Meet Ettamarie Peterson: Sonoma's Queen Bee and 4-H Beekeeping Queen

When 4-H beekeeping project leader Ettamarie Peterson of the Liberty 4-H Club, Petaluma, meets with her youth group at the beginning of the 4-H year, she tells them NOT to buy bees, equipment or bee suits. 

It's NOT because they're unnecessary. She supplies them. 

“I tell them when they join not to buy bees or equipment because I catch swarms for them and I have a lot of donated equipment including suits of all sizes,” said Ettamarie, widely known as Sonoma County's Queen Bee. “I give the parents and big teenagers the adult suits. It is important for at least one parent to have a suit because they are always there when we open the hives and I try to encourage parents to get involved. That is not hard to do because it isn't unusual for the parent to be the one pushing the child into the project because they want to know more about beekeeping!” 

During the past 4-H year, September to June (similar to a traditional school year) she caught 19 swarms in the area and gave 17 to the 4-H'ers. 

“I had to replace some colonies when the swarms failed to thrive,” she said. ”These young people are really understanding of all the things that can cause a colony to crash. We do forensics on failed colonies at some meetings. We discuss what can or did go wrong. I am always so pleased to hear them use great bee vocabularies. Even the little ones surprise me by their great questions and responses to my questions! It always puts a smile on my face to see them work with their colonies. Young people seem to be more calm around their bees than most adults. Once in awhile, I have even seen them pet their bees when they land on their gloves or arms.” 

A retired 37-year school teacher, a 28-year beekeeper, and a 22-year 4-H beekeeping project leader, Ettamarie is a longtime member, a past president of the Sonoma County Beekeepers' Association (SCBA) and the current newsletter of SCBA's The Monthly Extractor. 

“This past year I had 15 young beekeepers in my project,” said Ettamarie, an octogenarian and self-described former “city girl” who grew up in downtown Sacramento.  “Two of them were just five years old and my oldest girl is 16. She has been in the project for five years and is a gem! Some of the families have two or three children in the project and I try to be sure each one has his or her own colony.” 

Although the 4-H year runs from September to June,  beekeeping is a year-around project.  “It's a summer endeavor, too, so I do visits to their homes to check on their hives during the summer, of course.” 

Teaching youths about bees comes naturally for the retired school teacher. She launched her  4-H beekeeping project in 2000 when her son Lew wanted his daughter, Kasey, “to take beekeeping because he wanted the local honey,” Ettamarie recalled. “Since I had been beekeeping since about 1994 or so they asked me to take on the project as leader. There was no other beekeeping project in the county at that time.” Today there are two in the county, and she generously supplies them with how-to literature. 

Ettamarie doesn't follow a 4-H beekeeping manual. “I use an older manual, but to tell you the truth I have just used a bit of this and that together to run the meetings and give the young beekeepers a collection of worksheets that I have found useful,” she said. “For example, one page tells the life cycle and stages with days of the queen's, workers' and drones' eggs, larva and pupa. One page tells which days the workers do each job starting with cleaning house. One page describes diseases. One page shows all the hive parts.” 

“When I get a new beekeeper, I give them the packet and during the year I sometimes add pages when I find something useful such as hive inspection worksheets.” 

Of her current students, “two of the families are cousins and they have been in the project for three years. Their grandmother was my grandchildren's dairy project leader years ago so I feel like I am paying her back for all the years she helped them! She has gotten very interested in bees, too!” 

One mother enrolled in a free online Pennsylvania State University beekeeping course the first year of the COVID pandemic lockdown. “She is great and has even helped catch one of her daughter's swarms!” 

At every meeting, her 4-H'ers examine the bee activity in her observation hive. She also uses her own colonies to  teach hive inspection, “and it is good for them to see the differences in each colony. Since I have experienced beekeepers every year, I am able to use them to demonstrate what to do. One of things I love about 4-H is that several older 4-H'ers can get teen leader experience and help the younger ones.” 

“I think it is exciting to see young people get so involved with bees,” Ettamarie said. “Most of them stay in the project at least three years or more!” 

What fascinates her about bees? "The bees are so fascinating because they work strictly by instinct and as one organism. They are so organized and teach us so much. I love watching how they approach various flowers, some they just land on, some they burrow down into and some they seem to nibble the part they can suck nectar from. I am also fascinated by how they have their favorite flowers. I say some flowers are equivalent to chocolate in my world! I have learned so much about flowers since I started keeping bees. They teach me to open my eyes and pay attention to the world! When my granddaughter and I started off on our trip to Italy this summer, she told me her mother warned her about me. My daughter told her grandma will stop at every flower to see if there is a bee on it and take a picture if she spots one! How well she knows me!"

In 2011, the Sonoma County 4-H Office presented her with the "Friend of 4-H Award" for her Liberty 4-H project leadership in beekeeping and her previous 4-H activities, including leader of sewing and poultry projects,  when her children were enrolled in 4-H.  

This year the Petaluma resident will be honored as the 2022 recipient of the Youth Ag and Leadership Foundation's 4-H Alumni Recognition Award for her many contributions to Sonoma County 4-H. The event takes place at a barbecue on Sept. 24 at a vineyard in Windsor “and I get a table for 8 at the barbecue!” she said. “My children and their spouses will fill the table!” Her three children are Karen Nau, a preschool teacher; Margie Hebert, a second-grade teacher, and Lew Peterson, an electrician and pilot.  

The Petaluma Chamber of Commerce honored her several years ago but the COVID pandemic cancelled the ceremony. “I think I am getting a fat head with all of this recognition but I really love it! I taught for 37 years and didn't get this much appreciation!” 

Looking forward to other projects, Ettamarie says she's like to see the state 4-H program publish a California 4-H beekeeping manual and “I'd love to work on it. A new one would include the STEM elements and links to resources such as websites and books.” 

Ettamarie credits husband Ray with introducing her to agriculture. In the late 1960s he purchased 20 head of Angus cattle for their Potter Valley ranch. In 1972 the Petersons moved to their six-acre Petaluma farm, where they raise cows and chickens, grow vegetables, and keep bees. She currently maintains four bee colonies and an observation hive. 

"My husband is not a beekeeper and loves to tell my friends beekeeping is addictive and there is a 12-step program to recovery!" Ettarmarie quipped. "He is all talk, of course! He really enjoys the honey and that I have something to keep me busy and happy, besides our six-acre farm and the huge family!"

"None of our children are beekeepers but our son, Lew, has had fun helping me catch swarms," she said. "His daughter, Jessie who is now an ag teacher at Tokay High School in Lodi, went to the Irish Beekeeping School one year and another granddaughter (now a special education teacher in the Santa Rosa School District) went with me another year. A side note about Jessie, she and her husband Lucas Chaves are buying the house in Lodi that is on property that my great-grandparents bought in 1900. The house on the property was built in 1948 by my grandfather for his sister and brother-in-law so I am very excited about that! It was a very small dairy farm originally and Jessie showed dairy cows in 4-H and FFA!"

Ettamarie says that "our California roots are very deep!" Her husband's family settled in Sonoma County in about 1850. "They were ranchers of course. Ray was born on his uncle's prune ranch in Healdsburg." 

Always the teacher, Ettamarie takes her observation hive to school and other interested groups “to teach students and adults about bees.”   

Beekeeping Manual. And the proposed California 4-H Beekeeping manual that she would love to work on? She would like it dedicated to the late Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist based in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. Mussen freely gave of his time and expertise to beekeepers throughout California, not only during his 1976-2014 career but during his retirement. He died June 3, 2022 at age 78 under hospice care at the family home in Davis.

Ettamarie wrote in the current edition of The Monthly Extractor that although Eric Mussen retired in 2014, he “never really left his job at UC Davis…and was, always ready to answer our questions… We were fortunate to have him almost annually as a speaker at our meetings. His talks were always straight-forward and honest and laced with humor. I remember the year he told us about the new product to fight mites, Check Mite +. This was made with Coumaphos, an organophosphate pesticide that is highly toxic. He told us all the problems. I remember asking him if he would use it and he looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘No!' This is just one example of his integrity.” 

She quoted Katia Vincent, owner of Beekind Honey, Sebastobol: “Here is what I remember about Eric Mussen. He was a very smart, funny, happy, and serious guy. He always reminded me of Stephen Colbert. I could listen to him talk about bees for hours and I did. The first time I heard the word neonicotinoids was from Eric Mussen. Back in 2005 he called it the culprit of the bee crash (colony collapse) of 2004-2005. True that! Eric performed well for UC Davis as its honey bee expert and entomologist and gave beyond the call of duty. He seemed to really enjoy visits to bee clubs, and he greatly supported our efforts to create a Bee Symposium by helping us find excellent speakers. He himself was one of our very first speakers. He truly admired Serge Labesque's great passion for the bees and his unique ideas and made attempts to introduce them to a very conventional beekeeping industry.” 

They also recalled that Mussen was a co-founder (and six-term president)  of the Western Apicultural Society (WAS). “He supported a diverse group of beekeepers and worked hard to give them a speaking platform and have some fun coming together during those yearly gatherings,” they related. ”We will always remember him as a brilliant beekeeping teacher who educated so many of us.” 

Pro-Bee. Mussen considered himself “pro-bee,” from helping a 4-H'er with a single colony to large scale commercial operations.

The Mussen family suggests memorial contributions be made to the California State 4-H Beekeeping Program, with a note, "Eric Mussen Memorial Fund." Checks may be made out to the California 4-H Foundation and mailed to:  

California 4-H Foundation
Attn: Development Services (Eric Mussen Memorial Fund, California State 4-H Beekeeping Program)
2801 Second Street
Davis, CA 95618

Or, online donations may be made to the California State 4-H Beekeeping Program by accessing the main donor page at https// and then clicking on the drop-down menu to "Beekeeping Program Scholarship."