Tag Archives: Insects

Monarch Butterflies Complete Annual Migration to Mexico

Dec. 3 – Millions of butterflies have found sanctuary in Mexico as they complete their annual migration from North America, according to a Reuters News report.

The Mexican government has plans to massively expand the sanctuaries in the coming years, according to Monarch Butterfly Reserve Director, Concepcion Miguel Martinez.

A news video about the 2008 migration is here.  Monarch butterflies complete their annual migration to Mexico.

Monarch Watch director Orley “Chip” Taylor is one of the scientists interviewed in this article from National Geographic about the Monarch Butterfly migration. Internal Clock Leads Monarch Butterflies to Mexico.  Dr. Taylor is also featured in the New York Times video above.

More about Monarch Watch here.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to Chip Taylor's hat and beard as they harden their wings.  Taylor is the founder of Monarch Watch.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to Chip Taylor as they harden their wings at the Monarch Watch open house at the University of Kansas in September 2008.

Monarch Butterflies hang out at the scree house at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas in September 2007.

Monarch Butterflies hang out at the screen house at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas in September 2007.

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Butterflies, Conservation, Education, Entomology, Environment, Insects, Kansas, Natural History, Nature, Science, Uncategorized, University of Kansas

Autumn Leaves

“Autumn Leaves” was one of the songs I had to learn to play when I took piano lessons as a grader schooler. It was torture! Not because it was a bad song — it’s gorgeous — but because I have two left hands when it comes to making music.   

I make better music with my camera. Here are some photographs of autumn leaves and flowers taken in mid-October in my neighborhood.  I took some of these photographs in a nearby woods that is, unfortunately for us and the animals that live there, slated for development. 

Be sure to take the poll at the bottom of this post. And listen (see below) to Eve Cassidy’s hauntingly beautiful version of “Autumn Leaves,” which bears no resemblance to the plunky sounds I made as a mediocre pianist.

I didn't see the Cloudless sulphur butterfly on the sunflower when I was taking this photograph.  It blened so well with the petals.

I didn't see the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly on the sunflower on the left when I was taking this photograph. Very clever, these butterflies, to look like petals and leaves.

Poison Ivy is very beautiful in the fall.

Poison Ivy is very beautiful in the fall.

A tiny beetle hangs out on this thistle.

A tiny beetle hangs out on this thistle.

Asters are a home for all sorts of insects.  It's the Waldorf Aster-oria.

Asters are a home for all sorts of insects. It's the Waldorf Aster-oria.

I don't know what this flower is called, but it's certainly beautiful.

I don't know what this flower is called, but it's certainly beautiful.

 

The crabapples in the neighbhorhood are weighed down with fruit.

The crabapple trees in the neighbhorhood are weighed down with fruit.

This is a scenic spot along the walking trail I like.

This is a scenic spot along the walking trail I like to take.

I don't need to tell you what these are! Without maple leaves, we'd have to cancel Autumn.

I don't have to tell you what kind of leaves these are! Without red maple leaves, we'd have to cancel autumn.

An abundance of crabapples.

An abundance of crabapples.

Pampas grass turns a lovely shade of purple in the fall.

Pampas grass turns a lovely shade of purple in the fall.

 Eva Cassidy’s version of “Autumn Leaves.”  Beautiful, but very meloncholy.  Get out your hankies.

 

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Filed under Art, Conservation, Environment, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random

Honey Bee and Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly

This honey bee has found a paradise at a local nursery.

This honey bee found a paradise at a local nursery.

After waiting in vain with my camera for butterflies to pass through my neighborhood a few weeks ago, I went to a very large local nursery that features hundreds of thousands of plants.  (It sounds as if I spend way too much time chasing butterflies……)  Even there, I didn’t see many butterflies, so I focused on bees, which were loaded down with bright orange pollen.  For more of my bee and butterfly photos, scroll down to the next post or use my search box for other posts.  Click on the photos for a better view.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you know I’m big on pushing the protection of pollinators.  Here are two informative sites: Monarch Watch and The Pollination Partnership.
So many flowers, so little time.

So many flowers, so little time.

This Cloudless Sulphur butterfly knows where to find lunch.

This Cloudless Sulphur butterfly knows where to find lunch.

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Batty About Birds, Bees and Butterflies

Soon after it was hung, hummingbirds appeared at this feeder at the Grand Lake of the Cherokee, Oklahoma, in mid-September.

Several ruby-throated hummingbirds appeared at this feeder almost as soon as it was hung at a waterfront home at the Grand Lake of the Cherokees, Oklahoma, in mid-September. Hummingbirds are territorial so they all fought to make it their personal feeding station.

 

In 2007, there weren't many bees in my garden, but this year they've swarmed to my basil plants. I have both honey bees and carpenter bees.

In 2007, there weren't many bees in my garden. This year, a "swarm" of honey bees appeared, along with carpenter bees, in my basil plants.

My enthusiasm for bees sky-rocketed last year when I discovered that I wasn’t getting any squash, because I had no bees to pollinate them.  I had to do the job myself with an artist’s paintbrush.  My harvest? Ten squash.  I’m a terrible match-maker! It’s easier to attract bees to do the work.  They know what they’re doing. They’re like match.com for fruits and vegetables. 

Pollinators are essential to our food supply, and not just in our backyards.  Eighty percent of the world’s food crops depend on some kind of pollinator.

I already miss the ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies that passed through our yard or made it their home this summer and early fall.   The bees are still busy in the basil flowers, so I’m waiting to cut the plants for pesto.  I’m also lazy. 

My husband took down the hummingbird feeder a few days ago after not seeing “our” ruby-throated hummingbird for more than a week.  The tiny bird has left Kansas City and is on his way to southern Mexico for the winter.  Adios!  I loved watching him come to the feeder at the window.  Occasionally, a visiting hummingbird would stop at the feeder, and there would be a “dog fight” in the air as the resident bird dive bombed and chased the intruder.

I didn’t see as many butterflies this year as last.  We had a colder, wetter spring, which reduced their numbers.  Hopefully, their numbers will bounce back after our lush, wet summer resplendent with flowering plants. 

A male carpenter bee on a basil flower.

A male carpenter bee on a basil flower.

What I really want to show you are my photographs, including those below.  Don’t miss them!  Be sure to click on them to get a better look. For my other posts and photographs on ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies, caterpillars and bees, use my search box.

Here’s a list of useful websites:

A Monarch butterfly fid nectar in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

A Monarch butterfly finds nectar in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

A Zebra butterfly flutters in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.  I saw a Zebra flt through my yard this year. It flashes by so quickly I almost thought it was a hallucination -- or at least wishing thinking.

A Zebra butterfly flutters in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. I saw a Zebra flt through my yard this year. It flashed by so quickly I almost thought it was an hallucination -- or wishing thinking.

There are 3,500 species of skipper butterflies, and they seem to be be everywhere.  They're not very flashier, however, so you might not even notice them.  This mating pair of skippers is making a spectacle of themselves, however, so you have to take a look.  This took place in front of the Monarch Watch building at the University of Kansas.

There are 3,500 species of skipper butterflies, and they seem to be be everywhere. They aren't very flashy, though, so you might not notice them. However, these mating skippers are making a spectacle of themselves in front of the Monarch Watch building at the University of Kansas. You can't not look!

I was so excited when this female hummingbird stopped by our backyardfor a few days to visit the cardinal flowers I planted to attract her.

I was so excited when this female ruby-throated hummingbird stopped by our backyard for a few days to visit the cardinal flowers I planted to attract her. She and butterflies pollinated these flowers, which are already forming seeds that I can plant next year to continue the cycle.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly is just a blur on an aster as it flits from flower to flower in the native prairie on the Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas.  Sixty percent of Sprint's 240-acre campus is devoted to green space, including 60 acres of prairie grass and wildflowers and seven acres of ponds and wetlands.  It's a wildlife paradise.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly is just a blur on an aster as it flits from flower to flower in the native prairie on the Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas. Sixty percent of Sprint's 240-acre campus is devoted to green space, including 60 acres of prairie grass and wildflowers and seven acres of ponds and wetlands. It's a wildlife paradise.

Here's why this beautiful flowering shrub is called Butterfly Bush.  These butterflies are int he butterfly garden at Powell Gardens in Lone Jack, Missouri, east of Kansas City.

Here's why this beautiful flowering shrub is called "Butterfly Bush." These butterflies are in the butterfly garden at Powell Gardens in Lone Jack, Missouri, east of Kansas City.

Text and photographs by Catherine Sherman, all rights reserved, October 2008.

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Filed under Biology, Bird-watching, Conservation, Education, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Photography, Science

Sunflower Season

A bee loaded with bright yellow pollen works the huge head of a sunflower in a vast sunflower field near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

A bee loaded with bright yellow pollen works the huge head of a sunflower in a vast sunflower field near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

Kansas is the sunflower state, but we had to go to Oklahoma to find these vast sunflower crop fields (pictured above and at the bottom) near Quapaw in mid-September. 

The sunflower crowns the seal on the Kansas state flag.

The sunflower crowns the seal on the Kansas state flag.

Heading south on Highway 69 in Kansas, we passed mile after mile of green soybean rows and the brown stalks of ready-to-harvest feed corn.   Cattle and horse grazed in lush pastures.  It was the kind of perfect late summer day you want to bottle so you can release it in January.

The small yellow heads of wild sunflowers cheered us along the roadside and in fields that had escaped mowing and grazing, but it wasn’t until we crossed into Oklahoma that we really saw SUNFLOWERS –brilliant yellow that stretched as far as I could see.  Thankfully, I was wearing sunglasses, or I’d be blind today!

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly nectars on a wild sunflower in a vacant lot.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly nectars on a wild sunflower in a vacant lot.

The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, so I’m sure it was the first flower I ever learned about. Helianthus annuus, the annual sunflower, comes in 60 species.  Some species can grow as tall as fifteen feet.  The flower heads can be small as buttons or be as large as dinner plates.   I don’t think I’m biased, but the sunflower has got my vote as the most useful flower in the world.  If you can think of a more useful one, let me know.  (I’m making my case below.)

Native Americans discovered and domesticated the sunflower as early as 2,300 B.C. The earliest example of a fully domesticated sunflower was found in Tennessee.  The Incas used the sunflower as an image of their sun god, and the sunflower is regarded as the floral emblem of Peru.  Native Americans grew and used the sunflower for both food and oil.  They made a yellow dye from the flower heads and fiber from the stalks.  

The oil can be used for cooking, soap-making and even in the manufacture of paint.  I’ve used oil paints with sunflower oil, rather than linseed, in art. Domesticated sunflowers are grown ornamentally and for crops — seeds, oil and high-protein cattle feed. You can eat the seeds or make butter out of them.  The leaves can be used for cattle fodder.  Sunflowers even produce latex.  No part is wasted. 

Many birds love sunflower seeds, and some crop varieties have been developed with drooping heads to make it more difficult for the birds to get at the seeds.

Sunflowers in Fenway Victory Garden in Boston.

Sunflowers in a plot in Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston.

There are the weedy types that thrive along roadsides and in uncultivated areas that provide essential habitat for wildlife and insects.  Sunflowers are also good nectar and pollen sources. Some wild types creep into crop fields, where they’re popular with bees and butterflies, but not farmers.

Many composite flowers — the actual flowers are crammed together in the head — are called sunflowers, including some perennial species. The petals — or rays — can be yellow, maroon, orange or even other colors.

The Spanish introduced the sunflower into Europe in 1510, and sunflowers are now grown throughout the world.  Russia is the leading grower, followed by Argentina, the United States and Canada.  During the 18th century in Europe, members of the Russian Orthodox Church helped to make sunflower oil popular because it was one of the few oils not prohibited during Lent.  This could explain why Russia leads in its cultivation.

The seeds are used as chicken feed — and perhaps not coincidentally, two famous chicken restaurants in Pittsburg, Kansas, are not far from Quapaw– Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s.

Sunflowers grow in the demonstration garden at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

Sunflowers grow in the demonstration garden at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

The tuberous roots of the Helianthus tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke, can be eaten.  Now called a sunchoke, the old Jerusalem name of this perennial sunflower came from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole.  I’ve never tried a sunchoke, but it sounds interesting, if not delicious.

To learn more about sunflowers, click here.

Endless fields of sunflowers near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

Endless fields of sunflowers near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

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Filed under Biology, Conservation, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, History, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Travel

The Mystery of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Swallowtail butterfly at Powell Gardens, Lone Jack, Missouri, 2007.

What I thought was a Black Swallowtail butterfly at Powell Gardens, Lone Jack, Missouri, 2007. Rachel (comment below) says it's a Pipevine Swallowtail.

One day a week ago the bronze fennel was teeming with Black Swallowtail caterpillars.  The next day, they were gone.  Where did they go?  Off to the woods forty feet away?  I worried about them struggling through the grass to complete their life cycle.  It’s a dangerous world.  Birds, lawnmowers, children chasing balls, other insects. 

Black Swallowtail.

I thought this was a Black Swallowtail, but Rachel (comment below) says it's the dark morph female of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Were those caterpillars the last of the year?  I thought so until today when I found a single fairly large caterpillar on the fennel, which was almost chewed clean of leaves.  A tattered looking Black Swallowtail butterfly sailed in and circled the fennel.  I was hoping it would lay some eggs or at least make a nectar stop at a flower. I even had my camera! But the butterfly sailed off again, ignoring my butterfly bush, the phlox, the coneflowers……

Dottie of St. Louis, Missouri, commented on my Monarch Watch post about her certified Monarch waystation.  She follows the process of the Monarchs very closely, photographing them and raising them.  She talks to schoolchildren about the Monarch life cycle. She also “raises” Black Swallowtail caterpillars on fennel and parsley but says a Black Swallowtail chrysalis is very hard to find.

Following the life cycle of a Black Swallowtail has one “hazard” — the caterpillars spray a stinky odor when you touch them. Dottie says her granddaughter doesn’t mind. It makes her giggle. I was slightly tempted to “pet” the caterpillar on my fennel today just to check it out…… 

One butterfly enthusiast confined many very hungry Black Swallowtail caterpillars to a screened area and captured the entire cycle in a photo chronicle.   Here is the photo chronicle of Black Swallowtail butterflies from egg to adult.

Powell Gardens, which is about a half hour east of Kansas City, schedules butterfly events and has a large area devoted to plants that attract butterflies.  The photograph at the top of the page was from a visit I made there in 2007.  The website is Powell Gardens.  To learn more about creating a certified Monarch waystation go to Monarch Watch.  My other posts on butterflies and caterpillars can be found through the search box or by scrolling down.

Is this the last Black Swallowtail Caterpillar of the year?  The fennel plant has almost been chewed clean of leaves.

Is this the last Black Swallowtail Caterpillar of the year? The fennel plant has almost been chewed clean of leaves.

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Cloudless Sulphur Butterflies and Caterpillars

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store.

Who doesn’t love a pretty quartet of wings?  The flashy appearance of the Monarch butterfly’s brilliant orange and black wings is so perfect for Autumn.  And those white polka dots on black?  Very stylish and classic.  (The design also signals to birds — don’t eat me, I’m toxic!)

Monarch butterfly.

Monarch butterfly.

Black Swallowtail butterflies are gorgeous, too.  Black, yellow, iridescent blue.  The perfect color combination.  And those fabulous swallowtails! Definitely au courant.  I’m like a fashion photographer coaxing these beauties to show their best side as I chase them all over the neighborhood with my camera. (Click on the photos for a larger view.)

Black Swallowtail.

Black Swallowtail.

I’ve almost overlooked the less spectacular Cloudless Sulphur butterflies.  They’re understated, even plain.  They don’t have fancy swallowtails.  These small to medium-sized yellow and white sulphur butterflies can look like flower petals or leaves fluttering from a tree, which gives them an advantage in eluding birds that might want to eat them as they hunt for nectar, mates or a place to lay eggs.

A ten-year-old boy pointed to this Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar, saying it was in the "J" phase. It was one of the caterpillars hanging out at the Monarch Watch open house on Sept. 6, 2008, at the University of Kansas.

I saw this Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar hanging out at the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. A ten-year-old boy told me it was in the "J" phase as it prepares to pupate.

The males are a clear yellow above and yellow or mottled with reddish brown below.  The female is lemon-yellow to golden or white on both surfaces.  Both have mottling, which makes them look more like “moth-eaten” leaves.

Last summer was the first time I really noticed a Cloudless Sulfur butterfly. Certainly, I’ve seen them, but they aren’t showy.  The little yellow butterfly flitted in almost under my radar.  I saw one moving from blossom to blossom in my impatiens bed.  It unfurled its long proboscis into the narrow throat of each impatiens bloom. 

Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar starting to pupate in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar starting to pupate in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

As the seed pods formed, I realized, hey, I was there at their conception.  I’m sort of their Godmother Nature. I’d plant these seeds instead of buying impatiens, thereby saving money and also bringing the cycle full circle.

When the pods seemed mature, I carefully gathered them.  The pod explodes when it’s touched.  That’s why they’re called impatiens — they’re impatient to get moving and germinating. 

But more about my impatiens project later — this is the Clouded Sulphur’s story.  Yet, you can’t separate pollination from butterflies and other pollinators. According to the Pollinator Partnership, almost 80 percent of the food we eat requires a pollinator.  A large number of these are insects such as bees and butterflies.

As more land is paved and more acreage tilled for crops, there are fewer places for pollinators to live.  About 30 percent of the Monarch butterfly’s summer breeding area is in croplands, where milkweeds — essential for Monarchs to eat — used to thrive, according to Monarch Watch.  Herbicides in crop fields have killed off a lot of the milkweed. Monarch Watch helps people plant milkweed in their gardens for the caterpillars to eat.  They also suggest nectar and host plants that many butterflies and their caterpillars will like.

Herbicides and frequent mowing along roadsides also have reduced habitat for wildlife. The Kansas Department of Transportation has reduced mowing along several of its highways to restore the prairie and move away from brome grass, which is poor habitat.   I enjoyed some of this restored roadside prairie on recent trips in the Flint Hills of Kansas.  What would the neighbors say if we restored our yard to prairie?  It’s a thought.  Wild blue indigo, the orange flowers of the butterfly weed and scores of other flowers among the grass are a beautiful sight.
Dennis Toll writes beautifully about the Flint Hills, including its many flowers, on his blog Flint Hills, Tall Grass.
Cloudless Sulfur Butterfly and an insect rival compete for space on a sunflower. A for sale sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.

Cloudless Sulfur Butterfly and an insect rival compete for space on a sunflower. A "for sale" sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.

The restored roadside habitat also fosters a higher diversity of native bees that are essential for pollination, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch.  “There are dozens and dozens of species of bees, most of them small and not obvious to people,” Taylor says.
“Create a culture of appreciation for diversity,” Taylor suggests. “Change the vegetation in your garden to plants that foster pollinators.” 
Several butterfly enthusiasts have suggested useful butterfly websites.  Deb D. recommended the forums at gardenweb.com.   Mike of Clover Cove Farm, an herb farm near Nashville, suggested Butterfly Gardening and Conservation, which focuses on several types of butterflies.  His solution when caterpillars eat your herbs?  Plant more herbs!
 
Kristy G. of South Carolina inspired me to find out more about butterfly metamorphosis when she wrote about a swarm of Black Swallowtail butterflies that had devoured her parsley.  She wanted to know how she could follow their progress from caterpillar to adult.  More about that in a later post.
The Pollinator Partnership provides a wide range of information, including what plants will attract pollinators in different parts of the country.  Another good information source is Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.  You can sign up for an emailing list and also participate in activities.  Check out my post on Monarch Watch.  Also check out the video on the Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly Metamorphosis.
A Cloudless Sulfur butterfly chrysalis looks like a leaf in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch on the campus at the University of Kansas.

A Cloudless Sulfur butterfly chrysalis looks like a leaf in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch on the campus at the University of Kansas.

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Monarch Watch

Gimme Shelter!  A monarch butterfly escapes the rain in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch.

Gimme Shelter! A monarch butterfly escapes the rain in the greenhouse at the annual Monarch Watch fall open house on the University of Kansas campus.

You can’t keep butterfly lovers away, even when it’s raining.  More than a thousand people, a lot of them children, showed up for the annual Monarch Watch fall open house on Sept. 6 at Foley Hall at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  That’s almost twice the usual number of visitors, according to entomologist Orley “Chip” Taylor, director of Monarch Watch.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to Chip Taylor's hat and beard as they harden their wings.  Taylor is the founder of Monarch Watch.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to Chip Taylor’s face and hat as they harden their wings.

The butterflies weren’t very active because of the damp weather, but the caterpillars still munched away on their favorite plants.  Caterpillars can be picky eaters, something children can identify with.  For example, the Monarch butterfly caterpillar will only eat milkweed plants, which contain poisons that make the Monarch toxic to animals that might eat it.  Fortunately, there are more than 140 species of milkweed. Unfortunately, there are fewer milkweed plants every year because of habitat destruction.

Taylor created Monarch Watch in 1992 to educate people about and to foster the conservation of Monarchs in North America. What Monarchs need most is a place to live and plants to eat in both their larval and adult phases.

“We’re losing 6,000 acres of viable habitat every day to development,” Taylor says.

Monarch Watch educates thousands of students and adults every year about Monarch migration, tagging, milkweed favorites, the life cycle of the Monarch and more.

The program encourages people to create pollinator habitats in their gardens.

“If you create the right environment, pollinators will come,” Taylor says.

Visitors stroll through the Certified Pollinator Garden during the annual open house at the Monarch Watch Headquarters.

Visitors stroll through the Certified Pollinator Garden during the annual open house at the Monarch Watch Headquarters.

Why should we care about pollinators?  According to the organization Pollinator Partnership, almost 80 percent of the world’s food crop plants depend on pollination.  Birds, bats and insects, such as bees, butterflies, beetles and mosquitoes, transfer pollen from flower to flower.  Without them, there wouldn’t be much for people to eat.

Last year, I had to hand pollinate my acorn squash with a paint brush because there weren’t enough pollinators to do the job. I learned a lot about the sex life of squash.  Since then, I’ve planted a lot of plants to attract bees and butterflies.  These plants produce beautiful blooms, so we can enjoy them, too.  Birds can also eat the seeds.

In addition to providing nectar plants, gardeners (that means everyone with a yard) should provide food plants for caterpillars.  They need to eat, too.  The caterpillar eating your parsley or dill will transform into a gorgeous black swallowtail butterfly, so don’t kill it.

More than 450 monarch butterfly chrysalides were given to children so they could watch a butterfly emerge. Here, Chip Taylor tells parents that 100 more will be available soon.

More than 450 monarch butterfly chrysalides were given to children so they could watch a butterfly emerge. Here, Chip Taylor tells parents that 100 more will be available soon.

Years ago I did kill some black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars that were chewing through my parsley.  I didn’t know what these caterpillars were, but ignorance is no excuse. Still, humans seem to have a natural revulsion to creepy crawly creatures, particularly those on their food plants. We need to resist that and learn more about these useful creatures. The sad thing is that I rarely use much parsley, anyway.  Now, I plant parsley and fennel just for caterpillars as seen in my post on Black Swallowtail butterflies and caterpillars.

I don’t kill caterpillars anymore, although I might make an exception for the tomato hornworm, which can devastate a tomato plant.  I saw a tomato hornworm on a tomato plant in the greenhouse at the open house.  I thought: They’re even raising hornworms!  The tomato hornworm, which can grow up to four inches long, turns into a hawkmoth, which almost looks like a hummingbird from a distance.

A Certified Pollination Garden at Monarch Watch's headquarters at KU shows visitors what kinds of plants attract pollinators.

A Certified Pollination Garden at Monarch Watch at KU shows visitors what kinds of plants attract pollinators.

This month, Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains begin their long migration to mountain forests in Mexico, where they spend the winter.  Unlike most other insects in temperate climates, Monarch butterflies can’t survive a long, cold winter.  Monarch butterflies travel up to three thousand miles, much farther than all other tropical butterflies.  Amazingly, they fly in masses to the same winter roosts, often to the same trees, according to Monarch Watch.

Somehow, the Monarchs know their way, even though the butterflies returning to Mexico (or California for west coast Monarchs) each fall are the great-great-great grandchildren of the butterflies that left the previous spring, according to Taylor.  No one knows exactly how this homing system works. Taylor talks about the Monarch migration and tagging Monarchs is this 2006 story.  New York Times story about Monarch Watch and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. Monarch Watch volunteers will be tagging Monarch butterflies east of Lawrence this month.  Taylor expects numbers to be lower than previous years, possibly because of a cooler spring.

Chip Taylor demonstrates how to hold a Monarch butterfly for tagging.

Chip Taylor demonstrates how to hold a Monarch butterfly for tagging.

The last Monarch hatch of the season is biologically and behaviorally different from earlier generations in the summer. It won’t mate or lay eggs until the following spring.  It must fatten on nectar to make the long journey.   That’s why providing nectar flowers is so important.

Monarch Watch helps people to create certified pollination gardens and waystations that provide the right mix of nectar and food plants.  So far, more than 2,000 waystations have been certified, but many more are needed to provide resources throughout the year for monarchs as they move across the continent, Taylor says.  The waystations are also home to many other insect species, as well as birds.

Taylor and the members of Monarch Watch are advocates for all wildlife.  I first interviewed Taylor thirty years ago for a story about killer bees, so he knows about insects with a bad reputation, too.  As we move around and alter the landscape, we alter the mix of insects and animals that can live there.  Human activity sometimes makes it harder for the beneficial insects to survive.

“We use the charisma of Monarch butterflies to get people interested in other pollinators,” he says. What’s good for pollinators is also good for other animals.

This honeybee finds nectar on a tropical milkweed in the pollination garden at Monarch Watch on the KU campus.

This honeybee finds nectar on a tropical milkweed in the pollination garden at Monarch Watch on the KU campus.

Leave some wild areas in your yard, he suggests.

“Some people get into trouble with their neighbors for creating a more diverse, abundant landscape,” Taylor says. “But a wild and wooly garden provides a lot of food and protection for wildlife.”

City and suburban dwellers are often afraid of wildlife, but Taylor assures people that most pollinators aren’t dangerous.

“You practically have to pick up a bee in your hands to get stung,” he says.

Some public and private institutions are taking the lead.  The Kansas Department of Transportation has greatly reduced mowing along the right of way of some of its highways to restore the native grasses and wildflowers there.

The Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, has restored sixty acres of its campus to natural prairie.

Among good sources of nectar:

  • impatiens
  • marigolds
  • lilacs
  • azaleas
  • sunflowers
  • ageratum

    Scary and beautiful is this Pipevine Butterfly caterpillar in the Monarch Watch greenhouse.

    Scary and beautiful is this Pipevine Butterfly caterpillar in the Monarch Watch greenhouse.

  • asters
  • butterfly bushes
  • purple coneflowers
  • zinnias

Caterpillar food plants include:

  • milkweeds
  • hackberry trees
  • snapdragons
  • willows
  • hollyhocks
  • members of the carrot family
  • thistles

To learn more go to www.pollinator.org or www.monarchwatch.org

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Filed under Animals, Biology, Education, Environment, Family, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Random, University of Kansas

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Blackswallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel.

A black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar chews on the bronze fennel in my garden.

I’ve been chasing butterflies with my camera — actually, there was just one black swallowtail butterfly.  I saw the first one of the season today, and it’s September 5.  What happened to the rest?  I’ve seen one monarch, a handful of yellows and possible even a zebra butterfly.  I spotted dozens more last year in the neighborhood by this time. 

Why does this matter?  Butterflies are among that essential group of animals called pollinators, necessary to transfer pollen to fertilize nearly 80 percent of our food crops.  Some, like bees, are disappearing at a rapid rate.  Without pollinators, there wouldn’t be much to eat.

I’ve planted enough flowers for a 24-course butterfly banquet. I’ve got butterfly bush, butterfly weed, stonecrop, coneflowers of all kinds, asters, zinnias, phlox…….yum, yum.  When I finally spotted a black swallowtail today, he or she flitted about the weed-whacked vegetation on the golf course — no nectar flowers there.  While just on my side of the fence, I had the Country Buffet awaiting….What’s the deal?

Black swallowtail butterfly.

This is the first black swallowtail butterfly I've seen this year. I couldn't get it to pose on a flower.

I did follow the progress of about two dozen black swallowtail caterpillars on my bronze fennel (a member of the parsley family) throughout the summer  — evidence that butterflies did flutter in and lay eggs, probably while I was sitting at my computer complaining online to fellow “butterfly nerd” friends that there weren’t any butterflies.

I’m heading soon to the Pollination Garden open house at the University of Kansas.  I’ll find out what’s going on with butterflies this year and let you know. To learn more, go to the links to Pollinator Partnership and Monarch Watch on my blogroll.

If you were a butterfly, could you pass this up? Delicious!

If you were a butterfly, could you pass this up these flowers? Delicious!

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Filed under Biology, Environment, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, University of Kansas

Berry Picking by Moonlight

Chiggers lie in wait to make me lunch as I grab these blackberries for my own meal.

Chiggers lie in wait to make me their lunch as I grab these blackberries for my own meal.

How did chiggers make a living before people started wearing clothes?

An entomologist explained in a college “bugs and boys” class that chiggers have weak mouth parts so they need pressure to clamp onto our skin.  The invention of elastic waistbands was a huge boon to chiggerdom. 

This is blackberry season, which means every time I bring in a bowl of berries from my bushes, I’m also wearing a crop of chiggers.  I’ve never seen a chigger, but they sure make their presence known. Huge itching welts appear, usually in a line along my underwear.   Bug spray doesn’t always work, either. It’s almost like salad dressing to the bugs.

What would happen if we gardened in the nude?  Would the poor chiggers wander the naked skin, unable to take a bite? 

Naked gardening does pose other problems — sun overexposure and skin overexposure. I wouldn’t want a golfer on the adjoining course to miss a shot, shocked by the sight of me scampering around naked with a berry basket.  Some night I may just creep out to the bushes under the moonlight, flashlight in hand, hoping I don’t surprise a hungry raccoon, and tell those chiggers, “Bite me, if you can!”

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Filed under Biology, Gardening, Golf, Humor, Kansas, Life, Nature, Uncategorized