In Defense of Wild Spaces in the Yard

Pale purple asters and milkweed. Copyright S. Klink.

Surrounding my mowed lawn is a wild, mostly uncultivated space that currently has goldenrod blooming with tall asters starting to blossom. Every day when I pass these flowers, I see bumblebees, butterflies and other insects collecting the nectar to eat or store for the winter. Last year, when a section of soil was disturbed during construction of a building, I decided to seed the area with native wildflowers rather than grass. (I am not a fan of mowing the lawn.) Watching the series of flowers bloom over the late spring to autumn has been beautiful, colorful and full of tiny moments of joy. Not only do I see insects enjoying the flowering plants, but birds will land on the taller greenery, sometimes just resting, sometimes collecting seeds. I am not sure who has been startled more often, me or the birds when I walk by, flushing a bird from the thicket of tall plants.

Monarch butterfly on thistle photographed in the prairie at Promega headquarters in Madison, WI. Copyright Promega Corporation.

Where some people might see wild, unruly areas, I see Monarch butterflies on their daily flight, fluttering above me and the “weeds”. I have even been lucky enough to find Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed, a common plant in my wild space. Despite my efforts, I have a lot of tall ragweed appearing in my yard, but have discovered that birds love the seeds, including my chickens, and squirrels will remove and eat the leaves. In addition, I see fireflies in early June through late August, many I find hanging out on the shady greenery during the day before their light display at night. Continue reading

How does the butterfly get its spots?

All we found were sawfly larvae.

This summer, my daughter and I have gone on several “bug-hunting expeditions”. These expeditions always begin with the same elaborate routine: donning the explorer vest, collecting the magnifying glass, bug house and butterfly net, and consulting the “bug map”. The goal is to find a caterpillar that we can capture, feed and watch as it morphs into a butterfly. So far the only thing remotely resembling a caterpillar we have found is sawfly larvae.

My daughter is fascinated by butterflies. We have at least three books on her bookshelf about butterfly life cycles, and just the other week, a trip to the library yielded yet another butterfly book for bedtime reading. Butterflies are fascinating creatures. Not just for the four-year-old who wonders in awe at their amazing life cycle, but for the biologist who marvels at the development of the intricate pattern of their wing eyespots. Wing patterns in butterflies are amazingly varied among species and between different wing surfaces (forewing and hindwing) of the same individual. How are these patterns determined? Continue reading