Busy Bees: Doing What?

By Sheri McGregor

Leaf Rust (melampsora) on CottonwoodOn a recent warm fall day, bees buzzing around a native cottonwood tree captured my curiosity. Squinting up through the dwindling leaves of the ten- or twelve-foot tree, I could see that the bees didn’t look as if they were entering or exiting any hive. Quietly, I stepped closer to investigate. Small yellow-orange pockets clung to the leaves’ undersides.

The bees appeared to gather the substance. Do cottonwoods release pollen through their leaves? I wondered. I’d never heard of such a thing, but the bees’ action puzzled me. They hovered about, collecting the substance into thick saddlebag shapes on their hind legs.

Video: Bees gathering leaf rust (short)

Excited and intrigued, I later discovered through research that the substance is a fungus, melampsora, which infects cottonwoods and some other trees. As it turns out, honeybees collect the fungus, commonly called leaf rust, and take it back to their nests for ingestion same as they do pollen. Scientists have a number of theories for the behavior, ranging from wider nutritional needs to not enough flowers blooming close to the hive. Who knew bees enjoyed a varied diet?

Bees have always fascinated me. Five or six years ago, feral bees began a hive in the hollow wall at one end of my property, and I welcomed them. A friend told me that, at a time when bee populations the world over suffer from the use of pesticides and habitat infringement, their arrival at my place must be a good omen. I liked that analysis. Nature provided my own little symbol of prosperity!

The bees’ presence, though, has required some adjustment. My family has learned to work around them. We try to do any yard work near the hive in the early morning or in the last light of day to avoid their more active hours. When guests come to sit by our small pond with its natural-looking rock fountain, we warn them not to get too close. On sunny days, bees are always present at what has become their watering hole, and for the most part, we comfortably cohabitate.

When you’re hiking our natural spaces in San Diego, watch for bees. The insects form new hives in the spring. On several occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to see this activity. Once, trekking over the rise of a hill on a clear spring day, I first heard a low roar then looked up to spot a black cloud of bees. I ducked, the swarm whizzed over my head, and I pivoted to watch them fade into the distance. At other times and other places, I’ve been fortunate to see bee masses cluster around the landed queen. I’ve never been stung by a bee while hiking . . . only in my own yard!

In the future, I hope to learn more about beekeeping and perhaps harvest honey from some cultivated hives. For now, I respect and marvel at these insects that are so vital to pollinate our food and flowers. Their industrious presence enriches my world.

* Learn about honeybees and pollinators of all kinds and get involved in their preservation: Pollinator Partnership

* Learn about leaf rust and some other diseases: Colorado State University Extension article

* Read about honeybees’ and fungi: Daniel McAlpine Memorial Lecture

Fall Sights On San Diego Hiking Trails

Everyone knows the trees grow colorful during autumn, but other fall sights await you on San Diego’s hiking trails. A few are fitting for Halloween…

Pretty Poison

t_1colorfulpoisonoakIn the fall months, poison Oak, which grows along many local trails in San Diego, can turn vibrant red and yellow. The big bouquets of color lure unsuspecting passersby to touch. Don’t, of course. Remember the three-leaf rule, and be on the watch for colorful foliage that stretches pretty tendrils across trail tracks, and twining up trees. The general rule is “leaves of three, let it be.” More specifically, poison oak’s three-leaf configuration grows with two leaves on either side of the stem, and one extending out like a middle finger (see close up). It’s easy to keep this in mind, and avoid this plant that gestures its irritating nature.

Witch’s Hair

Witch's HairThis is the popular nickname for the parasitic plant more officially known as California Dodder. This fleshy gold or orange colored parasite grows in hairy, wig-like clumps over shrubs, brush, and even cactus.A Parasitic Organism Other than its looks, there’s nothing really “witchy” or dangerous about California Dodder to humans. In fact, the Kumeyaay Indians native to our area used to pick and brew California Dodder as a tonic for black widow’s bite. But witch’s hair acts as a vampire to the plants it hosts upon. It latches on and sucks the life right out of them!

Spittle Bugs

Curious Spittle BugYuck! Are those wads of spit clumped on plants along the trail? No worries. An uncouth hiker didn’t leave you a disgusting surprise. Those wads of spittle are actually the protective covering of the spittle bug nymph, which surrounds itself with a mass of slimy bubbles formed from plant juices and fluids from its own body.This is just bad manners In time, the harmless spittle bug nymph grows into an adult and leaves the spittle wad to venture out into the world. The tiny adult spittle bug holds the record for the high jump, with an ability to hop to heights over two-feet. The scientific journal Nature reported on an actual spittle bug study. The lead study scientist says the bug’s jumping ability is the equivalent of a human jumping over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. That’s 630 feet high! Worried about getting hopped on by the adult spittle bug? Don’t be. It’s elusive and harmless, hopping but not . . . mad.


Wild RattlerHibernation is tied to low temperature, not necessarily the turning of a Wild Rattlercalendar page. In San Diego’s sometimes warm fall climate, rattlesnakes can still be out and about.
Trading Broomsticks for Hiking Sticks
Once October 31st is past, turn in your broomstick for a hiking stick. Nature offers this fun activity as a relaxing retreat from holiday stress. Burning extra calories out on the trail does wonders for the figure – – just what’s needed with all the extra holiday eating ahead.

Happy Hiking!