Widgets Magazine

Bee Rancher Laura Klahre of Blossom Meadow Farm Talks Honeybees, Native Bees, and Coffee Pot Cellars

Photo credit: Monique Singh-Roy, Northforker.com

Q: How did you come to the North Fork?

A: I came to Long Island for graduate school. I have a masters in marine science from Stony Brook. After graduating, I went to work as an oceanographer for the Federal Government in DC for a year, but I didn’t like it so I came back and settled on the North Fork.  On Long Island, I’ve worked for the Peconic Estuary Program and The Nature Conservancy, among other conservation jobs.

I’ve been a beekeeper for almost 20 years; I’ve been a bee rancher for several years now too. Year after year, bee ranching becomes more of my focus.

I met my husband Adam—winemaker Adam Suprenant—in 2010. I already had my farm, Blossom Meadow, and he had Coffee Pot Cellars. We opened the tasting room in 2013.  It’s a shared storefront for his wine and my farm products; it’s a lot of fun. It’s great to be able to say that. I manage the tasting room, he manages the cover crops and fruit growing at the farm – we are fully integrated!

I feel like having a store you’re part of the community, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else now. You see people over and over, you build relationships; I’ve seen people get married, buy houses, have babies. I love the connections. And in the summer it stays light late so I’m still able to get my fieldwork in.

When we first opened the tasting room, I was really nervous—I don’t have a masters in viticulture and oenology like Adam, I just know what I like. Then I realized, almost everybody’s like that.

Q: So you’re a beekeeper and rancher doubling as a winery tasting room manager, and your husband is a winemaker doubling as a farm manager.  That’s neat. How did you go from oceanography to beekeeping?

A: I had a dream that I was a beekeeper in 1997. I woke up, and I thought I had to be a beekeeper. So I read a few textbooks, apprenticed with others, and got my first hive. I kept a full time job in conservation up to the year we opened the store. Managing the tasting room and working with bees keeps my plate full now.

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Photo credit Madison Fender

I remember the first time I opened up a hive. Textbooks state that a hive should be worked for a maximum of 15 minutes. I would set the bezel on my watch, trying to follow the rules precisely. Then an older beekeeper said to me: the bees don’t read the books. They’ll tell you when they’re tired of you.

And they do; when you open a hive, the buzzing is a low hum, a contented sound. When they’re tired of you it winds up, the pitch is higher.

Q: You said you were a beekeeper but now are more of a bee rancher. What’s the difference?

Beekeeping is honeybees; ranching is native bees. Native bees are 2-3 times better at pollinating than honeybees; they are the future for our farms and gardens. There are about 450 different bee species in NY State, 4,000 nationwide.

Honey bees are from Europe originally. They co-evolved with different species—European plants—many of which are invasive here. They preferentially pollinate the invasives, and increase their seed set.

It is only female bees that sting and you are less likely to get stung by a native bee—not that people think of honey bees as particularly aggressive. Native bees are gentle because the same bees that are pollinating are the same ones laying eggs. Stinging is conflict oriented. An aggressive bee could die from a confrontation and not live to lay any eggs. Another way to look at it: nice bees have more babies. Honeybees have separated pollination and egg laying responsibilities so they can be more aggressive and the genetics of their hive will still live on.

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A Female Mason Bee

I used to run 100 hives of honeybees, I run about 35 now. I ranch around 5k mason bees (a great early spring pollinator). I will start raising leafcutters and common eastern bumblebees this coming season. There’s a lot less known about how to ranch these bees, they’re not as well studied as honeybees, so we’re learning as we go. I work with NY Parks, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Surrey Lane Orchard and Farm, Breeze Hill Farm  and private homeowners with the native bees now. Bunches of people have become bee ranchers through our store. We have all the bee equipment and we sell the mason bee cocoons for pickup this April.

Q: 450 bee species in NY alone; honeybees as an invasive species, inefficient pollinators and invasive plant enablers. Listening to you I realized how little I know about bees. Don’t all bees make honey? What’s the deal with honeybees?

A: Probably everything you think of when it comes to bees is about honeybees. Honeybees are the only bees that live in a big hive and the only ones to make large quantities of honey, enough for us to harvest. Honeybees make honey to eat. It’s their carbohydrate source and pollen is their protein source.

Bumblebees live in small hives—a few dozen bees in a nest —and make honey but it is too little for us to harvest. The rest of the wild bee species are solitary (although they might live next door to one another); about 70% live underground, and 30% live in hollow plant stems and the like.

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A Bee Cottage that simulates hollow plant stems and attracts native bees

Most bees have short lives; making honey doesn’t make sense for them.  Mason bees, for example, are active for a six weeks in the spring, lay eggs, and die. The eggs develop throughout the summer, maturing into adult bees by September, and then cocoon for the winter. They emerge in the spring as adults and do it all again. We have our mason bee cocoon harvest party in October.

Unfortunately, native bees are less common and less abundant than they used to be. According to the Center for Biological Diversity’s comprehensive review of the native bees species in North America and Hawaii that was just published, 52% of the species with sufficient data to assess are declining.  More than 700 species are in trouble from a heap of threats including severe habitat loss from residential development and factory farms and increased pesticide use.

It is interesting to note that honeybees are also a whammy to wild bees. Honeybee populations can get up to 80,000 individuals in size. They can communicate with each other so well that they can actually outstrip an area of pollen and nectar before the native bees can fully take advantage, especially since most native bees are solitary and don’t communicate.

Q: That’s wild; most bees don’t live in hives or make honey, and they can get out competed in the field by honeybees. We hear all the time about how bees are in trouble; what should people who want to help bees do? What should farmers do?

A: Take a bee to lunch - plant more flowers. Let dandelions and clover grow in your lawn.

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An Golden Northern Bumblebee on Clover

Plant native flowers, especially Indian Paint Brush (Asclepias tuberosa), also a type of milkweed.It’s a great border perennial plant, is drought tolerant, produces lots of gorgeous orange flowers, and the bees and butterflies love it.  In fact, this is one of the few plants that monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on! No wonder why it has been named the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

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Indian Paint Brush

For trees, my favorite is the American Redbud. Between lawns and deer ravaging of flowers in the woods, there’s not enough nectar to go around.

Understanding the role pollinators play in crop production, some farmers are installing insectory rows (flower strips in between crops), growing multiple crops to ensure nectar availability throughout the growing season, and leaving some land natural—remember, most bees live underground.

Only honeybees can pollinate industrial monoculture farms.

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Beasley (of Coffee Pot Cellars) admiring a monarch butterfly caterpillar

Q: Speaking of farms, what’s your Blossom Meadow Farm about?

A: I have been a beekeeper for almost twenty years and incorporated in 2009. My farm has always been decentralized, meaning on other people’s land, but now we have a small farm on South Harbor Road. We built the barn last year and will finish putting up the deer fence soon. We’ve focused on building up the soils for these first few years but eventually will have raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and apples for sale. I continue to ranch native bees and keep honeybees too (for the honey and beeswax). Here in the Coffee Pot Cellars tasting room people can get my candles, lip balm, lotion, crayons and seeds, as well as native bee bundles and bee cottages.

Q: Your beeswax candles are adorable—you don’t usually find these shapes.

A: Yeah, I make dinosaurs, robots, cats, dogs, and deep sea divers. I modified silicone chocolate molds so you won’t find these anywhere else. The History of Diving Museum in Islamorada Florida stocks my deep sea divers.

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Photo Credit: Katharine Schroeder

I got a large rush order for the dinosaurs for a kids party the other day.

Q:  Since you manage the Coffee Pot Cellars tasting room, tell me about Coffee Pot wine.

A: We have a tight portfolio of six wines, and occasionally have a limited release. I like that we’re mom & pop, and retail everything we make. When people come here, they always meet 2/3 of the company because they meet Beasley and me.

Though we’re small, there’s nothing amateur about us. Adam has been making wine for over 25 years; he was at Franciscan in Napa Valley, before that Chateau Lafite Rothschild in France. This is Adam’s twentieth year as head winemaker, 16 years of which have been at Osprey’s Dominion and still counting. He started his own label, Coffee Pot Cellars, in 2008.

Q: Your tasting room is open, small and friendly—eight stools around a nice wood bar, walls lined with nice products. And your dog is here. Anything you want people to know about the Coffee Pot Cellars tasting experience?

A: Our tasting room makes you feel like you’re in somebody’s happy living room.

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Photo credit Bridget Elkin

I think it’s pretty damn fun that Beasley—our dog—has his own wine and it’s only sold out of the tasting room because Beasley has to be here to represent. There is pressure from the outside to sell it elsewhere, but we’ve stayed true to the idea.

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When we first released his wine he made it into Wine Press Magazine, and people came in droves to meet him. Back then I was concerned he’d be too high strung for the tasting room so I never brought him. But, as it turns out, Beasley is very comfortable here. You’ll find him here every day we are open now.

Our signature wine for the serious wine drinkers is our Meritage which is a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon heavy blend. All our grapes are from the North Fork; they’re predominantly from Sam McCollough in Jamesport.

Q: What’s the deal with the sculpture out front?

A: That’s our Winasaur. We had the 18ft long, 7ft tall topiary frame custom made for us. People have been bringing back their signed and decorated Coffee Pot Cellars corks to help build the Winasaur.

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Photo Credit: Bridget Elkin

So far there are 3,300 corks and it’s still growing.  I love that we’re all building a piece of art together. The Winasaur even has its own music video! You can see it on our coffeepotcellars.com website. We’re kind of quirky.