Nebraska’s Shelby Kittle has found a sweet side gig — honey.
The senior agricultural education major and Engler entrepreneur has been building Shel-Bee’s Honey and Products since she was 14. Kittle received her first beehives as part of a project for her local FFA chapter. But it wasn’t her first foray into building a business based on bugs.
Kittle has been an entrepreneur since her early years. She started her first business venture at age 7 — while most kids were playing in the yard or tuning into the TV, she was making plans. She’d dig up nightcrawlers she found squirming across her lawn in Ord, Nebraska, and sell them to local fishing enthusiasts.
“I’ve been running businesses since I was 7 years old … it started out as hunting nightcrawlers and then after that it was like airbrushing mailboxes and fishing lures,” Kittle said. “And then it got to the beekeeping.”
Kittle only sold comb honey during her first year with the hive. After cutting and boxing the honeycomb away for eager buyers, Kittle decided to take the plunge and purchase a honey extractor for her next business year. The new equipment would allow her to expand her production methods and product offerings — and soon she’d be selling not only honeycomb, but honey butter, raw honey, creamed honey and beeswax.
As a young businessowner, it made sense for Kittle to pursue a path in the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at Nebraska. The program helps aspiring businessowners pursue their entrepreneurship goals while receiving support from faculty and staff. The program even offered her a scholarship, which made her dreams of going to college a reality.
“I applied for (the) scholarship and got it, and that’s the main reason why I’m here in college at all — because I wouldn’t be able to afford it without it,” Kittle said.
Since she started in the Engler program, Kittle has expanded her business. She’s formed an online presence, started selling at farmers’ markets and is even looking to build out Shel-Bee’s Honey and Products into subscription-based boxes for both kids and adults.
“I’m going to hopefully do one that’s geared toward people who like honey and honey products,” she said. “And then I’d also like to do one that’s more geared toward kids, with educational material and honey snacks.”
Over the past seven years of running her honey business, Kittle has learned a lot — not only about the ins and outs of farmers’ markets, bottling honey and becoming an LLC, but about her passion for pollinators.
Kittle balances running her business and taking classes alongside working in the UNL Bee Lab. There she conducts research for the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) program. Her research involves studying how bees produce their comb honey and how hobbyist beekeepers can lower their production costs.
As she nears her eighth year keeping bees, Kittle only grows more passionate about the little pollinators she cares for. When mites swept through her 20 hives last summer, she was heartbroken by the devastation that came on her colonies. She was thrilled to start again this year with 10 new colonies.
To Kittle, her buzzy little bees aren’t just bugs — they’re creatures that have a purpose and personality. While Kittle isn’t sure yet if she’ll pursue a position in agricultural education after graduation or take on honey full-time, one thing she knows for certain is that she’ll keep caring for her bees as long as she can.
“I don’t think you’re a real beekeeper until you start talking to your bees,” Kittle said. “I talk to them all the time. And you know you’re a beekeeper when you get stung and you apologize.”