicultural Society, the largest beekeeping educational organization, as well as a backyard bee educator and part of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association.
With George’s immense agricultural knowhow and Karla’s passion, they started The Backyard Farm. In the last fourteen years, they’ve been awarded dozens of ribbons for honey and hive products at the Prince William County Fair Honey Show, the Arlington County Fair and The Virginia State Fair Honey Show. And in 2014, the Backyard Farm won “Best Tasting Honey in the East” at the Eastern Apicultural Society Honey Show.
George and Karla have seven bee yards that produce wildflower honey that they sell to local retailers like Eden’s Natural Marketplace and Champaka Thai Massage in Gainesville, Tranquility Day Spa in Haymarket, and Farm Station Café in Vint Hill, to name just a few. The Wilsons purposely limit their customer base to ensure they can provide the very best quality honey year-round.
How Backyard Honey is Harvested
Bees begin collecting nectar in early spring, but it isn’t turned into honey until what’s called the early harvest, typically late May and frequently even June. Once the honey is extracted from the hives, it is put into five-gallon buckets. George then begins overseeing the bottling and labeling process until the product is ready and delivered to your favorite local retailers.
When Nature Calls
Bees forage in an approximate two-mile radius of their hives and feast on wildflowers. Some of the biggest challenges for bees and the honey making process are climate change and the loss of forage. As Northern Virginia experiences vast weather changes throughout the winter and spring, the bees adjust their schedule – you can’t rush nature! And it might surprise you to learn that bears aren’t the only big fans of honey; skunks and racoons love the stuff and try frequently to steal a taste. And mice look for warm beehives to build a winter nest in. Therefore, George and Karla have their hives protected with an electric fence. Additionally, a pervasive pest, and threat to the bees, is the varroa destructor mite. Like the roundly despised stink bug, this invasive species from Asia has made itself at home here in Northern Virginia, and, to a large degree, across the country.
Bees are sensitive creatures and need to be handled with care. A common misconception about bees is that they like to sting; however, honeybees are not aggressive in nature, just protective and sting only when they feel threatened. They are sensitive to disruption, especially if they have not had ample food. Next time you admire the early blooms of spring, know that they are feeding your local bees to make delicious honey!
According to George, “Beekeeping is farming for intellectuals; honeybees engage your body, mind, and spirit.”
Occasionally bees need some medical care, and as one might imagine, administering medicine can be tricky. It is administered through sugar water carefully dribbled into the hive. George and Karla understand their bees’ behavior and when they might need extra TLC.
What’s Karla’s secret to backyard beekeeping success? “Your best chance of success with bees,” she says, “is to become part of the beekeeping community.”
As for George, he’s still involved with wine grapes, but not to the degree he once was, as the business of selling bees and producing honey has been in high demand.
For more information on the Backyard Farm, visit TheBackyardFarm.net. For more information on backyard beekeeping classes, visit the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association at https://pwrbeekeepers.com/.