Archives For Nature in View

Damselflies 101

Carol Freeman —  September 6, 2014 — 4 Comments

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a great place to find damselflies. You can find them in every location here, and different locations will often yield different species.

PHOTO: Rare form of male Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the rare form of the male eastern forktail damselfly. You can see what looks like an exclamation point on its back, similar to the fragile forktail damselfly. ©Carol Freeman

For example, you might find stream bluets along the river and orange bluets hanging out on the lily pads. Most species measure about an inch in length and can be easily overlooked, but when you take time to slow down and search for these tiny gems, you will be rewarded with finding some of nature’s most beautiful hunters. Indeed, these tiny insects are fierce hunters—but don’t worry, as they neither bite nor sting humans. Their preferred food choice is other, smaller insects (including mosquitoes).

The main differences between dragonflies and damselflies are their size and wing positions. Damselflies, in general, are smaller, and hold their wings over their abdomens. Dragonflies tend to be larger, with a heavier body, and hold their wings out to the side.

The most common species around here is the eastern forktail damselfly. Identifying them can be tricky, as they come in several different varieties! The males and females look very different from each other, and the females change color as they age.

PHOTO: Male Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the most common coloring for the adult male eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). Note the blue on the end of the abdomen. ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Immature female Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is a young female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). She will turn a light, powdery blue as she ages. ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Female Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the most common coloring of the adult female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Male Fragile Forktail damselfly.

This is an adult male fragile forktail (Ischnura posita) — similar to the rare form of the eastern forktail. Keep your eyes open for this one, as they often fly near the eastern forktails. ©Carol Freeman

I like to get out early in the morning. The light is low, there is often dew, and the insects move a bit more slowly until they warm up. One of my favorite places in the Garden to photograph damselflies is in the Dixon Prairie. They like to hang out on the grasses there. Walking slowly on the path next to the plants, you will see what look like tiny flying sticks. Damselflies will often congregate in one area and, if disturbed, sometimes land just a short distance away. I like to use my 105mm or 200mm macro lenses to photograph these beauties. They will fly until the first really hard frost. There are dozens of species native to this area—all of them beautiful and fierce hunters. 

PHOTO: An adult female Eastern Forktail damselfly eating another insect.

Here is an adult female eastern forktail damselfly with her catch of the day. ©Carol Freeman


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

One of our favorite insects at the Chicago Botanic Garden is the praying mantis. So we were very excited to obtain an egg case earlier this spring. We decided to keep it indoors so we could watch it hatch, and then release the newly hatched insects into the Garden.

PHOTO: Preying mantid egg case on a twig.

About 100 praying mantises emerged from this ootheca and were released into the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden.

A praying mantis egg case is called an ootheca (pronouned oh-uh-THEE-kuh). The plural is oothecae (oh-uh-THEE-see). The ootheca was produced by a female praying mantis last fall. She laid her eggs in this foam of protein that hardened around a stick and protected the eggs through the winter. The eggs usually hatch in mid-June to early July. The half-inch-long immature praying mantis nymphs resemble the adult, but they do not have wings. 

PHOTO: Hundreds of baby mantids pour out of an egg case.

Colorless praying mantis nymphs emerge from the ootheca all at one time. During their first hour, they darken in color to blend in with their surroundings.

After our praying mantises hatched inside an insect cage, I discovered that a bed of false sunflower plants (Heliopsis helianthoides) in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden was infested with red aphids. I released the praying mantises, and the hungry babies immediately began to feed.

PHOTO: Mantis nymphs on the head of a Rudbeckia flower covered with aphids.

At first, the praying mantis babies seemed a little bewildered by their new surroundings, but they quickly acclimated.

PHOTO: Mantis nymph on a flower stem eyes aphids—a tasty meal.

This mantis held very still as it eyed its prey.

PHOTO: A row of mantis nymphs on a leaf face a stem covered with red aphids.

These four little mantises lined up and stared at the aphids that would certainly become lunch soon.

It wasn’t exactly aphid carnage—much to the disappointment of our eighth grade Camp CBG helper, Joshua, who assisted me with the release—but the young predators did appear to enjoy their first meal.  

PHOTO: Preying mantis on liatris bloom in August.

By the end of August, some of our little friends will be as big as this praying mantis (and just as hungry)!

It may surprise you to know that although it looked like a bad infestation, aphids are not really a big problem for the plants. When they are very abundant, it does not take long for natural predators like praying mantises and ladybugs to find them and move in for a feast. Predatory insects will take care of the problem if you are patient and let nature take its course. If aphids show up in your garden and they bother you, we recommend hosing them off with water rather than using an insecticide, because chances are pretty good that there are beneficial insects on your plants, too. Hosing with a strong jet of water will knock off all the bugs and kill most of the aphids, but it won’t be as devastating to the mantises or other beneficial insects as poison.

We have placed praying mantis oothecae in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden and Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden, as well as in the Children’s Growing Garden, to ensure that there will be a population of our favorite insect for you to find. Many of them will survive on aphids and other insects they capture and devour on our flowers, and they will grow up over the summer. The next time you visit, stop by and see if you can find them helping our plants remain healthy and less bothered by pests.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Monarch butterflies have left their overwintering sites in Mexico and are heading back toward the Midwest, including the Chicago area.

Unfortunately, far fewer monarchs will be making the northward flight this year and the chance to see large numbers of these beautiful butterflies in your garden or flying across a prairie is becoming less certain.

Explore pollinators at World Environment Day, June 7.

Join us Friday, June 6, for the Make Way for Monarchs research symposium.

PHOTO: Asclepias tuberosa, a native milkweed species, in bloom.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of many native milkweed species that provide food for monarch butterfly caterpillars and a nectar source for flower visitors such as bees and butterflies.

In the 1990s, hundreds of millions of monarchs made the journey each fall from the northern plains of the United States and Canada to forested sites north of Mexico City. In western North America, more than a million monarchs made a shorter flight to tree groves on California’s coast. However, monarch numbers have been declining for more than a decade, and this year scientists documented record low numbers. We have seen more than a 90 percent decline.

Why is this occurring? We don’t know for sure, although there are several factors that are likely contributing. Habitat loss due to urban development and large-scale agriculture are key concerns. Farms now cover vast areas and many grow genetically modified crops that allow herbicide applications to be used on and around the crop, including in areas where milkweed—the one plant that monarch caterpillars need—used to grow. These “Roundup ready” crops have been identified as a major cause of milkweed loss throughout the Midwest. Additionally, millions of acres of farms and urban land are treated with toxic insecticides. The loss of forest habitat in Mexico and the decline of monarch groves in California may also be playing a role. In the West, severe drought is likely contributing to reduced monarch populations. These threats are compounded by climate change.

We do not have to sit and watch these declines continue.

We can provide these butterflies (and other wildlife) with high-quality, insecticide-free habitats. This is not something that needs to be restricted to a distant wilderness. Indeed, it is a cause in which everyone can take part. Homeowners and farmers can plant milkweed to support monarch caterpillars, and native flowers to provide nectar for adult butterflies, and work to limit the impact of insecticides. Land managers can ensure that milkweed stands are adequately protected.

Sign up for “The Monarch Butterfly: How You Can Help Save This Iconic Species,” Saturday, June 7, at 1 p.m.

PHOTO: A native milkweed pod burst open in winter, distributing seeds.

The Milkweed Seed Finder gives you quick access to regionally appropriate seed sources, with options to search by milkweed species and by state.

The Xerces Society’s Project Milkweed has been working with native wildflower seed nurseries, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and community partners to produce huge volumes of milkweed seed that are being used to restore monarch habitat. In just three years, this work has led to the production of 35 million milkweed seeds! As a result of this effort, milkweed seed is rapidly becoming more available in many regions of the country. To make it easier for people to find seed sources, we’ve launched the Milkweed Seed Finder, a comprehensive directory of milkweed seed vendors across the country.

In addition, the Xerces Society’s work with farmers and the NRCS has led to the creation of tens of thousands of acres of wildflower habitat that includes milkweed, across much of the monarch’s breeding range.

Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” For the sake of the monarch—and so many other species—it is time to heal as many wounds as possible.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring Chorus

Sophia Shaw —  May 15, 2014 — 1 Comment

My favorite moment of spring is the blooming of daffodils. But this year, I am adding a new highlight: the uplifting sound of…frogs.

 

I have to admit, I’ve never heard such spring peeping at the Chicago Botanic Garden before. But last weekend, as I enjoyed several long walks here (including one with my sons on Mother’s Day at 6:45 a.m.!), I felt serenaded by a loud chorus of frogs and toads. (Some visitors are even mistaking the sound for chirping birds.)

Learn more about local frogs, toads, and their calls.

PHOTO: A northern leopard frog seen from ground level, peers at the camera suspiciously.

A northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens) peers at the camera suspiciously. Photo by Benny Mazur from Toledo, Ohio (Mister Leopard Frog) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Working off the hypothesis that the Garden’s shoreline restoration efforts have helped increase frog and toad populations here, I turned to Garden scientists for answers.

And this is what I learned: of the Garden’s 385 acres, nearly one-quarter (81 acres) is water. More than three-fourths of the Garden’s shoreline has been restored since 1999, addressing long-standing erosion problems. Most recently, the Garden restored 1¼ miles of shoreline around the North Lake; the ten-month project was completed in summer 2012. As part of the project, we added more than 120,000 native plants—the largest perennial planting project in the Garden’s history—to stabilize shoreline soil. The sturdy plants, some with roots more than 6 feet deep, resist erosion and enhance water quality by filtering eroded soil and excess nutrients. The renovated shoreline provides an enhanced habitat for our aquatic life, which includes wood ducks, double-crested cormorants, and snapping turtles, along with bullfrogs, American toads, and other members of their croaking chorus. Build a healthy habitat and they will come!

Adding to the cacophony is an even bigger chorus than usual because of our “compressed” spring this year. Usually, the frogs emerge first, followed by the toads. This May, the frogs and toads are singing together—but not for long; come to the Garden soon if you want to hear them.

Discover the details and challenges of our restoration project.

PHOTO: Native plants and grasses surround the restored shoreline.

Abloom in May, native plants and sedge create habitat, protect shorelines, and create a beautiful border around the North Lake.

Even if you miss hearing them, I encourage you to listen to the short audio clip above and think about frogs (at least for a few seconds). Sometimes, we overlook the humble frog in favor of the more romantic songbirds in spring. In popular culture, the frog tends to fare better in other parts of the world. In Japan, for instance, the frog is considered a symbol of good luck. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru, which also means “to return.”

When I hear the frogs at the Garden from now on, I will think about how their return, spring after spring, announces that they’ve come home. I am proud that our conservation actions here have given them a healthy habitat in which to thrive, and I feel grateful to the frogs for giving me a moment to reflect on the importance of the Garden’s mission: We cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take required a pollinator visit? Pollination is essential for many of our favorite foods—from almonds to vanilla, and so many fruits and vegetables in between.

The decline of pollinators around the world is threatening not only our food supply but also the function of plant communities and ecosystems. Multiple factors play a role in pollinator decline, including land-use changes, pesticide use, climate change, and the spread of invasive species and diseases.

The well-documented plight of the iconic monarch butterfly has become emblematic of widespread pollinator decline. Perhaps many of you, like me, have childhood memories of setting out with a butterfly net and a jar with nail holes in the lid. I recall with pleasure catching and admiring monarchs up close until it was time to set them free. I worry that children may not have that simple pleasure much longer. After their previous all-time low population count in 2012–13, monarch numbers dwindled even lower this past winter (2013–14), when monitored in their overwintering location in Mexico.

PHOTO: A cluster of monarch butterflies rests on a plant, entirely covering it.

Now a much less common sight: a monarch butterfly cluster. Image by Christian Mehlführer (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed on the Dixon Prairie.

A monarch sips nectar from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) on the Dixon Prairie.

In the case of the monarch, several factors are likely contributing to its rapid decline. Loss of forested wintering grounds; loss of the milkweeds, which are their larval host plants; severe weather events; and a reduction of nectar plants along their migration routes due to drought have probably all contributed. Three leading monarch experts, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Dr. Chip Taylor, and Dr. Karen Oberhauser, have all cited GMO (genetically modified) crops as a leading factor in the decline. Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) once thrived on the edges of farm fields throughout the Midwest. Modern farming techniques use herbicide-resistant crops coupled with an increased use of herbicides; the native milkweeds are disappearing, and as they go, so do the monarchs.

Make Way for Monarchs

Click here for registration and schedule information.

On Friday, June 6, the Chicago Botanic Garden will host a symposium by Make Way for Monarchs: Alliance for Milkweed and Butterfly Recovery (makewayformonarchs.org). Members of this group conduct research on monarch butterfly recovery and promote positive, science-based actions to avert collapse of the milkweed community and the further demise of the monarch migration to Mexico. They aim to promote social engagement in implementing solutions in midwestern landscapes through collaborative conservation. Speakers include Gary Nabhan, Lincoln Brower, Chip Taylor, Karen Oberhauser, Laura Jackson, Doug Taron, and Scott Hoffman Black. They will discuss monarch decline and tangible solutions we all can help implement. Mr. Black will also present a lecture on monarchs at World Environment Day, Saturday, June 7.

PHOTO: Closeup of a single, tiny butterfly egg on the underside of a leaf.

Monarch egg on a milkweed leaf by Forehand.jay (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

There are things all of us can do: from planting milkweeds and other native plant species that provide nectar throughout the growing season, to minimizing pesticide use, and to supporting organic farmers. We can also become citizen scientists, reporting monarch observations to programs like Monarch Watch and Journey North, or working with the Monarch Joint Venture.

Perhaps, with our help, new generations of children will continue to know the joy of admiring the beautiful monarch butterfly, and then letting it go to continue its amazing migratory journey.

Learn more about pollinators at World Environment Day at the Garden on June 7, 2014.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org