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Bee rancher Laura Klahre at her Southold farm. (Credit: David Benthal)

Bee rancher Laura Klahre at her Southold farm. (Credit: David Benthal)

The berries at Blossom Meadow Farm are handpicked twice daily. The first picking occurs shortly after owner and bee rancher Laura Klahre wakes. Rolling out of bed, still in pajamas, she wanders straight out to the two-acre farm field surrounding the Southold homestead she shares with her winemaker husband, Adam Suprenant. 

Free-growing patches of grassland buzz with life as native pollinators fly from flower to flower and berry to berry, organically fostering higher yields and higher-quality fruit for the farm’s assorted hand-jarred jams. 

“Me and the bees are the supporting acts to the berries,” Klahre said. “It is about providing a habitat because it is one big ecosystem. I just plant the right things and invite nature in.” 

Founded 10 years ago, Blossom Meadow Farm evolved from a decentralized collection of honeybee hives, housed at various North Fork locations through handshake land rental deals, into a sustainable bionetwork at the heart of Klahre’s home. It is literally a dream come true for Klahre, who awoke one morning in 1997 after having a dream of becoming a beekeeper just as the dwindling of the world’s bee populations hit a critical level. 

“I knew it was what I was meant to do,” she said. “I read a few textbooks and started with one honeybee hive.”

Working with nature was always in the cards for Klahre. After earning a master’s degree in marine science from Stony Brook University, she was an oceanographer for the federal government before returning to Long Island to work in conservation at Peconic Estuary Program and The Nature Conservancy. 

By the time she incorporated Blossom Meadow Farm in 2009, Klahre was caring for roughly 100 honeybee hives. Honeybees, which aren’t a native species, fall short when it comes to pollinating fruit compared to native pollen (mason and bumble) bees, because pollen doesn’t easily fall off honeybees onto berries, resulting in uneven or misshapen fruit, said Klahre, who hosted a TED Talk on increasing food production by using native pollinators.

The mason bees pollinate the berries at Blossom Meadow Farm. (Credit: David Benthal)

“I started reading about how native bees pollinate two to three times better than honeybees and that the resulting fruit from the native bee pollination is larger, more well-rounded and of a higher quality,” said Klahre, who eliminated honeybees from her farm entirely this year. “To transition from honeybees to native bees … people thought I’d lost my mind, but you have to follow the science and science shows that mason bees are the way to go.” 

The key difference between beekeeping and bee ranching is the type of bee. Beekeeping involves honeybees, while bee ranching involves native bees with a focus on pollinating farms and gardens, rather than producing honey. 

Blossom Meadow Farm, as it looks today, started coming into view when Klahre and Suprenant purchased their Southold home in 2015. The couple, who also own Coffee Pot Cellars in Cutchogue, slowly transformed the traditional Scott’s lawn yard into a working farm. 

“Half of the two-acre lot, including around the house, was a manicured grass lawn — no clover, no dandelions and chemicals definitely used to keep it that way,” she said. “Looking at the backyard, the invasive plants mugwort and oriental bittersweet were growing with glee and fighting with tufts of native little bluestem grass and patches of goldenrod. Fast-forward to today, and all around the house [everything] is in production — beach plums in the front, black raspberries to the south and strawberries to the north.”

In addition to the fruiting plants, pollinator-friendly ground cover and shrubs such as canola and Lemon Queen sunflowers replaced swatches of chemically treated grass. Everything is grown without pesticides, which are toxic to bees, and is farmed using organic and sustainable methods. 

“Planting bee-friendly plants adds color to your landscape and helps reconnect Long Island’s fragmented natural areas to form larger, more diverse ecosystems,” she said. “Having ground cover and other shrubs that come into bloom before your fruits encourages bees to get used to and stay in your yard, so when the berries start coming they’ll stick around to pollinate them, too.” 

The bright blue mini bee cottages house more than 400 mason bees. (Credit: David Benthal)

In 2017, the farm was unanimously approved for inclusion in  the Suffolk County Agricultural District, which gives farms protection under New York State “right-to-farm” laws. The designation makes Blossom Meadow Farm the smallest farm accepted into the district within the Town of Southold. Rows of strawberries, black raspberries, blueberries, beach plums and raspberries line the garden. Stacked alongside old-time red barn on its south side are a handful of  bright blue mini bee cottages that house more than 400 mason bees, whichpollinate the roughly 2,000 pounds of fruit produced annually on the modest lot. At peak ripeness, either Klahre or Suprenant picks fruit in small batches for canning inside.  

“It is not like one of those out of sight, out of mind things; we are always here and checking and seeing what’s going on it the garden,” she said. “Farming sounds overwhelming, but can be done on even a small level. You don’t need tens or hundreds of acres to be a farmer. I think more people should go for it.” 

The ultimate goal is not just to increase the farm’s berry yield and produce more jam but also, in an effort to grow at-risk bee populations in the United States, to entice others to become mason bee ranchers. Since 2015, Blossom Meadow Farm has offered  a Mason Bee Rancher Program that has helped more than 100 Long Islanders get started as bee ranchers. 

The program provides informational guides to beginners in addition to for-purchase starter mason bee cocoons and cottages. A waiting list starts in January for an April pickup at Coffee Pot Cellars’ tasting room, which doubles as a shop for Blossom Meadow Farm’s jams, candles and other farmhouse-made goods.

John and Fran DelGrosso started bee ranching at their quarter-acre Islandia property  in 2018 after meeting Klahre at the Cutchogue tasting room. The couple had always been interested in nature and decided to introduce mason bees into their garden to continue to being good stewards of the land.

“She was so enthusiastic, it makes you passionate about it,” John DelGrosso said. “They are not difficult to care for at all. They are very self-sufficient. They are easy to breed and keep alive, and they help pollinate our fruit trees and vegetables. We love watching them fly around. It is the type of hobby anyone can enjoy.” 

Inside the bee cottages. (Credit: David Benthal) David Benthal

Mason bees, which don’t have stingers, are solitary nesters and don’t live in colonies  like honeybees or bumble bees. With a six-week lifespan in the spring, the blue-colored mason bees keep to themselves and don’t require any special attention other than a pesticide-free garden. 

“We add pollinator-friendly plants little by little,” said Marie Esposito, who started bee ranching through the program with her husband, Dan, last year on  1.75 acres in Center Moriches.  “Once you have them you want to do more for them. The amount of land you have doesn’t matter. We have full-time jobs and not much time during the week, but they don’t require special attention. I encourage everyone to try it.” 

Each October, Blossom Meadow Farm hosts a “mason bee harvest party,” where the ranchers are invited to bring mason bee cocoons from their bee cottages toe Coffee Pot Cellars’ tasting room and sell them back to Klahre for safekeeping until the next generation emerges in the spring. 

“If you sell one cocoon back to me, you’re a farmer,” Klahre said. “I really hope by doing this work our native populations of bees can bounce back and it’s making a difference.”