Ettamarie Peterson of Petaluma is known as the Bee Queen of Sonoma County. It’s a title she has earned fair and square after decades of educating and inspiring kids about bees and their crucial role in food production and the planet’s well-being.
Ettamarie has shared her passion and knowledge about bees at Farm Bureau’s Ag Days for 30 years and is the longtime beekeeping leader for Liberty 4-H, launching hundreds of young people and their families into beekeeping. She has invited students to her farm to learn about bees and to experience the vegetable growing, chickens and livestock that define her rural life. As a teacher and farmer, she is one of Sonoma County’s leading agricultural educators.
“I love everything about bees, they are social and industrious and work together to accomplish something good. Bees open your eyes to the world and what it means to be part of an interconnected biodiverse environment,” said Ettamarie, 83, wearing her signature yellow tee-shirt that says “Bee Calm and Hive On,’ which, basically, sums up her philosophy on life.
And Ettamarie may be one of the happiest people on the bee-buzzing planet, a positive force for good in the agricultural community she loves.
“I enjoy teaching children and adults about bees,” she said. “I’ve met so many people because of beekeeping. It’s opened many doors for me.”
The longtime Petaluma farmer and retired teacher has carved an active and purposeful life on the six-acre farm that she and her husband Ray, who is 84, bought 50 years ago. The family farmstead on Gossage Avenue, north of downtown Petaluma, is where they raised their three children – Karen Nau, Margie Hebert and Lou Peterson – and now welcome their eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
While holding jobs off the farm, Ettamarie and Ray spent every free hour working on the farm, running the successful Peterson Pumpkin Patch for many years. Today, they continue to grow and sell vegetables and eggs while producing much of the food for their own table including the honey that is part of their daily diet. Along the way they became part of the close-knit agricultural community, joining Farm Bureau and Farm Trails while always advocating for farmers and supporting 4-H, FFA and the Sonoma County Fair. As good citizens, the Petersons believe in giving back and building the community they call home. Ray, who worked many years as an account supervisor for AT & T in San Francisco, served on the Sonoma County Board of Education for 20 years.
When Ettamarie was growing up, she never dreamed she’d be living on a farm with chickens, cows and bees. Or that she would become the respected voice for small-scale agriculture in Sonoma County. She admits she would rather be outside working with her bees and chickens than cleaning house.
“I was a city slicker kid and didn’t know which end of a cow to feed,” she said. “But I have come full circle. I love living on a farm and can’t imagine living anywhere else. I don’t know how I lived in the city. “
As a girl growing up in downtown Sacramento, she just wanted to become a school teacher. She did become a teacher. She taught for 37 years at several schools including Richard Crane and Gold Ridge elementary schools in the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District. She retired in 1998 but has never stopped educating kids about bees and agriculture.
Ettamarie is recognized as one of Sonoma County’s most eminent bee experts. She is past president of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association and continues to edit the group’s newsletter. She also is a regular contributor to Bee Culture Magazine, a national publication. That’s in addition to her on-going volunteer work as a 4-H leader in beekeeping and with other educational programs in the community where she is a familiar sight with her observation hive.
Her dedication to youth and education has earned her accolades and the admiration of a grateful community. The Youth Ag & Leadership Foundation of Sonoma County named Ettamarie Peterson the recipient of its 2022 4-H Alumni Recognition Award for her decades of volunteer work in the 4-H youth program. The award honors someone who upholds the values of leadership, citizenship and community service, which are the hallmarks of 4-H.
Mike Nonella, president of the Youth Ag & Leadership Foundation, said Ettamarie Peterson is an iconic and respected figure in Sonoma County 4-H, someone who, on a daily basis, epitomizes the 4-H motto “To Make the Best Better.”
She will be honored at the Foundation’s annual fund-raising barbecue on Sept. 24 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard, part of the LaCrema wine estate owned by Jackson Family Wines. The event is open to the public.
It’s not the first award for Ettamarie whose volunteer efforts are legendary. The City of Petaluma awarded her the Excellence in Agriculture Award for her work in promoting sustainable agriculture practices to generations of area youth. Additionally, she has been honored as “Friend of 4-H” by the Sonoma County 4-H Council for her years of leadership and mentoring.
For her part, Ettamarie said 4-H has had a tremendous impart on her life and the lives of her three children and many of her grandchildren. Soon after settling on their farm in 1972, the Petersons became involved in the Cinnabar 4-H Club. Her children raised 4-H livestock and showed their animals at the fairs.
“4-H was a great introduction to Petaluma,” she said. “The 4-H families became our social group. It was a great time. We had so much fun.”
In later years when her grandchildren joined 4-H, Ettamarie started the beekeeping project with Liberty 4-H. She was the project leader for her grandchildren and then kept going as the bee leader, continuing to this day.
As a bee expert Ettamarie is often called out to gather bee swarms that have inconveniently taken unwelcome residence in homes or businesses. Even at 83 years old she never misses an opportunity to gather a swarm.
“My favorite thing in the whole wide world is catching swarms,” said Ettamarie. “I can’t wait to get that phone call. It’s like going fishing.”
This year, she said, she has already caught 19 bee swarms, keeping two and giving the rest to 4-H club members to start hives of their own. She believes that the way to protect bees and the world is one hive at a time, building awareness about honey bees and their vital role in the ecosystem. She teaches kids that we need bees to keep our crops and earth healthy.
Like many, she worries about the worldwide decline in the bee population and the loss of other essential pollinators. That’s why she continues her educational efforts through 4-H and other avenues in the community. She describes bees as being the canary in the coal mine.
“It’s not just for the bees’ sake, it’s for our own. If we take care of our earth, we’ll all be healthier,” said Ettamarie, who is always ready to “Hive On.”