Archives For Nature in View

I am sure that most of you know what I am referring to when I say “leap year.” Although this is not a leap year, I am suggesting that we unofficially call 2015 “Lep Year”—“lep” being short for Lepidoptera (from the Latin “scaly wing”), the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. It has probably been a decade or more since I have seen the diversity and abundance of butterflies and moths that I have seen this past spring and summer.

PHOTO: Euchaetes egle (Milkweed tussock moth).

These voracious Euchaetes egle caterpillars were shredding some of the common milkweed plants near the prairie at the Garden this summer.

Lately, the butterflies have gotten the lion’s share of PR. In particular, the monarch butterfly is on nearly everyone’s radar, due to its precarious situation with dwindling wintering grounds and lack of larval food plants—the milkweeds. However, if you compare the two groups, butterflies and moths, the numbers of moth species outnumber the butterflies by more than ten to one in North America! In fact, there is a moth species that is also dependent on milkweeds—the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle). The caterpillars of this species are black and orange (a similar color combination to the monarch), and they usually occur in large numbers when you find them. The black-and-orange coloration signals to predators not to eat these fuzzy little fur balls.

The main difference between butterflies and moths is that the moths, in general, tend to be rather drab colored and active at night while the butterflies are mostly colorful and active during the day. These are generalities since you can find very colorful moths, rather drab butterflies, and a number of day-flying moths. There are also structural differences most easily seen in their antennae. While butterflies have narrow antennae with club-shaped structures at the end, the moths can have either thread-like antennae that end in a point in females or fern-like antennae in males. The fern-like antennae of the males are used to detect the chemicals, called pheromones, released by the females when they are ready to mate. Some moths can follow these chemical trails for miles.

Sixty percent or more of the diet of some nestling songbirds comes from caterpillars, and these are most certainly moth caterpillars.

Moths are not only extremely diverse in shape and pattern, they also have a wonderful variety of common names that people have come up with to label them. There are sphinx moths or hawk moths, daggers and darts, army worms and prominents, sallows and quakers, owlets and loopers, and marvels and bird-dropping moths. The names go on and on, some attempting to describe the adults and others the larvae.

PHOTO: Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia).

This brightly ornamented Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) will turn into North America’s largest native moth.

It is hard to say which stage of the moth life cycle is more impressive. Although the adult moths are so varied in their shape, size, and patterns, the caterpillars are no less amazing. Take for example the strikingly beautiful brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar.

PHOTO: Brown hooded owlet caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis).

The brown hooded owlet caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis) is a stunning specimen to find outside my office.

It would be difficult to find a more attractive critter anywhere, and here it was, right outside my office. Equally impressive are the huge silkworm caterpillars. The Cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) is almost shocking, not only because of its massive size, but also because of the large orange-and-yellow spiky beads covered in black spots along its back and the smaller turquoise-spiked beads ornamenting its sides.

And who could talk about moth caterpillars without mentioning the infamous woolly bear? These orange and black-banded caterpillars are often consulted to see what the winter will be like. Unfortunately, the banding on the caterpillar has nothing to do with the weather, but at least it has gotten it a lot of attention. The woolly bear eventually turns into the bright orange Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).

PHOTO: Woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella).

Who hasn’t been tempted to touch the woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella)? Photo by By Micha L. Rieser via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).

The Isabella tiger moth retains its orange-and-black caterpillar coloring. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons

The high diversity and nocturnal behavior of moths make it not unlikely that you might find a moth or caterpillar you haven’t seen before. The other day, while trimming my rambunctious Virginia creeper vine on the side of my house, I spotted an interesting caterpillar that I had never seen before. As a woodland ecologist I have experience with a lot of caterpillars, so it is always interesting when something new comes along. As it turns out, the caterpillar was the larval stage of an Abbott’s sphinx moth (Sphecodina abbottii). Although this was a new find for me, I still have not seen the adult moth.

Every morning when I come into work, I check the wall outside our building under the light to see if any new moths have shown up during the night. Some of the moths I have spotted this summer are the Crocus geometer, Colona moth, Ironweed borer, large maple spanworm, Ambiguous moth, green owlet, and one of the microlepidoptera, the morning-glory plume moth.

PHOTO: Colona moth (Haploa colona).

Colona moth (Haploa colona)

PHOTO: Crocus geometer (Xanthotype urticaria).

Crocus geometer (Xanthotype urticaria)

PHOTO: Green owlet (Leuconycta diphteroides).

Green owlet (Leuconycta diphteroides)

PHOTO: Morning glory plume (Emmelina monodactyla).

Morning glory plume (Emmelina monodactyla)

PHOTO: Ironweed borer (Papaipema cerussata).

Ironweed borer (Papaipema cerussata)

Most moths do not live for very long as adults. Ironically, some of the largest moth species live the shortest lives. I had the opportunity to see a new species of one of these megamoths for the first time this summer when my wife brought home an Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis) that she found clinging to the window of the school where she works. The very large moths in the family Saturniidae (silkworms and royal moths) emerge either from the soil, in the case of the Imperial moth, or from one of the familiar large cocoons you can find attached to a twig, like those of the Cecropia or Promethea moths. Since these moths do not have functional mouth parts, they are unable to feed, so they live off their stored body fat while searching for mates until they die, usually within seven to ten days.

PHOTO: Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis).

This Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis), had a 5-to-6-inch wingspan, and a body as big as my thumb!

Interested in finding out more? Visit the Moth Photographers Group at or BugGuide at

Another new species for me was the painted lichen moth. While removing Japanese beetles from my hazelnut shrubs, I spotted what looked like a large firefly. As it turned out, it was not a firefly at all, but rather a moth that mimics one. Since fireflies are toxic to most predators, the moth gets a benefit from looking like the firefly. Another neat trick they employ is a maneuver known as frass flicking. They are able to expel their excrement nearly a foot away from their body. This is important because some predatory wasps locate their prey by homing in on the scent of their droppings.

There are a number of moths—or more accurately, moth larva—that are pests for gardeners. Almost all vegetable growers have run into cutworms at one time or another. Cutworms were given this name because of their habit of cutting off seedling plants in the garden. There are a number of cutworm species native to this country, but all develop into moths later in their life cycle.

PHOTO: Parasitized sphinx moth caterpillar.

The white structures on this parasitized sphinx moth caterpillar are the cocoons of the braconid wasps.

Another familiar larva is the tobacco or tomato hornworm (Manduca sexta). These are the large green larvae of one of our native sphinx or hawk moths. The Carolina sphinx larva is often found on tomatoes. Although they will rapidly chow down on tomato plant leaves, I generally leave them alone until they have had their fill and work their way down into the soil where they pupate to spend the winter. (I find that they rarely put much of a dent in the productivity of my tomato plants.) If you should happen to dig up one of their pupae when turning over the garden soil, they are a dark, shiny brown, pointed at one end, and have what looks like a teapot handle on the side that houses a long, curved proboscis. If you pick them up, you might be startled by the fact that they often times will swivel around at the middle—probably a predator avoidance behavior. Tobacco hornworm and sphinx moth caterpillars commonly fall prey to braconid wasps, which parasitize them. Leaving these parasitized caterpillars in the tomato garden can be an effective method of pest control.

PHOTO: Female gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar).

Female gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar)

A more serious pest species is the introduce gypsy moth. These moths occur in huge numbers and are capable of completely defoliating adult oak trees over large areas. A few years ago, we avoided an invasion of gypsy moths at the Garden when hundreds of thousands of these moths, in Turnbull Woods forest preserve across Green Bay Road in Glencoe, succumbed to a cool, rainy spring.

Join me and take advantage of this Lep Year—check out the yard lights, hedgerows, and flower beds, and see how many moths, caterpillars, and cocoons you can find!

Photos ©2015 Jim Steffen unless otherwise noted.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Each fall, we sing the praises of fall allium and autumn crocus blooms. This year, however, a special mention must be made for the glorious gladiolus! Especially the delicate, 4-inch salmon pink flowers of the salmon gladiolus (Gladiolus oppositiflorus spp. salmoneus).

Hailing from the summer rainfall areas of the cold, higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, this beautiful wild species has proven amazingly hardy in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Graham Bulb Garden over the last five years—including a couple of winters with record-setting cold temperatures!

PHOTO: Gladiolus oppositiflorus ssp. salmoneus.

Gladiolus oppositiflorus ssp. salmoneus produces elegant, upright flower stalks that do not require staking!

Two characteristics of its native habitat nominated the gladiolus for trial at the Garden: first, it is a winter-growing bulb in South Africa, which translates to summer growth in North America. Second, this plant thrives in moist soils in grassy areas—it was perfect for the site we chose in the Bulb Garden.

Based upon its initial success in our plant trial program, other gladiolus (also currently in full flower) were added to the trials. We’ve also discovered that these wild species thrive and multiply in well-drained soils (but do not tolerate flooded soils). The beautiful, red-flowered Gladiolus saundersii is also native to the Drakensbergs, but from a higher, colder, and snowier habitat. And a third selection is probably a close relative of Gladiolus dalenii var. primulinus. Discovered in an old, abandoned farmstead in North Carolina, and sold under the name ‘Carolina Primrose’, this gladiolus generally blooms in July and early August (although it is still blooming now). All have come through the record-breaking cold of the last couple of winters. 

Gladiolus is the largest genus in the Iridaceae (iris plant family) with 255 species worldwide; 166 of them in southern Africa. The genus was given its name by Pliny the Elder, in reference to the size and shape of the leaves, which are similar in shape and size to a short sword favored by Roman-era gladiators: the gladius.

It’s not easy to find commercial sources for these bulbs, but it’s well worth the effort to obtain an elegant, refined, fall-flowering, and hardy gladiolus.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Insta-improved Photos!

Robin C. —  June 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

Simplicity is critical in creating a striking Instagram photo. Here are some tips to help you reduce distractions and bring focus to your pictures.

Red White and Blue contestShow us your reds, whites, and blues on Instagram June 29 through July 7! Go outside and snap a pic of any red, white, or blue flower or plant for a chance to be featured on our feed and website. Tag @chicagobotanic in your post and use #CBGcontest15.

The most important thing to keep in mind when photographing for Instagram, is that your photo will be viewed at a relatively small scale. Your composition needs to grab the viewers’ attention as they scroll through their feed. Nature is full of beautiful detail, intricate patterns, and delicate textures. However, keep in mind that once a picture is posted, the subtlety and tiny details of the subject matter may be lost.

Consider placing subject matter that has very small details in a context. A close-up of these penstemon flowers alone makes for a very chaotic image, but when the surrounding landscape is included, the flowers form a shape that mirrors the line of trees above.

PHOTO: Closeup of Penstemon.

Penstemon blooms make a chaotic closeup.

PHOTO: Penstemon in the landscape.

Framing the shot gives these blooms context.

The opposite is also true. Removing context by getting closer to your subject usually simplifies your composition. In the case, of these penstemon flowers, most phones will not focus close enough to capture just one.

PHOTO: Roses in dappled sunlight.

Dappled sunlight draws attention away from these blooms.

PHOTO: Roses photographed in even shade.

Even shade brings out the color of the roses.

Avoid dappled sunlight to allow viewers to focus their attention on your subject matter. Try finding shade if you are photographing on a sunny day, or take pictures during the morning and evening when the light is softer.

Choose a point of view for your subject where light falls on the subject but not the background. This will emphasize the shape of your subject and increase contrast between it and the background. Keep your eye out for this lighting situation at the edge of large shadows cast by buildings where tall flowers pop out into the light.

PHOTO: Echinacea with path in background.

The background in soft focus detracts from our highlighted subject.

PHOTO: Echinacea isolated on dark background.

Isolating the bloom makes this echinacea the star of the photo.

These two photos are of the same flower but taken from different perspectives. You can see the edge of the shadow cast by a building in the first photo. The second photo was taken after stepping to the right and facing toward the building.

Instagram is a great place to get and share ideas; don’t hesitate to experiment and try new things.

Most importantly, have fun!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Warbler Heaven

Carol Freeman —  May 18, 2015 — 5 Comments

A lot of birds migrate through the area this time of year, but I have to say warblers are my favorites. The other day, when the rain cleared and the sun came out, I found myself in warbler heaven!

PHOTO: Yellow-rumped warbler.

Yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) are some of the most common warblers to be seen at the Garden. You can spot them almost anywhere! Photo © Carol Freeman

As soon as I walked out of the Visitor Center, I saw movement in the trees next to the bridge: my first warbler of the day—a prothonotary! (Protonotaria citrea)—an uncommon warbler, and the first time I’ve ever seen one at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Next stop: the top of the Waterfall Garden. The birds were hopping! Here I added eight more warbler species, including yellow-rumped, palm, black-and-white, Cape May, American redstart, Wilson’s, magnolia, and yellow warblers! Wow! So much fun! I also saw red-eyed and warbling vireos, a scarlet tanager, and a ruby-crowned kinglet, to name a few.

PHOTO: Red-eyed vireo.

Another lovely migrant: the red-eyed vireo ( Vireo olivaceus) Photo © Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Black-and-white warbler.

The black-and-white warblers (Mniotilta varia) can be seen hopping along branches looking for insects. Photo © Carol Freeman

After delighting in the abundance of birds for a few hours, I slowly made my way back to my car, choosing to walk under the amazing flowering crabapple trees. Just at the end of the line of trees I heard what I thought was another warbler. I couldn’t quite see what it was. I tried calling it out, and to my delight, out popped the most beautiful male northern parula warbler (Setophaga americana). He hopped right onto a flower-filled branch and seemed to pose while I got some photos. I’ve only seen a parula a couple of times before, and never this close, and never on such a pretty perch. A perfect way to end my journey in warbler heaven.

PHOTO: Northern parula warbler.

I could hardly believe my eyes when this beauty popped up in the flowering crabapple tree! Northern parula warbler (Setophaga americana) photo © Carol Freeman

While I can’t promise you will see this many warblers in a day, there is always something to see, and the fun part for me is never knowing just what might show up. Last week it was a white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). This week, warblers. Next week, who knows? All I do know is I’ll be out there to see what wonders there are to discover and then I’ll be in heaven again.

PHOTO: Palm warbler.

Palm warblers (Setophaga palmarum) can easily be identified by their tail pumping and rusty crown. Photo © Carol Freeman

PHOTO: White-eyed vireo.

An uncommon visitor! I was surprised to find this white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) in a tree in a parking lot. Photo © Carol Freeman

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Sure, it snowed just three days into spring—it’s Chicago! This week we’re set to hit the magic temperature, 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and here’s what it will trigger in your garden.

ILLUSTRATION: How trees set buds in spring.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and