A Beekeeper’s life on Shelter Island

Sarah Shepherd drying herbs in her Shelter Island garden. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Sarah Shepherd drying herbs in her Shelter Island garden. (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Beekeeper, herbalist, chicken farmer, and gardener. Shelter Island resident Sarah Shepherd wears a lot of hats and that’s exactly how she likes it.

Born and raised on the Rock, Shepherd has carved out a career doing what she loves; growing herbs, raising bees and chickens and selling the goods she harvests from them.

“It’s my calling. It’s my work here in this world,” she said. “I give lectures, I teach and I bring these art forms — and they are art forms, herbalism and beekeeping — to people in a modern way.”

Entering Shepherd’s front yard is like wandering into author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, “The Secret Garden.” Bees hum near the flowers and drink water from large barrels. Chickens cluck in a nearby henhouse, while cats curl up in garden chairs. The sounds of the few cars that pass by on Burns Road are muffled by the garden’s thick wall of brush and trees.

Bees drinking from a water barrel in Sarah Shepherd's garden (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Bees drinking from a water barrel in Sarah Shepherd’s garden
(Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

When Shepherd isn’t tending to her garden, bees or chickens, she cares for the hives at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm and The Farm in Southold. She teaches beekeeping workshops on the North Fork, sells eggs and plants from her home and makes soaps and oils from her herbs, which she then sells at farmer’s markets.

She and some friends also created Hippy Hive Honey Bee Co-operative. The group works to bring more bees to the North Fork and educate people on how to support the bee population. They have built several hives at Golden Earthworm Organic Farm in Jamesport. Shepherd also keeps ten hives on her property. As many as 30,000 to 50,000 bees can live in just one hive, Shepherd said.

“Whether it’s creating a habitat, or being a steward to them, it’s not all about the honey,” she said.  “Honey is usually the first thing people want to know about, but it’s the pollinating that’s so important. The bees are really in a crisis and it’s probably the worst time economically for people to dive into a hobby or take it to a profession, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about finding ways through the crisis.”

Examples of Skep bee hives, which is how colonists originally brought bees to America (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Examples of Skep bee hives, which is how colonists originally brought bees to America
(Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

A self-taught herbalist, Shepherd originally studied dance at the University of Eastern Pennsylvania, before returning to Shelter Island and her love of gardening.

“Shelter Island has its own mystique, being born here makes me feel connected to the land and that’s why I want to take people outside and show them the plants and bees.”

She now sells dried herbs and make herbal teas and “tell stories of the plants,” she explained.

“It’s a platform that I do out of my home,” she said. “My love of plants has led me to many different spaces and travels.”

Shepherd has travelled as far away as Equador, where she studied local plants and herbs. She also studied with Rosemary Gladstar, who founded the California School of Herbal Studies.

“There’s so much that people can do, even if they can’t keep bees,” Shepherd said. “Creating spaces like a little four-by-eight garden extend the life of the habitat for pollinators now into the fall. For example during this dry spell, we need water and so do bees, so I have buckets that the bees go to and bird baths. Fresh water is really important.”

One of the Langstroff bee hives in Shepherd's yard (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

One of the Langstroff bee hives in Shepherd’s yard
(Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Shepherd drys her herbs on a stand she has fashioned out of an old laundry rack. Comfrey leaves dry in the sun alongside large wooden bowls containing apples, sunflower seeds, rose petals and even hops.

“Hops helps to calm the nerves, helps you relax and sleep,” said Shepherd as she took a handful and crumpled them in her hand. They release a slightly sour scent. “While they’re in big demand at local breweries now, they’ve also been used medicinally, stuffed into little pillows, to help you sleep.”

Shepherd’s bees buzz around their hives in another corner of the yard, where she keeps several different types of hives.

“Beekeeping hasn’t changed much in a hundred years,” she said. “Langstroth hives, the square boxes stacked on top of each other, has been the mainstream way of beekeeping. It has a filing type of system. Then there are the skeps, which is how our forefathers brought bees over. Then there is the top bar hive which has a window that allows you to view the bees inside. It’s an African-style hive, like a hollowed out tree with a top on it. It’s not a honey producer, which is the purpose of a lot of hives, but it’s less invasive. When I take the lid off, there are slats inside, so the bees aren’t exposed.”

“[The bees] each have their own temperament,” Shepherd continued.  “Some are fiesty and fiery, some are cool and calm. Providing them with a habitat seems to be my emphasis as opposed to taking the honey.”

A Top Bar bee hive in Sarah Shepherd's yard (Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

A Top Bar bee hive in Sarah Shepherd’s yard
(Credit: Monique Singh-Roy)

Sarah Shepherd will be part of Sunday’s North Fork Great Foodie Tour. She will be at The Farm in Southold from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. She will give tours of the hives, do herbal demonstrations, as well as sell some of her wares. The Farm is located at 59945 Main Road, Southold.

Tickets can be purchased online at northforkreformsynagogue.org or at Gallery M in Greenport, Complement the Chef in Southold, Mattituck Florist, Barth’s Drug Store, and Bookhampton in Southampton and East Hampton; or day of at any tour stop.

Admission is $25 for adults, children under 12 are free.

For more information please visit northforkreformsynagogue.org/foodie-tour-2015 or call (516) 551-7236.