The plants you see from your train seat on the Metra Union Pacific North line may help conservation scientists learn about how urban areas impact native bees.
Although most people think of honeybees when they think about bees, there are more than 4,000 native bee species in the United States and 500 species in Illinois alone. Like their honeybee counterparts, native bees are undergoing global declines, making them an important conservation concern. With the growth of urban areas, native bees may be faced with new challenges, yet we don’t know the extent that urban areas impact native bees.
My research at the Chicago Botanic Garden is investigating how urban areas may affect native bees in Chicago. Chicago is an ideal city to study the impact of urbanization on native bees because the intensity of urbanization slowly wanes from the urban core of the city out into the surrounding suburbs.
To explore native bee communities along this urbanization gradient, I have a series of eight sites along Chicago’s Union Pacific North Metra (UP-N) railway. I chose the sites along the rail line because they followed a perfect gradient from very urban to very suburban. I was also drawn to them because most of the vegetation around the sites is unmanaged and composed of similar species.
All of the sites vary in the levels of green space and impervious surface (concrete/buildings) surrounding the sites. Sites near downtown are surrounded by nearly 70 percent impervious surface, while sites near the Chicago Botanic Garden are surrounded by just 15 percent impervious surface.
Studying bees in this area along the Metra line allows us to ask a variety of questions about native bees. For instance: Are there fewer bees in highly urban areas? Are there different bees in natural areas compared to urban areas? Do the bees in highly urban areas have different traits than those in natural areas?
This summer, a few interns at the Garden and I have been gathering and sampling bees at each of my eight field sites. To catch the bees, we use two methods. First, we set out fluorescent colored bowls with soapy water that attract and capture the bees. Secondly, we use a butterfly net to capture bees at the site throughout the day. When we are finished sampling, the bees are taken back to the lab at the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center and pinned for future study.
In addition to collecting the bees, we also record all of the flowering plants and count how many flowers are blooming at the sites.
Although our days are currently filled with fieldwork and pinning, in the fall we will spend almost all of our time in the lab identifying the bees down to the genus or species level. When we have all of the bees identified, we can then start analyzing the data for my master’s thesis and answer some of the questions we have put forth. We suspect we will see a higher abundance and diversity of bees in sites located in more natural areas with more flowering plants.
My research will help us understand how urban areas are shaping native bee communities and help us determine what landscape features promote native bee diversity in urban environments, some of which can be implemented in urban restoration projects. We also hope that this work will illuminate the amazing diversity of native bees we have here in Chicago.
I recently was admiring one of the stately agaves at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I had a genuine “I love my job” moment. This was not the first time and definitely will not be the last. I took a moment to reflect on that and why my job as a horticulturist is so much more than caring for plants.
I started off as a seasonal employee in the production greenhouses, where we grow and tend for the plants you see throughout the Garden. Now I’m one of five senior horticulturists. My crew—horticulturist Dino de Persio and technician Evan Hydzik—and I oversee the three glorious display Greenhouses, all interiorscapes, two beautiful bonsai courtyards, event plant displays, and beyond. I also work closely with our creative design team to produce our annual Wonderland Express and Orchid Show.
Some people ask me, “What is horticulture?” If you Google “horticulture,” this is what comes up: Horticulture (noun): the art or practice of garden cultivations and management.
In my position, I am blessed to work with plants from all around the world. If you use a little imagination, these plants can transport you to new and exotic places. Many of the plants in our collection can link you to other cultures through their traditional, medicinal, ecological, economical, and ethnobotanical uses. For example, not many people know the showy bougainvillea is a traditional medicinal and culinary plant of Mexico and Central America. We also have bizarre bat-pollinated plants, such as the breathtaking jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) and many Cereus cacti. Some of my favorites are the cardamom spice (Elettaria cardamomum), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), cocoa (Theobroma cacao), and coffee (Coffea arabica)—all of which are all edible, of course.
I get to share the stories of these plants with guests of all ages and walks of life. Connecting people with plants is certainly one of the great joys of my job. Recently, I became part of the advisory council of an initiative called Seed Your Future (seedyourfuture.org). This movement was founded in 2013 by Longwood Gardens and the American Society for Horticultural Science, and has grown to include more than 150 partners, including the Chicago Botanic Garden. The group’s mission is “to promote horticulture and inspire people to pursue careers working with plants.”
One way to do that is to introduce the world of horticulture to young people and show them the critical role plants have in all of our lives.
Earlier this year, Seed Your Future launched BLOOM, our first campaign to promote horticulture and inspire interest in careers in horticulture.
Our BLOOM microsite has fun games, videos, and more for young people to enjoy getting to know the world of plants. The amazing thing about Seed Your Future is that the website has an expanding bank of resources for parents, teachers, camp counselors, and mentors to use in their programs. All of this is free. I can say I would have loved a resource such as this along my plant journey, and I am honored to be a part of it now.
Working with Seed Your Future has helped bring my story full circle. It has shown that my job as a horticulturist allows me to do so many fulfilling things: play with plants of the world, share knowledge and stories with others, inspire kids and adults, work with brilliant people, and ultimately get challenged and grow.
Thank you for letting me share my “I love my job!” moments.
Find your plant power at wearebloom.org; visit our Garden, and take part in our mission to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life.
You might have noticed a group of hard-working high-schoolers wearing hard hats and toting shovels at the Chicago Botanic Garden this summer. The aspiring conservationists—part of the Conservation Corps—are doing important restoration work throughout the Forest Preserves of Cook County, including a stint at the Garden.
The Conservation Corps is a paid summer internship that gives young people hands-on conservation and environmental science experience. Students partnered with Garden horticulturists and learned to identify plants and remove invasive species. This year, they worked to clear and trim overgrown bushes, install new plantings, and remove invasive plants. In addition to their work at the Garden, Corps members worked at Harms Woods near Glenview and took field trips such as an environmental science career day at the Field Museum.
We asked a few teens about their experience and what they learned while working at the Garden. Here’s what they had to say:
“It’s a great building block to what I want to do. I’ve already learned so much about identifying plants, trail mulching, steps you can take to improve the environment, and different environmental careers. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.” —Gabby Onnenga, 17, Skokie
“It’s allowed me to connect with a lot of people I wouldn’t have before. Last Friday we went to the Field Museum and talked to a lot of interesting people there. I talked with one of the leaders here at the Garden who recommended me to someone who runs a fungus organization. It could connect us to other opportunities.” —Aaron Ivsin, 16, Chicago
“I want to be an environmental biologist. This will help me later in life because everybody knows each other in the field.” —Ushus Hermanson, 17, Chicago
The program is part of the effort by the Garden and its partner, Friends of the Forest Preserves, to build the next generation of conservation leaders. “It has been great to have another Forest Preserves Conservation Corps crew this summer,” said Beth Dunn, the Garden’s director of government affairs, who helped coordinate the program. “Not only is it a great help for the Garden’s staff to tackle needed projects, it is a great learning experience for the crew members who may be for the first time working as part of a land management team.”
For many, it was just the place they wanted to be. “Right from the beginning, I knew I made the right choice,” said Sile Surman, 16, of Wilmette. “I’m very passionate about the environment, and it’s a great experience to be surrounded by people who are also passionate.”
One day at Butterflies & Blooms, I noticed a crepuscular, cosmopolitanimagopuddling in order to prepare for an upcoming lek. What did I just say?
The vocabulary surrounding Lepidoptera can be very specific—and not so easy to understand. Let’s break it down, and go over some of my favorite butterfly and moth terminology (and learn some of the amazing things these insects do). Then, see if you can decode the sentence above.
Cosmopolitan—In this case, a cosmopolitan is not a mixed drink or a well-traveled individual—although this term is related to being in many geographic locations. “Cosmopolitan” describes a butterfly species that is found worldwide. The painted lady is considered cosmopolitan; it is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Crepuscular—Crepuscular species tend to be most active at dawn and dusk. At Butterflies & Blooms, we have a few species that prefer to fly around during the early morning and late afternoon, when the sunlight is less intense. Species such as the giant owl, as well as other butterflies in the genus Caligo are considered crepuscular based on this behavior pattern.
Diapause—Here in the Midwest, many people wonder how butterflies survive the winter. The answer is diapause. Chrysalids can feel and respond to the temperature outside of their protective exoskeletons. If they notice a few cold nights, they will react by going into a dormant phase called diapause. When this happens, they cease development, and the shell of the chrysalis will turn brown and harden; this is how they survive the overwintering. Many pupae are green in order to blend in with the surrounding foliage, so it makes sense that they would turn brown in the winter to blend in with the dead, brown foliage. When the warmth and light of spring return, they become green again and complete their metamorphosis into adult butterflies.
Eclosion—Here at Butterflies & Blooms, we normally refer to our butterflies as “emerging” or even “hatching” from their pupal state. The correct scientific term for this is actually “eclosion.” If you want to impress (or possibly annoy) your friends, tell them that when chrysalids complete their diapause, they resume metamorphosis, and eclose into adult imagos!
Frugiverous—Butterflies such as the ever popular blue morpho, giant owl, and the great orange deadleaf are frugiverous; they come from habitats where there aren’t many wildflowers available, so they turn to feeding solely on fruit instead. This is why we have trays of fermented fruit in the exhibit.
Generalist vs. Specialist—Some butterflies are successful because they “specialize” in certain plant families. This means that their success is somewhat tied to the success or failure of the particular plant they evolved to rely on. This is the case for monarch butterflies. Monarchs have evolved to rely on plants in the milkweed (Asclepias) family as both a nectar source and host plant on which to lay eggs. Although there are many different types of milkweed, this is still considered a niche. On one hand, this can be a benefit, because the monarch can capitalize on the unique benefits that come from plants in the milkweed family. On the other hand, if milkweed declines, monarchs don’t have any alternative plant families to use as hosts.
Generalists, such as the painted lady, can use a wide variety of plants families to lay eggs on, such as carrots, mints, and nettles. This ensures that they will always be able to find suitable host plants. Humans are also generalists, as we are able to use a wide variety of food sources and habitats.
Imago—While we simply refer to our butterflies as “adults,” the true term for the final stage of butterfly development is “imago.” The life stages of a butterfly are egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupae), and adult (imago). Interestingly, the term “imago” also refers to a human individual’s idealized image of himself or herself. What’s your personal imago?
Lekking—This is a very interesting term, because until the blue morpho was discovered, lekking was not thought to be a behavior found in butterflies. Lekking is a type of mating ritual in which all the males form a group and compete, showing off their most admirable features. The males with the right stuff will be the ones who get to mate and pass on their genes. With blue morphos, only the most colorful males will get this privilege. I once witnessed a group of blue morphos “lekking” at Butterflies & Blooms. A group of about ten males were hypnotically circling around a single female. I couldn’t believe my eyes!
Polymorphism—Some of our butterfly species display polymorphism, including the mocker swallowtail and the postman. This means that within the species, the wings can have numerous pattern variations. This can make their identification tricky. The postman butterfly (Heliconius melpomene) is intensely studied by Lepidopterists because its patterning is more variable than any other butterfly species on earth. Here at Butterflies & Blooms, we have observed at least four distinct patterns from this one species of butterfly. Some have a white “skirt” along the bottom of their hind wings, some have a red spot on each forewing, and yet others have a pair of red spots on each wing.
Puddling—Puddling is the tendency of butterflies to sit in wet soil or stone and extract the minerals from the ground. Apparently, puddling is somewhat exclusive to male butterflies, because they need these minerals for sperm production. This is also why the butterflies (especially males) land on visitors. They drink our sweat to obtain these precious salts, sometimes absorbing them directly through a t-shirt!
Sexual Dimorphism—Butterflies tend to have different color and sizes based on whether they are male or female. This phenomenon is known as sexual dimorphism. Because female butterflies lay eggs, they tend to be a bit larger than the males. The males tend to have richer coloration and/or bolder patterns. Just like birds and fish, females will tend to choose the males with the boldest colors, as this indicates healthy genes.
These are just a handful of terms I like to use when talking about our amazing collection of butterflies. Expect to be quizzed on them during your next visit to Butterflies & Blooms!
Postman comparison images by Notafly (self-made Own photograph.Studio.Nikon.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
I love coming home to my quiet, tree-lined Chicago neighborhood, but one thing I miss about urban living is ample outdoor space.
The back door of my apartment leads to a wooden fire escape—built after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a second means of exit from the building. The landing is wide enough to finagle furniture during moves, but doesn’t invite much summertime lounging or late-night stargazing. Still, I find myself dreaming of an herb garden growing in the little patch of morning sun that filters through the stairs.
Growing an herb container doesn’t require a whole lot of space, luckily. To find the best inspiration, I turned to Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist for the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She recently planted an herb container tower in the garden, so ideas were fresh on her mind when I talked with her. Here are her tips for starting an herb container, no matter where you live.
Find the right container: Drainage is key for healthy herbs, says Hilgenberg, so make sure to find a pot with holes at the bottom. “I like to use terra cotta pots because they’re porous and absorb water. Otherwise, you could certainly use copper planters. A hanging basket might work if that’s allowed on your porch, or a strawberry jar with a dozen holes in it. You can get really creative.”
Consider the light: Most herbs like at least four to six hours of bright, direct light, but there are a few that can handle fewer hours of full sun. If your outdoor space is covered, or east-facing like mine, choose herbs that can take some shade, such as chives, thyme, or parsley, says Hilgenberg.
Plan your herbs with recipes in mind: What herbs do you use most in your cooking? Are you always buying basil? Do you like to use mint? The fun of planting herb gardens is to use them in cooking, so take some time to think about what herbs could be homegrown. “When I teach veggie classes, I reference Ina Garten’s potato salad. It calls for two types of potatoes, and four or five different herbs. If you go to the store and buy these ingredients, it could cost eight bucks apiece. To grow scallions, dill, basil, and parsley together yourself is a really cool thing to do,” says Hilgenberg. For French cooking enthusiasts, she recommends growing herbs de provence (marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and savory).
Lisa’s ultimate herb container: Sweet marjoram, thyme, sage, parsley, and chives.
Use high quality potting soil: Low fertility potting mix is preferable for herbs, says Hilgenberg. You won’t have to feed or fertilize these soils. “Just make sure to water regularly, and check that the soil drains completely between waterings,” she said.
Give some herbs room to breathe: Herbs don’t mind being planted in close quarters, says Hilgenberg. You can plant several in one container. An exception, however, is basil: “For healthy basil production, always put one plant per pot in 12-inch containers.”
Harvest herbs before they flower: “Right before plants look like they’re going to flower is when they’re fully matured and ready to harvest,” says Hilgenberg. “Use herb snips to harvest two leaf nodes down. If you harvest by the leaf you’ll get a leggy, tall plant.” Always remove flowers, especially on basil. This encourages new growth. “The rule of thumb is to harvest about three times per season,” she says.
If you’re wondering whether July is too late to plant an herb container, Hilgenberg says it’s perfectly fine. And with that, I’m off to the garden center to pick out my herbs. I can smell the sage tucked under the skin of a buttery roast chicken already. Yum.
Come learn more about herb gardening with how-to demonstrations and family activities at Herb Garden Weekend, July 28–29, from 11 a.m.– 4 p.m.