A Look at the Past, A Glimpse of the Future

Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some cleaning in my office.  It is a New Year’s resolution of sorts, but definitely needed.  I had mountains of papers that had not been looked through in quite some time.  Some of it was worth keeping, but most of it needed to be tossed. 

Through this purging, I was again reminded of how far the Arboretum has come.  Committee meeting notes, board meeting agendas, programming ideas, fundraising updates and past newsletters made for interesting reading about the Arboretum’s past and reminded me how it has continued to grow through the years.

The Vision

Harold and Evie Dyck wanted a place that reflected the Kansas landscape –  a prairie garden with gently rolling hills, walking trails, native plant displays for people to enjoy and stopping points along the way for quiet reflection.  The early mission statement: “The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains exists to foster an appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas” , focused the development of the grounds and educational programs.  Steady progress was made in the first few decades after the first tree was planted in 1981.

First Tree (Bur Oak) planted on October 10, 1981
Aerial view of the Arboretum and the walking path around the pond , early 1980s
Picture of the island , early 1980s
Bald cypress near the bird watch area, early 1980s
Kansas Wildflower Exhibit and Prairie Shelter, 1990s
Island Planting in summer, 1990s
Harold and Elva Mae Dyck, early 2000s

A Living Prairie Museum

“No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the ‘feel’ of nature itself.  The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a living prairie museum, affording each visitor a rare opportunity to experience this remarkable habitat firsthand, up-close and personal.”

“Within the space of these 13+ acres, you can traverse a prairie landscape…to see and learn about hundreds of different varieties of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses indigenous to this region.”  (Excerpt from an early Arboretum brochure.)


A New Mission for a Lasting Vision

“The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land”.  Today, this mission not only refocuses our work on the interconnectedness of people and the land, but also recognizes that the bond we share with plants, animals, water and soil are constantly forming and transforming.  Whether caring for our own garden patch or visiting the awe-inspiring tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, being in nature changes us.

FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, 2014
Insect sweeping activity, Samplemania 2012

I believe Harold and Evie would be amazed at how far the Arboretum has come since those humble beginnings.  With the Visitor Center, Prairie Pavilion, and the new Prairie Discovery Lab, the Arboretum is able to reach even more people interested in learning about Kansas’ prairie landscape.  We are so grateful for their dedication to that original vision for this garden. 

An increasing number of people now see the importance of protecting the prairie.  Like Harold and Evie, they seek to understand, have empathy for, and connect with this unique landscape on a very personal level.  Their vision seems to have come full circle.

Stately Natives

This past Monday, at the swearing in of the new Kansas governor, some native plants from Dyck Arboretum got their time in the limelight. Cuttings from our grounds of evergreens, red twig dogwood, big bluestem and more were featured in the inaugural stage decorations out front of the state house. These natives are perfect for floral arrangements, and are also great performers in the landscape.

Dried grasses, evergreens, mixed with vases of white tulips brought a formal feel to the event while still showcasing Kansas flora. Photo by Jerry Jost

Originally, the volunteers helping to plan the inauguration festivities were looking for potted evergreens, tiny pines and spruces, lined up neat and tidy. When they contacted the Arboretum for those plants, I disappointed them — we don’t have a huge stock of evergreens outside of our sale times. But I asked, “Why not something native? Why not something that reflects the beauty of Kansas in January?” Needless to say, they were right on board.

Kirsten of Blue Morning Glory Studio was the perfect florist to take on this challenge. She regularly designs with native, home-grown and wild sourced elements. She graciously invited me to partner in the process. I have done some small floristry projects in the past, a few weddings or special events, but nothing quite so grand as this! I was immediately energized by the opportunity to work with native material from the Arboretum grounds I know so well.

The Plan: Dyck Arboretum would provide native plant materials, Kirsten will provide vision, expertise, schematics, LOTS of white tulips, and I will deliver the plant material and assist with the build at the Capitol.


My car was completely packed with plant material. So full and fragrant with evergreens, in fact, we had to drive to Topeka with the windows down.

Blue Arizona cypress made up a huge part of the display, really tying into the blue of the inauguration stage and harkening to the blue dominating the Kansas state flag. The cuttings smell fresh and citrusy, making them fun to work with. Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) grows well here in Kansas, making a nice privacy hedge or evergreen shelter for birds. Native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, it can handle drought and extreme conditions.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

We used eastern red cedar, with its comparably greener hue, to balance the colors and make it look lush and “friendly”, as one of the state house volunteers described it. Our ‘Canaertii’ cedars in The Mother’s Garden are good at resisting the brown/yellow cast that cedars tend to take on over the winter. Deep green and well-berried, with an open branching habit, these cedars are much more attractive yard trees than regular cedars,
and come in handy at Christmas time for making wreaths and swags.

Florists always use some optical magic to make a focal point appear within an arrangement. This time we opted for the deep browns and blacks of rudbeckia triloba seed heads. This native is a mainstay on our grounds and in many landscape designs. Hardy, long lived and brilliantly yellow, it blooms early to mid summer and stays standing tall into winter. Harvest for your own dried arrangements or leave it outside for birds to nibble on.

Rudbeckia triloba seed heads from the Gjerstadt garden on Arboretum grounds.

As with any floral design, we needed some accent plants — just a little something to excite the eye. A few sprigs of red twig dogwood, a graceful arc of alder branch (complete with catkins!) were perfect additions. The alder trees on our grounds are not native and are in pretty rough shape from the harsh Kansas living, but they still produce adorable little cones that make excellent design elements or craft material.

Governor Laura Kelly with Kirsten Bosnak and I, plus our handy helpers Bob and Chris.

I am so happy to have been a part of this unique design process with Blue Morning Glory Studio, and to create displays that honor Kansas’ prairie heritage. If you are interested in creating your own floral displays with natives, the first step is to integrate them into your landscape and live with them through the seasons. Attend one of our upcoming Native Plant School classes, our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, or stroll the sidewalks at Dyck Arboretum to be inspired by the native flora and re-energize your relationship with the land.

Fungus Among Us

Working on the Arboretum grounds means I have the joy of interacting with native plants and animals every day. I get to watch newly-planted trees sprout their first leaves and newly hatched goslings sprout their first feathers. I see migratory birds on their way north and south, caterpillars turning into butterflies, spiders wrapping up their breakfast of grasshoppers, and the cozy tunnels made by fastidious skunks and armadillos. But by and large my favorite living thing to observe here at the Arboretum is fungus.

That’s right – that crusty yet slimy, multicolored, spore-producing stuff that grows quietly all around us.

If you want to acquaint yourself with the world of mushroom identification, buy yourself a small, simple guide to get started. I got this handy book for only $2 at the UW Madison Arboretum gift shop and have found it very useful for beginners.

Fungi is a much misunderstood life form (and no, I am not just talking about my coworkers Brad and Scott, fun guys though they are!). While people often come to visit Dyck Arboretum to watch birds or spot their favorite wildflowers, I have yet to hear anyone shout in delight, “Guys, look over here! A stinkhorn mushroom colony!” And such a shame – I have seen so many weird and wonderful fungus (and fungus-like) creatures at the Arb that I can’t help but be enthralled by them.


In our Prairie Window Project the dense mat of grasses and plant debris create a rich environment for fungus. These tiny mushrooms, only the size of dimes, were scattered throughout a ten-foot square area.

Plant or Animal?

Perhaps you noticed I used the word ‘creature’ for fungi in the above paragraph. Aren’t mushrooms just strange, fleshy plants? No. Technically speaking, a fungus is genetically more similar to you and me than it is to a plant. In scientific nomenclature, fungi occupy their own Kingdom (there are 6 major Kingdoms of life, for animals, plants, bacteria and so on). Fungi do not photosynthesize like plants, and cannot make their own food (autotrophy). Like us, they must feed on other organisms to survive (heterotrophy). Fungus do not have roots, stems or leaves, and do not store energy as a starch like plants do. They reproduce by releasing spores into the environment, or by simply breaking apart (fragmentation) or budding (growing a clone).

I spotted these beautiful shelf fungi growing on a fallen log at UW Madison Arboretum.

What am I Looking At?

The first step into nerding out over fungus is to classify your observations. It is a tricky job, and scientists today are still in a tizzy about the genetic ancestry of fungus. For the layperson, let’s stick to the basics: yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungus. Mushrooms are perhaps the most charismatic and well known fungi – shelf-like, gelatinous, or toadstool shaped, they spring up seemingly overnight. What we see as a ‘mushroom’ is only a small part of the organism, just the fungus’s reproductive organ. The rest of it exists as a massive web of string-like hyphae in the soil or decomposing wood.
There are several trees around the Arboretum in various states of natural decay sporting impressive shelf fungi. (Or perhaps they are spore-ting it?) But don’t be fooled – lichen, commonly found growing on trunks and tree branches, is NOT fungus. It is actually a combination-creature; algae, cyanobacteria, and fungus all sharing a body to create a new being, with an endless array of forms.

I see some flat grey lichen growing here, but I can’t tell if these charming little white growths on our Prunus virginiana are lichen or fungus – they cling like lichen but the sort of soft, furry characteristic of fungus. Perhaps a reader can help me out on this one!

Where to Look

People may assume Kansas is not a good place to find fungus – much too dry and hot. Not only do we have some delicious edible mushrooms growing wild in Kansas but a plethora of other fun-to-hunt (but potentially toxic!) fungus. In fact, they grow almost everywhere on the planet and have countless forms, colors, and methods of life. Scientists only know of 120,000 species, but estimate there are millions more waiting to be discovered.
To find your first fungus, search around decaying wood piles or heavily mulched garden beds. Check carefully and often around tree stumps; different mushrooms will feed on the rotting roots at different stages of the decay.

This red-belted bracket fungi (maybe Fomitopsis pinicola?) formed on the trunk of a long dead redbud tree near our parking lot. This beauty was almost 12 inches across!

On your next visit to Dyck Arboretum, be sure to get a peek at some magnificent fungi on our grounds. Hunting for fungus, in all its forms, is a meaningful way to interact with nature and build a relationship of wonder and respect for the land we live on.

An Outing for the Birds

When considering attracting wildlife to a landscape, native plants matter. More diversity of native plant species and greater area of that native vegetation coverage both translate to a higher diversity of wildlife species attracted. Add water into the habitat offerings and your wildlife species attracted will go up even more. We probably all learned these pretty simple ecological concepts in high school. I enjoyed seeing these concepts on display this last Saturday while participating in the annual ritual of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

CBC History

Frank M. Chapman

It was the 70th annual CBC for the Halstead-Newton area, and the 118th national CBC for the Audubon Society. The national Christmas Bird Count has a long history. The first CBC was initiated as a response to unfettered sport shooting of the mid to late 1800s. A Christmas Day bird hunting competition to see who could bring back the most birds was a common pastime. Following a concern for declining bird populations amidst a new conservation trend, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition. The “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them was born (see History of the Christmas Bird Count for more). The citizen science data collected by Christmas Bird Counts allow for the study of long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Halstead-Newton 70th Annual Count

Dr. Dwight Platt

Dwight Platt was a freshman at Bethel College when he helped start the Halstead-Newton CBC. He has organized/participated in nearly all of the 70 Halstead-Newton CBCs. This Wichita Eagle article tells more about the count history. The 16-mile diameter circle Newton-Halstead CBC sampling area stretches from Harvey Co. West Park to the eastern limits of Newton. Count organizer Lorna Harder gave us our CBC assignments. My group of six, led by master birder Gregg Friesen, observed the sunrise as we set out to our designated count area of western Harvey County.

I took the job of recorder and quickly realized that I would be kept busy. The remainder of our group included experienced birders Harv Hiebert, Fred Bartel, Greta Hiebert, and Kyle Miller Hesed, who rarely had to refer to a field guide. With five pairs of eyes scanning the skies, the bird sightings came rapidly. Good bird identification utilizes perception of visual silhouette shape, flight pattern, colors/marking patterns, habitat association, and the audible patterns of calls. Even subtle variations in little “chip” and “pish” sounds can help discern species differences. My group mates incorporated all of these identification skills in ways that were quick, accurate, and impressive.

Bird silhouettes – from https://www.teacuprex.com

We started by counting what we saw from the van along roadsides, in fields, and farmyards. When we came to an area that included more adjacent habitat than farm fields, we would park roadside and spend a bit more time watching and listening. We eventually walked the roads and trails of the 310-acre Harvey County West Park, which included both sides of the Little Arkansas River and a nature trail around the 10-acre lake. Nearby “Sand Prairie,” an 80-acre parcel of sand prairie, ephemeral wetlands, shrubby areas, and woodlands co-owned by Bethel College and The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, also provides valuable bird habitat. Click on this summary of the habitat of Harvey County if you would like to know about its birding hotspots.

Data collection sheet for Sections 3 and 4 of the 2018 Halstead-Newton CBC

The above data sheet is a compilation of the 48 species we observed throughout the day and generally where we saw them. Red-winged blackbirds were most common and seen and heard by the thousands as their flying blackbird ribbons passed overhead. We estimated seeing 25,000 blackbirds and our estimates were probably low. Some highlight birds for me included a pair of spotted towhees, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, and a marsh wren. The spotted towhee is a pretty bird I don’t see often. A pileated woodpecker is the largest of our woodpeckers that used to be rare in Kansas. With fire suppression allowing more growth of woodlands, pileated woodpeckers are becoming more common. Gregg turned to technology to confirm the recluse marsh wren for which we only had a brief glimpse that was not adequate for identification. A quick playing of the marsh wren song from his iPhone initiated a replica response from the bird hidden in the brush.

Spotted towhee – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Most of the birds we saw are habitat specific – they can be predictably spotted looking for food in their preferred habitats. Kingfishers and great blue herons are found around the river where they catch fish. Grassland sparrows are found in the prairies. Woodpeckers are found exploring dead limbs of trees. The spotted towhee hangs out in tangled thickets and the tufted titmouse frequents woodlands. Northern harriers or “marsh hawks” are seen flying over wetlands, and red-tailed hawks perch in the tops of trees looking for prey.

Pileated woodpecker – Photograph by David Turgeon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Changes in Habitat

Bird populations are affected by changes in the quality or acreage of their specific habitats. The area certainly has more trees, shrubs and woody vines today than it did 70 years ago. This change has shifted composition of bird species observed during the CBC. Management tools, including grazing, herbicide application, and prescribed burning, are needed to maintain grassland integrity in certain areas. But regardless of where you find yourself in the grassland to woodland spectrum, Kansas native vegetation still provides essential habitat of food and shelter for various bird species.

Greta Hiebert, Gregg Friesen, and Kyle Miller Hesed birding Sand Prairie

We finished the count day with listening ears for the calls of owls. Standing roadside while overlooking a marshy prairie, we watched the sunset and enjoyed a rare windless Kansas stillness. It was a perfect end to an enjoyable day of citizen science. Then, a far-off pair of great horned owls bid us a faint goodnight.

How to be a Good Steward? Start with One Thing

Over the past year, we have been digging deeper into “Why” the Arboretum exists.  There have been some lengthy conversations about events, classes, native plants, and relationships between people, plants and the land.  One of the questions we kept coming back to was “What can one person do?”  This idea that people change their perspective, build relationships, and/or develop empathy for the land one decision or choice at a time is an important concept for us to consider.  So with that in mind, what is one thing you can do today to make our environment more sustainable?

These are just a few things we can change that will have a positive impact.  There are hundreds more that are specific to your lives.  Start with one thing.

  • Ride your bike or walk to the store.
  • Convert a portion of your lawn to native plants.

  • Plant a vegetable garden each year.
  • Turn the lights off when you leave the room
  • Pay attention to how much water you use both in your home and in your yard.
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle.
  • Create a compost pile and use the compost in your garden.
  • Maintain your car and properly inflate your tires.
  • Use LED bulbs in your home.

  • Make sure your house has the appropriate amount of insulation.
  • Realize you can make a difference.

We all have choices to make when it comes to helping the planet, but I believe environmental stewardship starts at home.  If we choose to manage what we have in a way that saves us money and limits the negative impacts on the land, it is a win/win situation.  This is my epiphany – small incremental changes in my lifestyle will do something good for the environment.  I could always do more, but it starts to move the needle in a positive direction.

Maybe you are somewhat like me and find changing your behavior difficult, or you think stewardship is for someone else. That is not true.  Small changes in the things we do combined with thousands of others making positive choices can make a profound difference in the long run.  Don’t think of it as a compromise, but rather an investment in the future that allows future generations to live the same lives we now enjoy.

Start with one thing.






Mindfulness in the Garden

One of the greatest experiences I have while gardening is a heightened sense of awareness.  For some reason, I notice obscure things that are happening in my landscape. I observe how our garden has changed throughout year. I notice the wildlife that it attracts, the sights and sounds of the garden.  Each day there can be a new discovery.  Gardening is an adventure.  Some people spend time in the garden for what they get from it, like flowers or vegetables, but I garden for what it gives back to me personally.

I spend so much time indoors these days that I relish my time outdoors.  Whether in a garden or walking through a natural setting, the stress of the day seems to melt away.  The sunshine and breeze on my face tend to carry the anxiety, weight of responsibilities and depression far from my thoughts.  I become mindful in these situations – more so than any other place.

It goes without saying, but gardening is good for your health.   Here’s how I practice mindfulness in the garden.

Make it a priority

What gets scheduled gets done. In the hustle and bustle of life, time in the garden will get pushed aside by other good things if you don’t make it a habit.  Don’t neglect your garden, but walk through it in the morning or after work as part of a regular schedule.  Pull a few weeds, pick some flowers, water the vegetables or watch pollinators fly from plant to plant. Become aware of how your countenance changes. You will be amazed how it can rejuvenate and lift your spirit.

Photo by Brad Guhr

Observe

It is incredible to see the insect activity in my garden right now.  Those tiny pollinators are busily working the flowers as a last dash before cold weather sets in for the year.  The leaves are changing to beautiful shades. The musty smell of the compost pile wafts through the air. The wonderful smell after a rain is called petrichor.  Feel the textures of the plants and taste the harvest.  Awareness awakens the senses.

Use your phone for pictures only

Our phones can be a constant distraction. It is either buzzing, beeping or ringing all day long and we need to disconnect from it for mindfulness to happen.  Nothing can ruin a reflective moment quicker than to have your phone ring.  Put it up and disconnect for a few moments.  You will not be sorry for doing so.  The quietness of the garden is calming.

Get Busy Doing

Mindfulness can be achieved in two ways – stillness or in action.  In action, you focus on a task and make it happen.  Whether in the garden or around the house, the simple approach to everyday life can deepen your appreciation and awareness of the world around you.  Being mindful allows you to be fully in the task without distractions and other thoughts.  Fixating on the task at hand will make you more mindful and self-aware.

Planting our prairie

Develop empathy

One of the thoughts that came to us as we worked on our new mission statement was the idea that the more we know and understand, the more empathy we have.  The more we understand the plight of many of our pollinators, the more we want to do something about it.  We have lost 99 percent of the prairie, but I can plant some prairie in my yard and it will make a difference.  An appreciation of the few tracts of prairie that still exist makes me long for that lost landscape.  Stillness in the garden will bring you closer to your garden.  Understanding something develops awareness and ultimately brings empathy.

Mindfulness relates to the many health benefits of gardening.  It reduces stress, increases your self-esteem, boosts the immune system, provides exercise for the heart and decreases stroke risk, makes you happier reducing depression symptoms, and increases brain health. By taking a mindful approach to your landscape, you will grow in so many wonderful ways.  Try it for your health.






Butterfly Hunting 101

Fall is an excellent time of year to go searching for butterflies. The late season flowers like goldenrod, asters, and maximilian sunflowers are all important nectar sources, and are usually swarming with pollinators. If you want to get the most out of your butterfly watching expedition, consider these helpful hints.

Grey hairstreaks (Strymon melinus) are my favorite butterfly, even though they are very small and not overly showy. I caught a picture of this one as it fed on wild quinine flowers.

Look on the Sunny Side

Butterflies are most active on sunny, warm days, because they cannot regulate their own body temperature. This is why you don’t see them fluttering around in deep shade – their flight is dependent upon body temperature, which is dependent upon the sun. Daytime temperatures between 80-100 degrees fahrenheit are optimum. Anything colder and they will start to slow down or quit flying all together. To warm themselves back up to flying form, they ‘bask’ by spreading their wings and sitting very still on a rock or sidewalk to soak up heat from the sun. For a successful butterfly hunting mission, be sure to choose a warm day and look in areas of full sun.

Bordered patches are commonly found throughout the southwest US and Northern Mexico, but I have spotted quite a few in Kansas through early fall.

Keep an Eye on the Weather

Cold fronts and warm fronts can have a big impact on the kind of butterflies you will see. Earlier this week, a strong south wind stalled several hundred monarchs from continuing their journey to Mexico. Choosing not to waste precious energy and fight the wind, they hunkered down in protected areas of the Arboretum and waited it out. When monarchs gather together in groups and rest on tree branches, they are ‘roosting’. They do this at night as well, or to avoid flying in a storm. Additionally, strong winds can blow in butterflies that aren’t usually in our range or cause otherwise active butterflies to be still, giving you a good opportunity to view them in detail.

This video was taken last fall in our butterfly garden. Asters are a great pollinator attractant, as you can see by the monarchs, queens, painted ladies and bees all enjoying their lunch.

Get a Better View

A pair of good binoculars can greatly enhance your butterfly watching experience and allows you to see details that the naked eye might miss. Short range binoculars, meant for backyard birding perhaps, give you a much more detailed view of nearby butterflies without getting too close and startling them. This can be especially useful when you are butterfly watching with children. Often excitable and loud on these kinds of outings, children can be taught how to use binoculars to keep them at a distance and prevent them from scaring away all your winged friends!

This viceroy butterfly is a monarch look-a-like, but is smaller and has a horizontal line on its hindwings that help us tell them apart.

Dyck Arboretum is a great place to come for a butterfly watching experience, and we often have many species feeding at once in our butterfly garden area. But it’s easy to attract these beauties to your own home by planting native and adaptable plants that provide food and shelter. We still have a few plants for sale in and around our greenhouse. I’d would love to help you create a butterfly oasis of your own! Call the office today and ask about our remaining inventory and special sale items – coneflowers, a butterfly favorite, are 25% off through October 5th.






Caterpillar Mania – Part II

Part II of my blog series about caterpillars will cover their bodies and behaviors, and the habitats you can build for them at home.

Anatomy

Once you look closely, you can easily see that caterpillars are more than just a pudgy worm. They often have visible faces, charismatic coloration and interesting behaviors. Caterpillars are actually six legged creatures (because, of course, they are insects!), though it looks like they have many more. The six real legs are located at the front of the body near the head. All other legs are considered ‘prolegs’; appendages for gripping, and moving, but not true jointed legs.

Some caterpillars seem to have horns or antennas visible on their heads, but you are actually seeing tentacles. Most caterpillar antennae are very small and inconspicuous, located near the mouth, while tentacles are large, fleshy and can occur in several places along the top of the body. Tentacles on the head help them sense the world around them while tubercules (fleshy knobs along the body) are usually for intimidating predators.

You may have questioned at one time or another how caterpillars ‘breathe’, or if they do at all! In fact, insects breathe through holes in their bodies called  ‘spiracles’. These tiny openings (found along the sides of most caterpillars) bring air into the trachea of the insects and usually deliver oxygen directly to the body tissues.

A white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) caterpillar blending in with a rusty brown redbud stem. As long as my finger at least, this is one huge caterpillar!

Dude with a ‘Tude

When you are such a delicious and nutritious snack for birds, it pays to defend yourself and stay hidden! In the last post I discussed defense mechanisms such as special coloration, camouflage or toxic setae (hairs). But sometimes their defenses have much more attitude! For instance, swallowtail caterpillars are famous for their charismatic show of osmetrium, a forked organ that shoots out suddenly to startle predators. When threatened, the caterpillar quickly extends the osmetrium to scare the offending spider, bird, or ant. A great video of this reaction is found here. The organ resembles a snake tongue or tiny horns and can secrete unpleasant odors to further repel a would-be predator.

Monarch caterpillar on a swamp milkweed leaf outside the Arboretum greenhouse.

Flinging Frass

Caterpillars with osmetrium purposely produce unpleasant odors to scare predators, while other butterfly larvae take drastic measures not to produce an odor. Silver-spotted skipper caterpillars are famous for their ability to fling their frass (the fancy word for caterpillar poop) incredible distances. Scientists believe this helps keep predators such as wasps from detecting where the caterpillar is living. To be sure no predator finds their cozy home, a tiny skipper caterpillar can shoot their turds up to 5 feet away! That’s about 30 times their body length. They accomplish this feat through a controlled burst of high blood pressure.

You have to see it to believe it — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW5j7eY15Yw

Silk

Caterpillars have amazing organs called ‘spinnerets’ that produce silk. We know that silkworms are bred especially for their prolific silk production, but many of the caterpillars in your very own backyards also make silk. Some caterpillars use silk to escape predators by attaching it to a leaf and ‘bungee jumping’ to safety. They also use it to make mats or trails around the plant they live on to make travel easier. Some caterpillars will make elaborate tents or ‘bags’ out of silk, with hundreds of their kin inside with them. And when it comes time to mature into a butterfly, a silk ‘button’ helps the chrysalis hang from a leaf or twig. Moths make their entire cocoon out of silk, surrounding themselves in a soft yet protective barrier.

The fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) is a well known but harmless pest. Characterized by a large sticky silk nest and a voracious appetite, they rarely cause lasting damage to otherwise healthy trees. By Alison Hunter [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

Habitat

Regular visits to the Arboretum will provide ample bug-watching opportunities, and our staff are eager to chat with you. But the best way to learn about insects is to see them in person. Plant a native garden of your own where insects can thrive! Lots of wonderful resources exist about butterfly gardening, but remember: it isn’t a butterfly garden unless it includes host plants. They need host plants (the specific plants the larvae feed on) and native nectar to sustain their entire life cycle. Otherwise, as Lenora Larson might say, you are just “bartending”, serving only “adult beverages” to the butterflies but not supporting the larvae.  If you need some inspiration to create your own native garden paradise for butterflies and moths, talk with one of our staff members at the upcoming FloraKansas Native Plant Festival!






Caterpillar Mania – Part I

This time of year is great for caterpillar hunting. I have been finding lots of amazing, colorful critters munching away on the foliage here at Dyck Arboretum. I am always eager to get a picture of them, if I can, so that I can properly identify them later using guides and help from the internet. In doing so, I become engrossed in their beautiful and strange anatomies – spots, stripes, horns, hairs and amazingly grippy legs. There is much to know and discover!

I get close up photos of insects on my phone using a clip on macro lens. By doing so I can see the tiny details on this white-lined sphinx moth caterpillar (Hyles lineata), like the yellow tips on his legs and the white spots on his head.

Caterpillars vs Worms

When a child sees a caterpillar, they might be tempted to point and say “Oooh, worm!”. But we must remember that caterpillars are not worms, they are larvae. Larvae is the immature form of an insect. A true worm, such as an earthworm, isn’t an immature form of anything. There are several other easy to notice differences:

  • Worms do not move on legs – Caterpillars do
  • Worms are not insects, and do not metamorphose into insects – Caterpillars change into an adult butterfly or moth
  • Worms can be microscopic or gigantic, up to 180 ft long!  – Caterpillars are visible, but not larger than 12cm

Also, caterpillars often sport wacky colors and patterns while most of the world’s worms are much more inconspicuous. Earthworms and some marine worms, roundworms, and tapeworms are usually sporting brown or tan skin. However, many types of ocean dwelling flatworms are incredibly colorful, though you won’t likely confuse these guys for caterpillars.

An adult black swallowtail caterpillar feeding on Zizia in our greenhouse. These swallowtails can only feed on plants in the Parsley/Carrot family.

This black swallowtail caterpillar is in one of its early ‘instars’ or phases of development. It will shed its skin as it gets bigger, and coloration changes during this process as well. In the top left, you can see a black swallowtail caterpillar farther along in its development.

Hairy and Scary

Caterpillars are genius defense players. They are so packed full of protein and delicious to predators, they have had to evolve many ways to protect themselves. Some caterpillars, like the monarch butterfly, make themselves taste bad by eating milkweed leaves with toxins in them. Others try to look intimidating with aposematic coloration – body patterns and colors that warn predators to stay back! And some, like the spicebush swallowtail, even grow fake eye spots on their bodies to fool their hunters into thinking they are snakes. My personal favorites are the hairy ones. Caterpillars will sometimes grow hairs to make them hard or unpleasant to swallow. What bird wants a mouth full of hair anyways? Sometimes these hairs are designed to fall off and lodge in the skin/mucus membrane of whatever is disturbing it, causing an itchy rash in some people.

 

This is a cycnia moth caterpillar feeding on Asclepias sullivantii in our plant nursery. This little guy needs milkweed just as much as the monarchs, but doesn’t get the same press for some reason. I made sure not to touch him because of all those potentially itch-inducing hairs!

In part II of this topic, I will talk a little bit about the specific parts of their body, special caterpillar diets, silk making abilities, and how you can design your very own caterpillar-attracting butterfly garden. Until then, keep a lookout for these special critters and do a little discovering of your own!






Cicada Killers

“Hunting, warring, patrolling, tunneling, they do more in two months–the length of their adult lives–than periodical cicadas do in 17 years.” ~Tim Heffernan, The Atlantic

The insect world never ceases to amaze me. I had a new experience with insects in my yard a few evenings ago. A cicada making a ruckus landed on the ground right next to me in my garden. I quickly realized that it was in a tussle with a large wasp. I had heard about cicada killers before, and it didn’t take long to deduce that I was seeing my first one take down its prey. The cicada struggle didn’t last long as the sting and subsequent paralysis happened in seconds. The cicada killer shortly flew and when checking back later, I noticed that the cicada was gone too.

A cicada killer taking down a cicada.

A friend recently posted a great article about cicada killers. Do yourself a favor and read Tim Heffernan’s 2013 brief article on cicada killers in The Atlantic. This article explains the cicada killer’s interesting adult 2-month life, soil-burrowing nest habits, process for taking down cicadas, hatching of their larvae in a cicada’s live but paralyzed state, and the flies that can also parasitize the cicada killers themselves.

Harmless to People

“With bodies up to two inches in length, huge jaws, and glossy black paint jobs streaked with yellow, they are unmistakable, and more than a little intimidating.” ~Tim Heffernan, The Atlantic

Cicada killers are fascinating insects, and you should add them to the list of insects around you that make you say “oooooh”, rather than “ewwwwww!” They may look ominous, but they really are harmless to people.

In addition to taking in the fascinating information in Tim Heffernan’s article, I want you to take away that this insect holds minimal danger for people. Their large size relative to other wasps is due to the fact that they need to wrestle a large cicada to their nest. The warning coloration is probably some form of mimicry that they have evolved to look fearsome like their yellow jacket and hornet relatives. My hope would be that folks could minimize the knee-jerk reaction of reaching for the can of wasp killer whenever they see any wasp, but especially a non-threatening cicada killer. Don’t fall into the societal stigma that causes many people to recoil when they see an insect, and especially a wasp.

The Hymenoptera Order of insects (wasps, bees, and ants) has long been maligned in our society. A quick search for “movies about killer insects” shows that we love to be terrified of insects.

I’d like to encourage a respectful and non-aggressive approach to all insects in general. So, to finish on a calming note, I’ll leave you with an image of a cuddly monarch butterfly caterpillar that I took right outside the Arboretum Visitor Center door this week munching away on common milkweed.

But be careful, it is filled with poisonous cardiac glycosides and if you were only 2 inches tall and you ate it, it could kill you. Aaaaaggghhh!

A deadly monarch caterpillar.