Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #6

A Tiny, but Powerful Member of the Animal Kingdom

Prologue: When I sat down to write this week’s Treasure Hunt I had planned to introduce one of my favorite and hard-working little plants, Deerweed. But as I got deeper into the research about certain aspects of Deerweed, I discovered a world of mind-boggling information on the major pollinator of Deerweed; Bees. Because of this, I added a section on bees that I thought was fascinating. As I have been doing, I passed the text off to a good friend and colleague to get his comments, edits etc. He, replied … nicely of course … “You got it all wrong, it should be all about the bees“.

When I thought about it, he was absolutely right! And here’s the reason … if you have been following our Treasure Hunts you will remember that 4 of the 5 of the “Hunts” published so far have discussed reproduction. After all … it is Spring, reproduction is in the air, and bees are a major player in this vital process. And happily, while bees are gathering nectar to raise their own young, they are simultaneously pollinating the plants they visit, thereby helping produce the next generation of that plant.

Bees are Premier Pollinators and Vitally Important

Busy Bee Photo by Chris Brems
Busy Bee
Photo by Chris Brems

Scientists consider bees to be a keystone species and the USDA estimates that 80% of insect crop pollination is accomplished by bees. They are critically important to ecosystems of at least 90 commercially grown crops that depend on bee pollination for survival. Bees are the undisputed champions of the
pollination world. However, bees are in trouble.  Like many in the insect world, bee populations are declining precipitously. While pesticides and climate change, are part of the problem, die-offs are happening largely because bees, like many insects, are losing their habitat to both development and urbanization.

The Superhero Bee

If a bee were a superhero, its sight would be its super power. Bees have two types of eyes, with each type having a separate function. The three smaller eyes in the center-top of a bee’s head are called ocelli; a word from Latin, and meaning “little eye”. These little bee eyes each have a single lens, with the three of them helping the bee maintain stability and navigate.

bee eyeVision is accomplished using two very large compound eyes. These eyes are amazing examples of nature’s engineering. A bee compound eye is made up of thousands of tiny lenses called facets. Each of these facets takes in one small part of the insect’s field of view. The bee’s brain then converts these signals into a mosaic-like picture made of each image. Some bees have up to 8,600 facets.

Bees Cannot See Red: Humans base their color combinations on red, blue and green, while bees base their colors on ultraviolet light, blue and green. This is the reason why bees can’t see the color red. Things that appear “red” to us, look black to bees. On the other hand, bees are able to see ultraviolet patterns on various flowers.

bee vision

About the Deerweed … Never Mind, It’s Done!

Deerweed Stalk-Red and Yellow Flowers Photo by Chris Brems
Deerweed Stalk-Red and Yellow Flowers
Photo by Chris Brems

Bees go mad over the bright-yellow flowers of this California native. And, as mentioned above, they are simultaneously gathering nectar and pollinating. However, once pollinated, the flower gets to work producing seeds for the next generation. Since the bees are no longer needed on the pollinated flower, that flower turns red and a bee can’t “see” it anymore. It is therefore common for us to see both red and yellow flowers on the same stalk of Deerweed. Why does the plant do that? The pollinated flower appears black to the bee, so it is not attracted to it, because it can no longer see it. Bee vision then becomes another “Mother Nature win-win” situation; the bee doesn’t waste time on the pollinated flower and that particular flower is not disturbed while it is busy preparing for the next generation.

You can find Deerweed along the coastal trail of More Mesa and many other habitats in our area. You can find bees everywhere.

A Word in Support of the Bee

Lastly, have you ever noticed when someone mentions bees, the first thing, and most times the only thing, that gets discussed is a stinging incident? Unlike mosquitos and other stinging insects, bees are merely reacting to a perceived threat to the colony or the hive. There is no benefit to the individual bee who stings someone. In fact, it is committing suicide, since the stinger is stuck in the wound (with several other body parts) and the bee can no longer function.

Please Help!

People who love More Mesa have a long tradition of not only carrying out their own trash, but picking up trash left by others. Since the lockdown many more people are visiting More Mesa. These new people don’t know about our More Mesa traditions and therefore do not know that they should be very respectful of this place we love. Also, with the current situation, it is not as easy to pick up after those who are “not in the know”. One way to help would be to educate the newcomers … shouting from six feet away … that More Mesa is a very special place and we need to take care of it. Ask them to PLEASE pick up their trash and carry it out.


Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #5

More Mesa and Treasure #5 Photo by Chris Brems
More Mesa and Treasure #5
Photo by Chris Brems

Today’s Treasure May Be Flying, Wading or Standing Still – But Always Breathtaking

Egg facsimile courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Today’s treasure starts with this lovely, pale blue egg. What emerges from this egg, after being incubated roughly a month?  It’s a Great Blue Heron Chick!

During that month it will have been lovingly and periodically rolled (to keep its temperature constant) and “sat on” by both Mom and Dad.  (Dad helps during the day, but Mom gets all the night duty.) The newborn will weigh about 1¾ ounces, and when it emerges, it may be surrounded by up to 5 other chicks who have hatched earlier. Nestlings can verbalize immediately and the parents will then feed them by regurgitating food they have gathered. Although the youngsters can leave the nest, and sit on a branch after only a few weeks, Mom and Dad will still feed for 49-81 days. After that, the nestlings are on their own.

gbhWhat do we know about the adult in addition to their being elegant royalty of the bird world? Full grown Great Blue males, at 50 inches tall, are the largest of the North American herons. Their wingspan can reach 80 inches. But all this height and wingspan weighs a mere 6-8 pounds because, as for all birds, their bones are hollow. They have long legs (see “Fun” below), an “S” shaped neck, a thick dagger-like bill and an amazing 9 inch stride.

They Look Like and Move Like Royalty, but Eat Like a Peasant   … Just About Anything

Great Blues are opportunistic feeders and hunt 90% of their waking hours. They will eat anything within striking distance: fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds. In freshwater creeks and ponds, as well as salt water lagoons, they grab smaller prey in their strong mandibles or use their dagger-like bills to impale larger fish, often shaking them to break or relax the sharp spines before gulping them down.

Photo by Lynn Watson

The Great Blue hunting style involves wading or standing like a statue.  Moreover, they are very skittish, so approach slowly … or not at all. If they have perceived you as a threat, they will take off by beating their wings hard, catching the wind and then gracefully cruising at speeds of 20-30 mph. You may see Great Blue Herons on More Mesa this time of year because its wetland areas are well … wet … and therefore good hunting grounds. You can also see Great Blue Herons almost all year at Goleta Beach County Park.

Completing the Circle of Life

In order to complete their life cycle, adult Herons need to find mates, and produce eggs. Since the young are vulnerable to predators, Great Blue Herons generally choose to build their nests within 2 miles of feeding habitat, in high trees, and in large colonies consisting of other Great Blue Heron nests*. To start  with, like many birds, Great Blue Herons have elaborate mating rituals where the male does most of the chasing, while the female sits in one place, sings a little and expects to be impressed. Male Great Blues perform by flying in huge circles around the colony and fighting off other competitors for the lady of their choice.

Great Blue Heron Colony
Great Blue Heron Colony

Once the monogamous pair (at least for that season) is formed, the nest must be built. This is an elaborate affair, with the male choosing the nest site and gathering materials. He presents the materials (usually twigs) to her and then lays them at her feet. At this point, the female takes responsibility for the creation of the nest. She uses the “gifts” the male brings her and either builds a new nest or uses the supplies to repair an old one. For the final touches, the female lines the nest with leaves and plants to create padding for the three to six eggs she will lay over the next 10 days or so. Viola! Back to the egg!

*They are called heronries and you can look for one at Goleta Beach Park.

A Fun Thing to Think About

Birds have legs with all the same structures as we have. But there are some big surprises. The sketch at the right, with the parts of the leg illustrated, shows that:gbh-skeleton

    • Birds walk only on their toes
    • Their feet never touch the ground when walking
    • Their ankles are in the middle of their legs
    • Their knees are up under their feathers where you can’t see them!

How Can I Identify Things I See on More Mesa?

smartphoneThree guides, “Birds”, “Insects” and “Plants” have been created and uploaded to our web site. And, since our web site is mobile friendly, these guides are especially useful when citizen scientists and other visitors to More Mesa are in the field. So … when you are out enjoying lovely More Mesa and see something you want to identify immediately, grab your smart phone, bring up our web site and look for the appropriate Guide; Birds, Insects (includes butterflies) or Plants. It’s the perfect option!

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #4

A Flower That Blooms for a Single Day … oops a Single Night!

daturaThe plant we are featuring in this hunt, commonly known as Datura, and in the Nightshade family, is unusual in many ways. First it has several names, among them: Devil’s Trumpet, Devil’s Weed and Jimson Weed*. And, unlike the Miner’s Lettuce and Willow of previous Treasure Hunts, Datura thrives in dry, temperate and subtropical regions like the American Southwest and Mexico, which is considered the center of its origin. This amazing Datura photo, was taken by Chris Brems on the eastern coastal trail where the paragliders lift off. (Plaque in the ground at this spot reads “Hook In”.) The photo illustrates the fascinating process described in the story below.

A Colorado River Tale

I became aware of this beautiful and interesting plant on a Colorado River trip decades ago. At the end of an exciting day of rapids and magnificent scenery, and while waiting for dinner, a guide pointed to a greenish, unimposing plant in our camp. He urged us to “watch that plant”. Since this guide was quite the joker, we laughed a lot and then told him we would follow orders, and “watch the plant”.
datura-partsWhat we saw … as we giggled at the idea of watching a plant … was a furled bud sticking up in the air. It looked like it was bound up with some tiny “hooks”. Then, within a few minutes, the bud began to unfurl, one hook at a time. We were stunned! You could almost hear it going click, click, click as it unfolded into a beautiful trumpet-like flower. It was the Sacred Datura, also called Moonflower, because it blooms late in the afternoon, is pollinized at night, and closes by noon of the following day. While each individual flower lasts only a single night, during any given summer season, one Sacred Datura plant produces dozens of large (6-8 inches), fragrant, whitish (sometimes purple edged) flowers, each with five of the slender hooks that are called “teeth”.

What Happens During the Night?

Sphinx Moth
Sphinx Moth

As you might expect, night-blooming plants must be pollinated by nocturnal visitors, so Datura are pollinated by Sphinx Moths. These evening visitors can be seen feeding on the opened (and short-lived) flowers using a long proboscis that unfurls to reach to the nectar at the base of the bloom. On rare occasions, when Sphinx Moths are not present, pollination can be achieved at dusk and dawn by Honeybees. However, the bees have to work a lot harder, since they don’t have the moth’s long proboscis. As moths and bees gather nectar, they inadvertently assist in pollinating the flowers they visit. This process has something for everyone …

Thorn Apple
Thorn Apple

Mother Nature’s win-win! By noon, about 18 hours after it bloomed, the pollinated flower turns over, closes up and forms a spiny, globe-shaped seed pod called a Thorn Apple. When ripe, the Thorn Apple splits to release seeds and begin the process again.

Datura can be found in several places around More Mesa, on Hope Ranch and on trails and paths all over the Goleta Valley.
*The name “Jimson weed” is said to have originated form the presence of a similar species in Jamestown, Virginia. The name “Jamestown” was corrupted to “Jimson” at some point in time.


Datura species have been revered as sacred visionary plants among almost all cultures around the world that have encountered it. Archeological evidence shows that Datura has been in use for at least 3,000 years in the southwestern United States and even longer in other parts of the world. Datura was an integral part of daily life for the Native American Chumash of our region, used both as a sacred and medicinal plant.
Indeed, the Chumash were known to have used this plant more than any other native culture in California. Use of Datura was so ubiquitous that it appears to have worked its way into the famous pictographs of the Chumash. For example, archeologists have interpreted the spiny silhouette around the circles in this pictograph to be Datura fruit; the Thorn Apple. Where is this famous pictograph?  Right here in Santa Barbara at Painted Cave Historic Park!
Rock Paintings of the Chumash ... Campbell Grant
Rock Paintings of the Chumash … Campbell Grant
Epilogue on Pictograph: To ensure that this Treasure Hunt was accurate and responsibly presented, I consulted two of the most eminent Chumash scholars; Dr. Jan Timbrook and Dr. John Johnson, both of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. I asked them to comment on the interpretation of the pictograph. Neither of them had ever heard of the Thorn Apple interpretation. Moral of the story … The Internet is not a scholarly journal. (Go see the pictograph anyway. It’s very cool!)
Also while researching this Treasure Hunt, I discovered that Datura was associated with witches, devils, flying, shape-shifting and transformation. And I also remembered a book that achieved great notoriety in the late 1960s. It was called “The Teachings of Don Juan” and written by an anthropology student named Carlos Casteneda. There was a lot of flying and shape shifting in that book too. Why? Most likely because Datura is a serious hallucinogen and one must take the caution below seriously … very seriously!


While Datura is an interesting plant to observe, observing is all one should do with it! All species of Datura and all parts of the plant are highly poisonous!
In her acclaimed recent book, Chumash Ethnobotany, Dr. Jan Timbrook warns
 “Every year people die from ingesting Datura through foolhardiness or misidentification. The dangerous compounds can also be absorbed through the skin.”

Lastly …

Although we are encouraging you to go outside and find these treasures, you do not have to leave anything in exchange. Please carry out all your trash. The onslaught of people onto More Mesa is heartening in that “new to more Mesa” folks will learn to appreciate it, and those who were familiar with More Mesa will cherish it even more. But trash is both unsightly and takes away from its spectacular beauty of More Mesa. Most importantly, please, please pick up after your dogs. The “Poop Fairy” is on Lockdown and cannot clean up after absent-minded dog owners.

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #3

Willow and Water Go Together

Meet the Family

The Willow Family consists of over 400 different species of trees and shrubs of the Salix genus – a group of moisture-loving plants that are native to temperate and cold regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Depending on the species, willows range in size from towering giants of 90 feet or more, down to the Arctic Willow … a pinkish shrub that only reaches 6 inches in height and is the northernmost woody plant in the world!

Water, Water, Everywhere

The Arctic Willow aside, most willows thrive in temperate areas that provide sunlight and lots of water. That is why they are most often found near streams, lakes or ponds. Indeed, willows can absorb so much water that they are often planted to stabilize stream beds, or in flooded areas. Their leaves turn yellow in late fall and are shed in winter when the

Female willow flowers. Photo by Chris Brems
Female willow flowers.
Photo by Chris Brems

tree is dormant. But willows are among the first plants to leaf in the spring. Several willow species are found on More Mesa and other open spaces in Santa Barbara. They can be easily identified in spring by their flowers, and very soon after by the fuzzy white cottony parts that are so familiar to lovers of willows. These fuzzy white structures are the carriers of willow seeds … as you can appreciate from the complex and fascinating story below!

What are they fuzzy white things anyway?

What are these fuzzy, white structures (called comas) and where do they come from? Start with the fact that willows have separate male and female plants and each produces flowers. Male flowers form into catkins … remember the Oaks from Treasure Hunt #1? These catkins, laden with pollen, are released and, hopefully, carried by wind to the female flowers on another plant. If that lucky happenstance occurs, pollinated female flowers will produce vast numbers of minute seeds surrounded by tufts of cottony hairs (the coma). As the season progresses to hotter and drier days, the seed and coma are dispersed randomly by the wind. This morning I walked the bike path beside Atascadero Creek and there were thick deposits of these dispersed comas everywhere.
I inadvertently initiated the last few steps of the process above in my den. The left photo shows a small branch I harvested from a willow during an early morning walk. You can just barely see the cottony hairs peeking out. I left the branch on my desk and went off to do something else for a few hours. When I returned to my office there had been an explosion of cottony hairs. They were all over! Apparently, the higher temperature inside my home had encouraged all the seeds to emerge, and there were comas EVERYWHERE!
Branch Photo by Carol George
Photo by Carol George

Common Uses

The Chumash and other indigenous people used the various willow species in several ways:
  • As a traditional medicinal plant, infusions of the leaves, bark, or flowers were  used for several disease remedies, especially for fever, pain and inflammation. The bark contains salicin, which is metabolized in the body to create salicylic acid, a precursor to aspirin. 
  • The inner bark was used to make rope.
  • The large, long shoots  of Arroyo Willow may have been favored for use in coiled and twined basketry.
  • Branches were used to make acorn storage baskets, for arrow shafts and tool handles.
And finally … in historical times, willow has been the wood of choice for cricket bats.

Symbolism etc.

The term “willow” has Celtic origins and its meaning is appropriately, “near the water”. Both from a natural and symbolic point of view, the willow is strongly linked to the element of water and the magic associated with it. In some parts of the world it is a symbol of immortality and the afterlife, in others a sign of grief. In more primitive and ancient settings, willows trees were associated with mysticism and superstition. In Britain, the willow was linked to the world of witches.
And … how could we forget the Whomping Willow of Harry Potter fame?

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,