A Grand Old Burr Oak

I spent time this fall with a grand old burr oak near Hesston along the Middle Emma Creek in McPherson County that caught my eye a few years ago. I introduce to you the Stucky Oak.

Burr oak at the Stucky Place

A Relic of Belonging

This tree is a stately burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) estimated conservatively to be at least 200 years old. I find fascinating the remnants of vegetation around us that predate European settlement. Large open-grown burr oaks, like untilled prairies, are vestiges of a time shaped by climate and thousands of years of evolution.

For approximately 10,000 years since the last ice age, a warmer climate and the rain shadow effect of the Rocky Mountains have shaped the vegetation here. Plant communities existing at the location of Kansas have consisted mainly of grasslands tolerant of frequent fires initiated by lightning and Indigenous people and grazing by bison. Trees had a hard time getting established here when they were being eaten or burned to the ground every few years. Thus, prairies dominate the state of Kansas.

Oak Savannas of Eastern Kansas

As distance from the Rocky Mountains to the east increases along with average rainfall, trees more easily establish. An ecotone identified as oak savanna (prairie with scattered open-grown oaks) marks the transition from prairies of the Great Plains to the forests of the eastern states. Burr oak was the most dominant tree in this Great Plains ecotone for reasons described below. For more information about oak savannas, click HERE.

Oak savanna historical range (Credit: Guy R. McPherson, 1997)

Burr oaks in the eastern portion of the Great Plains were more likely to be found along stream corridors and especially on the east and north side of streams. Here, trees could survive better in the moister, more humid micro-climates and had some protection from prairie fires typically pushed in a east and north direction by the prevailing southwesterly winds. Fires that reached these locations were less frequent and of lower intensity as they typically would be backing against the wind. The Stucky oak along with a number of other old burr oaks dot the Stucky property located in one of these refuge areas just above the east bank of the Middle Emma Creek.

Burr oak range – USDA map
This burr oak in the foreground (let’s call it the “Sibling Oak”) is much younger than the Stucky Oak (seen in background) but still very stately. It too could be a relic of the oak savanna ecosystem present here during pre-European settlement times.

Unique Adaptations

Open-grown burr oaks growing on the prairie certainly have a different growth pattern than trees growing in a forest. Forest-grown trees have to reach vertically as they compete with other trees for sunlight. Trees growing on the prairie don’t have to compete for light and thus more efficiently orient their branches horizontally as well as vertically to maximize photosynthesis.

Old open-grown burr oaks are typically wider than they are tall (The Stucky Oak – Photo by Lamar Roth)

A tree with a relatively more shallow and broad canopy, will allow more light to filter through its branches to the understory below. This unusual, mottled light micro-climate under burr oaks harbors unique assemblages of plants not specifically found in either prairies or forests. For more on the makeup of these rare plant communities, click HERE.

Mottled sunlight penetrating through broad-reaching branches of the Stucky Oak

Fallen burr oak leaves are large, thick, rigid, curled, and irregularly shaped which keeps them aloft, and dry in the litter layer. In the spring, this persistent fuel easily burns and carries fire. Fires under burr oaks are hot enough to kill competing tree species that might invade its space, but not as hot as a grassland fire carrying more intense heat that could kill the burr oak.

Burr oak leaf and acorn litter at Dyck Arboretum

The thick, corky bark of a burr oak helps protect the cambium layer from the intense heat that could kill the tree. This trait develops on the trunk and branches of burr oak after about 10 years of growth and helps the tree survive repeated burning. For more on the biological and ecological traits of burr oaks and oak savannas, click HERE.

Thick, corky bark protects a burr oak from lower-intensity fires

Not Quite a State Champion

In 2019, I heard a presentation at the Kansas Native Plant Society Annual Meeting about the Champion Trees of Kansas Program. I’ve been curious how the Stucky Oak would stack up against the biggest trees in Kansas and recently got permission to take some measurements. Trees in the Program have a calculated point total based on the following formula: POINTS = trunk circumference in inches + height in feet + crown spread/4 in feet.

As you can see from the following table, the Stucky Oak fell short of the champion in St. George (near Manhattan) in total points. However, with a similar trunk circumference (diameter comparison is 5.6′ vs 6.5′) and larger canopy spread, the Stucky oak is only hurt in this scoring by its shorter stature. Take into consideration that a tree east of Manhattan has benefitted from more rainfall over its life and grown faster than the Stucky Oak. When doing so, it is not inconceivable to think that the Stucky Oak may indeed be an older tree.

A Sense of Place

For most houses we know, the choices of vegetation for landscaping are chosen by the people tending the home. The Stucky house location, I am guessing, was chosen because of the vegetation that already existed.

Matt Stucky and his tree

Matt Stucky is the third generation in his family that has lived in this house that has enjoyed this location and made memories here. He’s a farmer and land steward and when talking with him, you immediately sense the affinity he has for this tree. You can tell that he enjoys the thought that his kids swing under the shade of this oak and throw acorns at each other the way he did as a kid and the way his dad probably did too.

The farm name shows pride in a sense of place

Matt fondly told me the story of an elderly couple from Oklahoma that stopped by some years ago to say they got married in their 20s under the giant oak in his yard. They were descendants of the original Classen Mennonite family that settled in the area in 1874. The couple showed Matt an old photo of the occasion. The tree in the photo looked basically the same as it does now. The couple returned many summers thereafter to sit in the shade of the oak for an afternoon.

History Transcending to the Future

The thought of natural phenomena that transcend generations of people and time move me. Whether it is seeing the same constellations in the skies above known to earth’s life forms since the beginning of time, stewarding prairies that have provided sustenance to residents of the Great Plains for thousands of years before me, or paying homage to an old tree known by families of Indigenous as well as European cultures, I find such things to be very powerful.

Burr oak through the seasons (Partners in Place, LLC)

Equally as powerful for me is our responsibility to carry these stories forward. I challenge you to make a connection to stories related to the nightly traverse of Orion across the winter night sky, how a bison kill for the Quivira Indians of Kansas was like a visit to the grocery and hardware stores today, and how an oak can enhance the biodiversity of your home landscape. Embrace these connections and pass them along to the next generation.

Acorns collected from the Stucky Oak

With this spirit in mind, my friend, Lorna Harder, and I collected acorns from the Stucky Oak and hope to raise burr oak progeny. We would like to share these young trees with teachers who participate in our Earth Partnership for Schools Program and members who attend our plant sales.

The quote from Caecilius Statius, 220-168 B.C. goes “We plant trees not for ourselves, but for the future generations.” I think you know now what species I would choose.

“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.”

― Carl Sagan

In Gratitude for the Prairie

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

from Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains staff and board of trustees send warm wishes this Thanksgiving holiday. The following is a list of things we are grateful for this year.

1. The opportunity to help others. That simple truth powers all of us when things get tough.

2. Volunteers who give their time. People don’t HAVE to volunteer. People who donate their time regularly don’t get the recognition they deserve. Thanks to all who serve the Arboretum.

3. The chance to be creative. Working at the Arboretum isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have to figure out how to do a lot with a little, and find new options for getting the job done.

4. Unexpected kindness. You never know when someone will do something that takes your breath away or motivates you to keep working for our mission.

5. Generosity. There are always people who amaze me with their generosity. Each gift is not taken lightly and is always appreciated. It is an investment in the mission of the Arboretum.

6. Miracles. Sometimes, you get to see something astounding happen. Like that lightbulb moment with a child closely looking at a flower. To watch them discover beauty is a total miracle and amazing to witness first-hand.

7. Dedicated staff. And last but certainly not least, I am blessed to work with a team who love the Arboretum. During this pandemic, I have been encouraged by their can do attitude. They are always looking at the things we can do rather than the things we can’t do. Janelle, Brad, and Katie strive daily to champion the mission of the Arboretum and provide you with excellent programs and events.  I wish you could see their diligence, hard work and passion as they work behind the scenes.  I am blessed to serve with them.  Thanks so much Janelle, Brad, and Katie!
 

Enjoy this reflection as you celebrate Thanksgiving in your own unique way in 2020.

In my life, I am given spectacular skies and meadows that teach me to appreciate nature, challenges and obstacles that teach me creative problem solving, failures that help me build strength, accomplishments to teach me the value in perseverance, relationships that teach me about friendships and love, acts of kindness that inspire me to see and be the good in my world.

I am grateful for all of these gifts life has given me.

Lisa Desatnik

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land.

Columnar Coneflower in the Flint Hills

Predator Profile: Praying Mantis

The Carolina mantid (Courtesy of Hebard and the Illinois Natural History Survey) from An Introduction to the Study of Insects

The praying mantis is a medieval-looking predator of the garden that could just as well be a source of a horror film. Females are known to bite the head of their male partner during copulation to prevent his premature flight and then proceed to eat him after his job is done. If newly-hatched nymphs don’t find enough insects to eat shortly after leaving the nest, they start cannibalizing their own siblings. After watching my grasshopper-eating video at the end of this post, even some meat-eaters may swear off KFC for a very, long, time.

Carolina mantid cleaning its legs (video by Henry Friesen Guhr)

Identification

Praying mantises or mantids have compound eyes in freely moving heads on a pronounced neck and are the only insect that can “look over their shoulder.” Their front legs are muscular viselike appendages with spines held in front of them. They lie in wait, ambush their prey, and then hold and eat them alive.

Chinese mantid with a grasshopper

Kansas has five different species of mantids. There are three native species and two introduced. Of our native species, two are small, uncommon, typically found in prairies, and described in Insects in Kansas (Salsbury and White) as follows:

Descriptions of our two Kansas prairie mantids

For the remaining more common three species in Kansas (Carolina mantis, Chinese mantis, and European mantis), the following is a description of each provided courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation (mantids) with bugguide.net links to photos of each individual species:

  • Carolina mantis (Stagomantis carolina). Native.
    • Pale green to tan or mottled gray
    • Adult length 2–2¼ inches
    • The combined length of the head and thorax is about as long as the abdomen.
    • The middle pair of legs are about twice as long as the antennae.
    • Females are essentially flightless, as their wings are relatively small — when folded, they do not extend as far as the abdomen tip; usually only about three-fourths of the way down the body.
    • Males may have the wings extend beyond the abdomen tip and may fly to lights at night.
    • There is a black patch on the outer pair of wings.
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes: in this and other Stagomantis species, it is long and narrow (in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes).
    • Egg cases are somewhat flattened, elongated, teardrop-shaped structures.
  • Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Nonnative. Very commonly encountered.
    • Tan to pale green; tan individuals often show a stripe of pale green on the side (it’s the borders of the green front wings)
    • Adult length 2¼–4 inches or more
    • Examine the facial shield (the part of the face in front of the antennae and between the eyes): in the Chinese mantis, it is fairly square and has vertical stripes (in our native Carolina mantis, it is long and narrow and lacks stripes).
    • Flies well, often attracted to lights at night.
    • Egg cases resemble tan toasted marshmallows. They are fairly round, about as long as wide, Ping-Pong-ball size; usually attached to twigs of bushes and small trees.
    • Native to east Asia. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1896. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. Among the many insects it consumes are our smaller native mantids, and it may be playing a role, in some regions, in the declining populations of the Carolina mantis. Because the Chinese mantis has been widespread in our country for so long, it is difficult to determine what its ecological impact has been on native ecosystems. Because of the females’ large size, they have occasionally been recorded eating small vertebrates, including small reptiles and amphibians and even hummingbirds, but these seem to be relatively rare occurrences that do not have a significant impact on populations of those species.
  • European mantis or praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). Nonnative; probably the least encountered of these three.
    • Yellowish green, cream-colored, or tan.
    • Adult length 2–3 inches
    • Diagnostic feature is a round black dot on the underside of the basal joint (coxa) of the forelegs. Sometimes this black dot has a white center. This spot can be hard to see when their “arms” are held together.
    • Egg cases are rather egg-shaped, distinctly layered structures.
    • Native to Europe. Introduced to North America accidentally in 1899. Later, imported on purpose in hopes of combatting insect pests. People may still introduce them occasionally.

For a visual comparison of the ootheca for these three species, HERE is an article with photos.

Reproduction

Once the female has been fertilized and consumes the male as a “last supper” of sorts, she develops and deposits her eggs to complete the life cycle before dying herself.

Mating Carolina mantids – completion of a life cycle before the carnage

The female mixes the eggs with a frothy, protein-based material called spumaline and extrudes them onto a stem or building. This mass hardens to form a strong Styrofoam-like casing or ootheca that helps keep up to 200 eggs from drying out over the winter.

Chinese mantis “toasted marshmallow” egg casing on a goldenrod stem

The nymphs that emerge from the ootheca in spring do not have different-looking larval stages like many other insects. They resemble adult forms throughout their entire juvenile development.

Mantid nymph (dime-sized) found during an insect sweeping activity

Biological Control

It would seem just as appropriate to name this creature the “preying” mantis. I have seen many instances of mantids munching on moths, butterflies, bees and more and recently captured video of a Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper (see end of blog).

Mantids are touted as biological control agents to get rid of pest insects in gardens and greenhouses. However, the effectiveness of this approach is questionable. While they efficiently prey on insects, a small release of mantids cannot possibly control all the insects that humans consider to be crop pests. Complicating their effectiveness, mantids also indiscriminately consume insects that we consider to be beneficial pollinators as well. And since nonnative mantid species are those most commonly distributed for biological control, some rightfully worry about the impact their continued introductions may have on smaller native mantid populations.

However you find and observe mantids in gardens and natural areas around you, observe and enjoy the habits of these fascinating creatures.

Chinese mantis eating a grasshopper at Dyck Arboretum

Don’t Bug My Plants

I get a lot of calls and emails that start with “something is eating my plants!” Either frustrated or panicked, most view this development as a bad thing. To their surprise, I usually say “Congratulations!”. A bug can be a great thing.

The fact is, plants are meant to be eaten. Plants provide food for the rest of the living world, especially for the world’s insects. It is normal for the native animals of our area to nibble, chew, and sometimes completely defoliate plants. Humans forget this, much to the detriment of the biodiversity in our neighborhoods. Bugs are essential to life on earth, so we should be excited about feeding them!

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

Don’t Judge a Bug By Its Diet

I like to say Congratulations, not to be flippant, but to help people reframe the situation. I explain that it is very possible they are hosting a native butterfly, moth or beetle larvae. Holes in your Hibiscus can be a good thing! By investigating what exactly is lunching on your leaves, you begin to engage deeper with your garden and with the ecosystem at large. Look carefully before you spray a pesticide; you may find an interesting little friend. You may even be able to precisely identify the bug based on what plant it is eating.

Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eat milkweed seeds. They cause no harm to the plant, and are actually a good friend of the gardener looking to keep their milkweed population under control.

A Funky (plant) Baseline

Plants are at the base of the food chain. They convert the most primitive form of energy – sunlight – into tangible, edible growth. This conversion of sunlight to green leaves allows everything in the food chain to function — bugs, rabbits, and deer eat the leaves, songbirds eat the bugs, snakes eat the bird eggs, coyotes or hawks eat the snake, and so on.

Plants are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, and native plants are especially important. According to a 2018 study, “in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plant biomass, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.”

Insects in our area have evolved to feed on and coexist with our native plants, and these insects feed everything above them in the food chain. If you find a bug eating your favorite plant, consider how important that little fella might be in terms of feeding the other animals in our ecosystem.

Sulphur caterpillars are voracious, defoliating their host plant in a matter of days.
But it always recovers nicely ones they pupate and move on.

Doom and Gloom for Your Blooms?

The main concern is: will my plant recover? And, most of the time, the answer is yes. Remember, plants are meant to be eaten. They have evolved all sorts of clever ways to survive, and many can survive being eaten completely to the ground. Our Senna and partridge pea plants at the Arboretum become completely defoliated by Sulphur butterfly caterpillars every year. And yet, often they have enough energy to bloom and set seed by the end of the season. Checkerspot larvae absolutely shred the leaves of our coneflowers, but up they come next year, blooming happily.

Variegated Fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) munched my violets this spring, but never ate enough at once to hurt the plant. Watching them grow and pupate was worth the holey leaves!

Whatever you find eating your garden plants, remember to do your homework before taking action. Leave the pesticide on the shelf, and do some investigation instead! If you have aphids or spider mites in an infestation large enough to damage your plant, consider Safer Soap for a gentle approach. If you find a caterpillar, inch worm, or other larvae, it is likely not a cause for major concern or treatment.

Monarch Fallout and A Predator Story

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.

Getting ready for fall’s crescendo

As the growing season winds down, there is still plenty happening in the garden. I like to think of this time as fall’s crescendo, bringing the prairie’s annual symphony to a high point before falling into dormancy. The asters are beginning to show a few blooms while the goldenrods and sunflowers are adding a bit of sunshine to the landscape and roadsides. 

Fall is a great time to glory in the many textures and forms of our native grasses too.  Every phase of the garden is beautiful, but I have come to appreciate autumn the most. 

Asters and Little Bluestem in the fall

Life is a cycle

Each fall, the garden reminds us that we have come full circle. From winter’s dormancy to lush spring growth through summer’s blazing hot days to fall’s crescendo of color and texture, the prairie has put on another spectacular display.  Now as flowers fade, the grasses will show their true colors and everything slowly becomes lifeless and brown.  These forms, textures and seedheads standout in the landscape, extending the interest in the garden into the winter once again. 

Embrace brown

So much is happening in the garden right now.  Plants are storing energy in their roots for next year.  The browns and yellows of the foliage mean this process is complete.  Actively growing plants are only alive at or below the soil line.  This transformation can be stark, but I think it can be quite attractive. 

Just because the plant has gone dormant, doesn’t mean you need to remove it.  I challenge you to leave it up through the winter.  A prairie garden in the fall and winter with all its forms, textures and muted colors has a unique beauty that should be savored.  Let it be.  Don’t be too quick to send it to the compost pile.  

Autumn splendor of Little Bluestem

Shelter

Dormancy is important for the plants, but so many other things benefit from these plants this time of year.  Insects of all types overwinter in garden litter and tufts of grasses. Inside plant stems and at the base of grasses, insects and butterflies at different life stages are safely harbored for the winter. This is why it is so important to leave these dormant plants through the winter.  In the spring, we cut these plants down but leave the stems as mulch.  These dormant insects will wake from their winter slumber to pollinate for you next year.    

Food

Songbirds that overwinter will find flower heads such as coneflowers and sunflowers welcome food sources.  As the winter deepens, food becomes much more scarce.  These nutritious seeds are just what these birds need to get them through the coldest months.  Again, you can cut them back in February or March as you prepare for spring.  Remember to leave as much as you can on the ground as natural mulch.  Don’t carry all those beneficial insects away from the garden. 

Coneflower Seedheads

Fall’s Crescendo into Dormancy

Fall is a reminder that natural processes are at work.  Simply understanding how important this process of dormancy is to the prairie and to wildlife should guide how you manage it.  Take note how the stark contrast of the native grasses in texture, form, and hues of color against spent wildflowers gives the prairie landscape a unique beauty all its own.  Whether you are taking advantage of the cooler temperatures to work on an outdoor project or just enjoying the plants and wildlife, it’s a great time to be on the prairie. I love this time of the year. 

Switchgrass capturing snow

  

What is a Living Landscape?

What brings life to a landscape? Some say it’s the plants – after all they are alive. But what about the wildlife they attract?  In my opinion, it is a combination of the two that make the landscape vibrant and sustainable.  The plants need the wildlife and the wildlife need the plants. And we, the caretakers, benefit from this relationship. Landscaping with these factors in mind will help protect and conserve what is essential and irreplaceable -both the native prairie plant life and the diverse wildlife that needs the plants to survive. 

A robin looks for food in a native plant bed.

New Paradigm     

Gardening can be so much more than beautiful plants grouped together in neat arrangements that look good to you.   There is a new emphasis on landscapes that function similar to the vast prairies of old with diverse collections of grasses and wildflowers. This is a shift from the traditional cultural norms that have guided our landscape designs for decades. By thinking critically about the environmental relationships of plants and wildlife, such as pollinators, the traditional landscape is transformed into a design that is functional and sustainable. This “land ethic” of developing an inclusive habitat affirms our role as stewards of the land.

Goals for Your Landscape

This measured approach to landscaping is more goal oriented.  We now want the landscape we live in to be diverse, beautiful, functional, essential to wildlife, layered, compatible with our home, compatible to pollinators, practical, and so much more. These goals are possible to achieve with some basic knowledge and a willingness to continue to learn.

Nature as Your Inspiration  

Fortunately, biological landscapes or living landscapes are becoming the norm. We can have our cake and eat it too.  A garden rich in biological diversity working with the environment and not against it is possible.  Nature should be your inspiration. Simply use productive native species that grew in your area in pre-farming days to create landscapes of ecological richness that are a reflection of the new balance between humans and nature. We need to create new prairie habitats, because it is part of our personal and regional past; we need a variety of plants and animals because they are part of our continuity and hope for the future.

For more information about living landscapes, attend one of our Native Plant School classes this fall. 

The fall Native Plant Festival is also a good opportunity to learn more about native plants and what to include in your gardens. 

Narrowleaf Coneflowers blooming in the Flint Hills

  

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

The Mystery of the Orange Bug

As a lover of nature and all its small, crawly things, I often drop everything to observe and identify even the smallest bug. Much to the annoyance of my coworkers and volunteers, I just can’t give it up!

Learning to correctly identify the creatures around me brings a lot of fun and joy, but also:

  • Increases my scientific understanding of the world
  • Adds to my taxonomic and ecological knowledge
  • Builds empathy and compassion for the lives of smaller beings
  • Gives me a greater sense of place and familiarity in my Kansas homeland
This is the face of our little mystery. There were over ten of these orange bugs on a single plant!

Identifying the creatures around you is not always intuitive. Recently I found some small, orange, wiggly friends in the landscaping at my house. And so begins the mystery! Here are the steps and resources I always use to identify new-to-me bugs. Hopefully they can be useful to you as well!

Step One: Photograph

Make sure to quickly capture some detailed images of your friend. Life for a bug is fast paced — they are moving, flying, fleeing, eating or being eaten! You will need to have a good photo to refer to, as your search for answers may last longer than your memory.

I like to snap a quick photo with my iphone, but for tiny details I add a clip on macrolens. This one was very inexpensive and does a great job.

Insect or other?

Start by discerning whether you are a looking at an insect or something else. The word ‘bug’ is used to generalize all small, crawly things, but there are important distinctions. Spiders, for example, are not insects. Roly-polys are not insects. Earth worms are not insects. Counting legs and body segments of your specimen can help you determine if it is an insect; true insects will have 6 legs and 3 distinct body segments.

This diagram shows the 3 main body parts of an insect, and the characteristic 3 pairs of legs. Diagram from Wiki Commons

If you are a beginner and don’t know much terminology, use the easy picture-based and shape-based search tool BugFinder. My mystery friend could not be found on this form. They had 6 well-defined legs but no obvious body segments. I thought perhaps I was looking at a caterpillar (still an insect!), so I visited DiscoverLife and answered their beginner-friendly caterpillar search form. In the past it has been tremendously helpful, but not this time.

Step Two: Where is it?

Where is this individual living? If you can identify its preferred habitat, you have a huge clue to discovering its identity. My mystery bug was living and feeding on Scutellaria resinosa, (also known as skullcap), but nothing else around it. Many insects have a host plant (a specific food plant that the babies must eat) or host plant family. By knowing the plant, I can work backwards and find out what insects are likely to feed on or interact with it. Sometimes these interactions are called faunal associations.

When searching the web to identify a new insect, remember to include the plant it was found on and the region of the world you are in. This will narrow your search. I love to use the maps at butterfliesandmoths.org to see what species have been spotted in my area.

The blooms of Smoky Hills skullcap. Photo by Craig Freeman

Step Three: Ask and Post

If you have scoured the internet and all your favorite insect guidebooks, but still are stumped, it is time to visit BugGuide.net. They are “an online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing our observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.” There you will find a wealth of information on insects and their common whereabouts, but you can also post photos and ask questions of that expert group. They love to share their passion, and “to instill in others the fascination and appreciation…for the intricate lives of these oft-maligned creatures.” You may also find answers by posting a photo to your local naturalist Facebook groups.

And the bug is…

A shining flea beetle larvae, Asphaera lustrans! I finally found my answer by searching through the records at BugGuide.net and coming upon this page. While I can’t be sure, it was the closest match I could find. I also discovered that particular flea beetle hosts on Scutellaria, so I became even more convinced of its identity. I plan to post my photos and ask the experts on BugGuide to be sure.

Identifying wildlife and plants in your region is a lifelong pursuit; a never-ending puzzle. It can provide hours of stimulating entertainment for adults and children alike, and it will introduce you to like-minded folks who are also curious and engaged with world around us.

Next time you see a bug crawling across your porch or on your kitchen sink, don’t squish! Capture it, take a photo, release it outside, and begin the fun of unraveling its mystery!

Help Us Count Butterflies

Put Saturday, June 27, 2020 on your calendar and plan to help us count butterflies. The 21st Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count will consist of groups of butterfly enthusiasts dispersing to butterfly hot spots around the county to observe and count as many butterfly species as possible. Participant age or experience does not matter.

Whether you can immediately tell the difference between a pearl crescent and a gorgone checkerspot or you are unable to differentiate between a monarch and a moth, we encourage you to attend. The only requirement is a curious interest in finding and counting butterflies.

E. tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

The Harvey County Butterfly Count typically takes place on a single day in late June throughout a 16-mile diameter circle that includes Newton, Halstead, and Hesston. Emeritus biology professor, Dwight Platt, organized the first Harvey County Butterfly Count in 2000. Dwight has long been a champion of citizen science in South Central Kansas. As a Bethel College freshman in 1948, he helped organize the first Harvey County area Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count. As my major professor in the early 1990s at Bethel, Dwight inspired me to get active in citizen science, and many years later (in 2016) passed along to me oversight of the Harvey County Butterfly Count. Dwight plans to participate all day in this 21st Harvey County count at the age of 89.

Dwight Platt, conducting a butterfly survey at Sand Prairie in W. Harvey County in 2008.

Citizen Science

Guidance for the Harvey County Butterfly Count protocol is provided by North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Their efforts to build and organize a robust data set is important to monitor trends in butterfly populations. Comparisons of the results across years can be used to monitor changes in populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies.

By participating in such counts, you are contributing to research through citizen science. In the process, you are also increasing your scientific understanding, learning about environmental issues, gaining an appreciation for the natural world, and becoming a more engaged citizen. Thanks to Dwight, family members, and friends who encouraged me to do such things at a young age, citizen science shaped my choice of vocation and was personally transformative. I am hooked now and consider citizen science a fun hobby.

Delaware skipper butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Common Butterflies Observed

In addition to sending all the data to NABA from each year’s one-day count, I have 20 years of Harvey County Butterfly Count data in a spreadsheet that can be organized in a variety of ways. Here are a few summary numbers:

  • Over the last 20 years, 85 butterfly species have been observed during the one-day Harvey County counts.
  • The average number of butterfly species seen over the last 20 counts is 50.8.
  • 25 butterfly species have been observed nearly every year of the count (19 out of 20 counts).

Those 25 commonly observed Harvey County butterfly species are featured here for easy visual reference (photo credits). I lumped some of the similar-looking species together to help you more easily discern some of the subtle differences. Review them a few times and you will already start to develop a familiarity with the majority of butterflies seen on a typical count!

While the above 25 species are mostly what you will see and be counting, the real fun comes in finding the other 25 or so more rare species throughout the day. Searching for different types of habitat and flowers usually helps expand the diversity of species observed. Looking for certain host plants to find rare species is also part of the strategy.

What to Bring

The most important mode of preparation for a summer butterfly count is adjusting to the elements. Once you protect yourself from the sun with a hat and light cotton clothing and apply insect repellent around your ankles to repel ticks and chiggers, you can more easily turn your focus to the fun of looking for flowers and the butterflies they attract. If you simply plan to sweat and stay well-hydrated (bring plenty of water), you will find yourself enjoying a breezy summer day in Kansas.

Additionally, consider bringing binoculars (I also have close-range butterfly binoculars to lend you) and/or a camera with a zoom lens, but neither are mandatory. Each group will have a leader with an expertise in identification and a plan for sites to visit.

Let me know at brad.guhr@hesston.edu if you would like to attend for a half (3-4 hours) or full day (6-8 hours) and I will send you an email with more details.

Plan to enjoy part or all of a summer day counting butterflies and help make an important contribution to citizen science.

Rare regal fritillary butterflies nectaring on butterfly milkweed.