Nature’s Bug Zappers

At twilight the other day, I was pleased to see a Big Brown Bat flying high among the trees in my yard. I knew that my high-flying friend was doing its bit to keep mosquitoes under control. That’s a good thing, because mosquitoes are vectors for illnesses like encephalitis and West Nile virus—diseases with serious consequences for humans and that will likely become more prevalent as high heat days, urban heat islands, and other consequences of climate change intensify.

A healthy, hibernating Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus). Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.

Insect elimination devices are not a good substitute for nature’s bug zappers. These devices kill not only mosquitoes, but many beneficial insects. One study of homeowners’ backyards showed that although thousands of insects were killed in a 24-hour period by just one of these devices, only 0.13% were female mosquitoes, which are the ones that seek a blood meal and bite. An estimated 71 to 350 billion beneficial insects are killed annually in the United States by these electrocuting devices. This is likely contributing to the decline of songbirds. 

Not everyone is a fan of bats. Rabies is a concern for some. But research shows that less than 1% of bats carry rabies—so you are more likely to die from a dog attack, bee sting, or lightning strike than from bat-transmitted rabies. Most of us no longer believe the old misconceptions such as bats flying into people’s hair, but somehow the fascinating facts about bats are less well known.

The bat is the only mammal adapted for active flight, with true wings that can fly. A bat can live more than 30 years. Bats can reach speeds of up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) an hour. They use sound to navigate (echolocation) and “see” in the dark. Some species play a key role in pollinating crops. And their ability to control insect populations in our neighborhoods can’t be beat. A single bat can catch 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour. The Mexican Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) of Austin, Texas, are that city’s most popular visitor attraction.

Wildlife biologists use bio-acoustic equipment to capture high frequency sounds bats emit during echolocation. CT DEEP biologists recently discovered a long lost species, the Eastern Small-footed Bat during bio-acoustic surveys. Click the photo to hear the sounds of a Big Brown Bat. Photo and audio by Wikipedia.

The Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus), the one I observed in my yard, is one of nine species of bat found in Connecticut. These are the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), Eastern Long-eared Bat (Myotis septentrionalis), Eastern Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis), and the Eastern Small-footed Bat (Myotis leibeii). All are mostly insectivorous, with the exception of the Hoary Bat, which sometimes eats other bats, particularly Eastern Pipistrelles.

The Eastern Small-footed Bat was thought to be extirpated (eliminated) from Connecticut. It hadn’t been seen here since the 1940s, until one was found injured and was rehabilitated in eastern Connecticut in 2016. It had been identified in the area the year before through bio-acoustic surveys, in which wildlife biologists use special equipment to listen to the high-pitched calls bats use to find prey through echolocation.

The Little Brown Bat was Connecticut’s most common species until 2006, when a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans was introduced from Europe, probably on the shoes of visitors to a commercial cave in upstate New York. It spread quickly. This fungus causes White-Nose Syndrome, named for the white fuzz often seen around the muzzles of dead or dying bats. It is a disease that invades and eats away the skin of hibernating bats, including their wings. Because it causes bats to wake up frequently during the winter, they use up their limited fat reserves very rapidly. Bats have been known to fly out of caves in the middle of winter to find food. Some bats survive winter only to die in the spring, when their immune systems kick into overdrive, attacking both the fungal invader and their own tissues. Over 90% of the Connecticut Little Brown Bat population has been wiped out. It is now a state-listed endangered species.

Hibernating Little Brown Bats suffering from White Nose Syndrome. The fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans gives the disease White Nose Syndrome its name. Photo by New Hampshire Fish and Game.

White-Nose Syndrome has spread across the United States (see the progression map here). There is no known cure yet. Research being done with a naturally occurring bacteria that limits the growth of the fungus needs more testing.

You can help bats where you live.

Build a bat box (a summer place for them to have babies) for your yard or the side of your house to attract these natural bug zappers. Bats are more likely to use these boxes if they are placed on the south side of your house about 20 feet (6 meters) above the ground or on a pole at least 15 feet (about 4.5 meters) high. A location near wetlands, a pond, or lake is even better.

You can help bat populations by erecting a bat house on a pole or the south side of your house. Photo by Mark Buckawicki.

—Report sightings of live and dead bats seen in late December through mid-March to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Wildlife Division at deep.batprogram@ct.gov. Also let DEEP know about summer bat colonies that you see. There might be a maternity colony nearby. Report summer colonies to the same address.

—If you have a problem with bats in your attic or other enclosed area, take the humane approach to reclaiming your space. Never pick up a bat that is lying on the ground.

—Tell others about the beautiful side of bats. The more people learn to appreciate this maligned creature, the better for bats—and people. Find more fascinating facts about them from Bat Conservation International.

It’s time to think about all that bats do to help us and how we can help them.

A Curious Shrub

This very hot, dry weather we have had lately has been taxing not just for us, but for our gardens. I went out today with a hose to drip water at the base of my small, rather wilted looking Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha). I count myself lucky to have succeeded so far in growing this plant. It’s not the easiest tree to transplant and maintain, and many a plant in hardiness zones 6 or 7 can become “permanently dormant” without rich but well-drained soil. This tree is only moderately drought tolerant.

In contrast to the hot, humid weather today, it was a clear, cool day in October 1765 when Philadelphia botanists John Bartram and his son William discovered a new tree growing along the bottomlands next to the Altamaha River, not far from Fort Barrington in the British colony of Georgia. This is now near where I-95 crosses over the river. In his journal entry for the first day of October that year, John recorded: “This day we found severral very curious shrubs, one bearing beautiful good fruite [seedpod].” John, newly appointed Royal Botanist by King George III, traveled with William throughout the south and east collecting plants and seeds to send to England. They also used their collection to establish the first botanic garden in the colonies. William returned several times from 1773 to 1776 for a collecting expedition sponsored by John Fothergill, the owner of the largest botanic garden in London at that time.

The original stand of Franklinia trees were found growing near the banks of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia. Photo by Bubba73 (Jud McCranie) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4

William Bartram relocated the “very curious shrubs” and collected seeds during these trips, which he described in his book Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791. He brought his seeds to Philadelphia in 1777 (the year of John Bartram’s death), and four years later successfully flowered some of the plants he had collected. William later learned that one specimen in particular that he had sent to England was a unique genus. William assigned the plant to the genus Franklinia, in honor of the Bartrams’ family friend Benjamin Franklin. The species name “alatamaha” is an alternate spelling for the Altamaha River, where they had discovered the tree.

The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) flowers late in late summer and early fall, with fragrant flowers making a nice contrast to the reddish fall foliage. Photo by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

William was the first to notice that Franklinia was a rare plant with very limited distribution. “We never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever since seen it growing wild, in all my travels, from Pennsylvania to Point Coupe, on the banks of the Mississippi, which must be allowed a very singular and unaccountable circumstance; at this place there are two or 3 acres [1.2 hectares] of ground where it grows plentifully.” (Bartram’s Travels, page 468).

Franklinia is the monotypic genus (a genus with only one species) in the family Theaceae. This is the tea family, which includes both the plant used to make tea (Camellia sinensis) and Camellia (Camellia japonica), the plant popular in the southern United States. This plant has a lovely five-petaled white flower with a center of yellow stamens and a sweet scent reminiscent of Gardenia. A small tree that grows only 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) high, it has upright, spreading branches, often leafless in their lower reaches, that give the plant an airy appearance. The Franklin Tree flowers late in the summer and the white petals make a striking contrast with its red fall foliage.

William Bartram was one of the country’s first natural history illustrators. Here is an illustration of Franklinia he did in 1788. From https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3f/William_Bartram01.jpg

There are two nice specimens of Franklinia growing in the courtyard of Yale’s new Benjamin Franklin College in New Haven. You can thank Nobel laureate and Harvard professor emeritus Dudley Herschbach. On the board of Yale’s Franklin Papers, he has been fascinated with Franklin his whole life. When the new college was being built, Herschbach suggested that the courtyard should have a Franklinia, and sent Ellen Cohn, Editor in Chief of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, the name of a local nursery. The landscape architects were able to incorporate a Franklin tree into their design, and today you can see where a stone carver included its blossoms above the college’s main gate.

The mature, smooth, striped bark is very similar to Stewartia, a related tree in the same family. Photo (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

Imagine if you could collect seeds that would be treasured more than 200 years into the future! The last time this tree was spotted in the wild was in 1803. It has been extinct in nature since then. We don’t know why Franklinia disappeared in the wild. The clearing of land along the Altamaha River led to the theory that a cotton pathogen in the soil carried downstream by erosion was the main cause of the extinction of the Franklinia colony found by the Bartrams. Other theories include climate change, over-collecting, the lack of genetical diversity to withstand pathogens or changing conditions, and flooding. But, it’s good to know that this tree survives in cultivation. You can thank William Bartram for this unique species—all Franklinia trees today are descended from his seeds.

Are They Blinking Out?

July is lightning bug month.

Whatever you call them—lightning bugs or fireflies—many of us have memories of going out in the early evening to catch them in a jar. Lightning bugs and fireflies are neither bugs nor flies, but a beetle from the insect family Lampridae, which in Greek aptly means “to shine.”

The Common Eastern or Big Dipper Firefly (Photinus pyralis) male flashing in flight. Photo by Terry Priest CC BY-SA (https: creativecommons.org licenses by-sa4.0)

There are more than 2,000 different fireflies in the world and about 150 in North America. The most regularly seen species in Connecticut is the Common Eastern Firefly or Big Dipper Firefly (Photinus pyralis), so named for the dipping, J-curved flight pattern of the males.

Male Big Dipper Fireflies (Photinus pyralis) are named for the dipping, curved-J flight pattern. Photo by Twan Leenders

Why do they blink? Scientists think this has to do with courtship and mating. In most species, it’s the males who fly and flash, and look for females. Females don’t fly, but hang out in trees, shrubs, and grasses, and flash in response.

But all is not wine and roses in this courtship ritual. There’s another species, Photuris versicolor, whose females imitate the flashing signals of Photinus pyralis females. These females lure in Photinus males and eat them to get the chemical that makes these males taste bad to predators like wood thrushes.

Imagine planning your vacation around the remarkable display of fireflies that flash all at the same time. That’s what visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains do every year. They enter a lottery for a chance to view Synchronous Firefly (Photinus carolinus). For the lucky ones, it’s an amazing experience.

Here in Connecticut, you can see fireflies flashing from the last week of June through most of July. Typically, adults live only three to four weeks. The time spent as both an egg and pupa (resting stage) is also not long, about three weeks. That’s a relatively short time compared to how long it will spend as a larva, which is one to two years, or 95% of its life cycle! Fireflies undergo complete metamorphosis: egg–larva–pupa–adult.

Common Eastern Firefly adults (Photinus pyralis) live only a few weeks . Photo by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Larvae also release light and so are nicknamed glow worms. It is thought that this glowing warns potential predators that they taste bad. Although some species of adult fireflies are predatory, many feed on plant nectar and pollen. It’s the larvae who are carnivores, living in the soil or leaf layer eating snails, slugs, and other invertebrates, which makes them great to have around the garden.

How do fireflies produce light? A chemical reaction inside their bodies allows them to light up. This kind of light is called bioluminescence. This light is produced when oxygen combines with calcium and a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), along with the chemical luciferin in the presence of the enzyme luciferase. Luciferase has been very important in medicine, and has been used to track tumor cells, bacterial and viral infections, gene expression, and the response to treatment.

Like many insects, firefly populations are threatened. This is possibly because of habitat loss, the use of pesticides on our lawns and gardens, the overuse of outdoor lighting, and invasive plant species. What can you do to help? Don’t rake leaves to put them on the curb. When you do that, you are raking up firefly larvae and throwing them away. Instead, leave them under shrubs and trees to provide a healthy organic mulch. If you have poor soil, introduce nutrients by adding compost, leaves, and other organic matter. Avoid broad-spectrum pesticides, especially lawn chemicals. Turn off outside lights and advocate for local “Dark Sky” policies to control light pollution, or at the least install security lights on a timer. Plant native shrubs, trees, grasses, and perennials. A cottage garden with thick cover will imitate the field edge that fireflies like. Many fireflies prefer moist areas, so consider putting in a small water feature surrounded by native vegetation. With these proper conservation steps, we can assure that these amazing creatures won’t blink out.

They Don’t Milk Cows

A few days ago, I received an email from a friend asking for an identification. She had found a snake near her house and wanted to know whether it was venomous. It turned out to be a harmless Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). When I was a child, our next door neighbor killed one and proudly showed it off. I was quite sad about it.

The Eastern Milk Snake allegedly gets its name because a farmer once saw one in a barn and thought the snake was there to get cow’s milk. In reality, the snake was probably following a food source. Milk snakes eat mostly rodents like mice, which are attracted to grain. Snakes actually help farmers and homeowners. By keeping down rodent populations, snakes reduce vectors (carriers) for Lyme disease, like the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). Milk snakes are found in many habitats, including farmland, disturbed areas, meadows, river bottoms, rocky hillsides, and forests.

Eastern Milk Snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) can be told from Northern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) by having a pattern on the head, square brown blotches surrounded by black on the back, and a more slender body. Photo by Will Brown / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

At two to three feet (60 to 90 centimeters) long, the Eastern Milk Snake is rather slim. It has medium-brown saddles edged in black on its dorsal (upper) surface and usually has a pattern on its head. Milk snakes are sometimes confused with the venomous Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). Although they are the same size, copperheads have a more stout, two-toned coppery-colored body with hourglass-shaped blotches and an unpatterned, triangular head.

Some anthropologists theorize that the fear of snakes that many people have may go back to our ancestors needing to be on the lookout for cobras on the African savanna. Only two of the fourteen snake species in Connecticut are venomous: the Northern Copperhead and the Eastern Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). The main purpose for venom is to secure prey. These snakes have hemolytic venom. It breaks down red blood cells, causing the prey to become inactive so that it can be safely swallowed by the snake. The chances of a person dying from a snakebite is near zero, both because of the rarity of being bitten and the availability of high-quality medical care. Neither species is aggressive, and will bite only if handled, threatened, or stepped on. It’s always good practice to be careful where you put your hands and feet when climbing in rocky areas.

A Connecticut Northern Copperhead (Agkisotrodon contortrix mokesan) eating an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). Notice the hourglass-shaped saddles on its back, two-toned, coppery color and unpatterned, triangular head. Photo by Danny Brass.

The Northern Copperhead is shy, mostly nocturnal, and mainly found in low-lying trap rock areas near water in the central part of Connecticut. The Eastern Timber Rattlesnake is a State Endangered Species and is now only found in a few higher, forested locations in the state. This species has been persecuted throughout history, often killed on sight and its dens blown up. Females have a very low birth rate, reproducing only a few times during their entire lives. I’m baffled as to why these snakes are killed when they are used to represent freedom. Think of the bright yellow Gadsden flag from the American Revolution, a symbol of civil liberties and disagreement with the government. It had an image of a timber rattlesnake above the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” So, the next time you see a snake, please just observe it from a distance and allow it to live free and not die.

Hawk Moths and Hummingbirds

Fooled again! While I was in my garden the other day, in the distance I saw a flash of wings and a tiny body bobbing in and out among the flowers. I was looking forward to seeing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). On closer inspection, I realized I had spotted instead a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe).

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) feeding on Lantana. Hummingbird Clearwings can be distinguished from other hummingbird moths by the green and burgundy back. Notice the transparent wings which gives this moth its name. Photo by PopularOutcast / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This member of the hawk moth family (Sphingidae) is one of four clearwing moth species in North America. Two are most common: the Hummingbird Clearwing and the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis). Although both are found throughout North America, the Hummingbird Clearwing is abundant in the east and the Snowberry Clearwing is more often seen in the west. Hummingbird Clearwings are easily identified by their fuzzy burgundy and green backs. The Snowberry Clearwing’s back is yellow and black. And you can tell the difference between these moths and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird by their size. At an inch-and-a-half (4–5.5 centimeters) long these clearwings are half as big as a hummingbird.

A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth getting nectar from Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), which is a Connecticut native plant. Notice the Syrphid Fly also on the flower. These flies are beneficial insects in the garden, eating pests as a larva. Photo by Judy Gallagher / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

July is a perfect time to catch a glimpse of this day-flying moth collecting nectar. If you have flowers with long corolla tubes—such as Meadow Phlox (Phlox paniculata), bee balms (Monarda spp.) like our native Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and verbenas—there is a good chance you will see one feeding. These moths extend their long, straw-like proboscis in and out of flowers while beating their wings at more than 70 times per second—so fast they look almost motionless in the air!

Hummingbird Clearwing caterpillars (larvae) feed on the leaves of different Viburnums as well as other plants. Photo by snicolich

Here in Connecticut and farther north, the Hummingbird Clearwing’s life cycle has one generation. Females lay small green, circular eggs on the underside of the leaves of their host plants. These include viburnums, such as native Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), hawthornes (Crataegus spp.), honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.), snowberries (Symphoricarpus spp.), and cherries and plums (Prunus spp.). A week later, a green caterpillar with a spur on its hind end hatches to feed on these host plants. After about four weeks and several growth stages (called instars), the fully grown caterpillar burrows into the soil and metamorphoses into a hard-shelled, brown pupa that will overwinter in your garden.

Leaves are not litter and shouldn’t be raked to the curb but incorporated into your yard or garden. (c) Xerces Society.

So instead of raking your leaves and leaving them at the curb in the fall, consider using them as mulch under your trees and shrubs. You will not only be providing a place for these moths to overwinter, but feeding your trees and shrubs too.

Bear with Us

A few days ago, someone on a neighborhood online forum reported seeing a young American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) romping through their backyard.  Everyone was cautioned to stay indoors and be careful. Being careful around charismatic megafauna is always a good idea, but changing your life by not going outside can be an overreaction.

American Black Bears (Ursus americanus) are becoming more commonly seen in Connecticut. Photo by Thomas Fuhrmann / CC BY-SA(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Black Bear populations have been increasing in the past few decades and they are seen more and more often, but it hasn’t always been that way. Black bears like mature forests, and the changes in New England’s landscape over time have really had an effect on them. By the early 1800s, Connecticut’s forests were being cleared for wood to heat homes and power factories. Farmers were raising Merino sheep. On April 22, 1817, Noah Webster wrote in the Connecticut Courant that “Connecticut could no longer sustain the amount of wood burned each year in homes.” By around 1850, almost 80% of Connecticut was open land. It was said that you could see Long Island Sound from many hill farms in Litchfield County.

The American Black Bear was extirpated from Connecticut around 1850, when most of the state was fields and farmland.

By that time, the Black Bear was extirpated from Connecticut (extinct here but present elsewhere). After 1850, many in Connecticut gave up their hardscrabble farms and either migrated to the fertile lands of the Midwest or started to work in factories. Gradually, the forests returned. American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was the dominant tree, until the Chestnut Blight of the 1930s. Oaks (Quercus spp.) and hickories (Carya spp.) with their hard mast—acorns and nuts—replaced it and became more common. This mast is an important food source for black bears. As these forests matured, the bears returned, moving in from neighboring states. Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection biologist Paul Rego estimates the Connecticut Black Bear population this year at around 800, with the potential to eventually reach 3,000. Most of the population lives in northwestern Connecticut. You can see a map of bear sightings by town, and report a sighting.

The American Black Bear is North America’s smallest bear. Adults can grow to five or six feet (almost two meters) head to toe. Adult males (boars) can weigh 150 to 450 pounds (about 70 to 200 kilograms). Females (sows) can reach 45 to 100 pounds (20 to 45 kilograms). Bears are omnivorous and will eat grasses, forbs (other herbaceous plants), nuts, berries, insects, and carrion. Occasionally, bears prey on small mammals, livestock, and even deer. Their extremely good sense of smell can also lead them to your bird feeders and garbage cans. Many northern Connecticut residents cannot put their feeders out until mid-December and have to take them down in early March. In winter, bears find a den under a fallen tree or a rocky ledge. While there, they do not feed, drink, or defecate. Females den separately. Cubs (females have an average of two to three young) will nurse from their mother while she is sleeping. Adult bears are not true hibernators. They don’t go into a deep sleep and will occasionally wake up if disturbed.

Black Bears have an extremely well-developed sense of smell due in part to the area inside the nose, called the nasal muchosa, which is 100 times greater than ours. Notice the many nasal passages in the skull on the left. Photo by jonCates / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

What should you do if you see a bear? Observe it only from a safe distance. Advertise your presence by shouting and waving your arms. Never feed or try to attract bears. Never leave pet food outside. Bears can be aggressive if they become used to being fed and learn to associate food with people. This could lead to problem bears being destroyed. Report a bear sighting to the Connecticut DEEP.

And what if you surprise a bear? Luckily, a bear has really good hearing in addition to an amazing sense of smell, so surprising one is unlikely. But if you do surprise a bear, walk slowly away facing the bear and do not run. A growing Black Bear population will mean more interactions with people. It is up to all of us to keep both bears and people safe.

Milkweeds Aren’t Really Weeds

I am always confounded as to why plants that are top pollinator plants in our ecosystems are called weeds. Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.) and Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) are two examples. I prefer the name Helen’s Flower for Sneezeweed. This plant, once used by some Native peoples as a snuff, doesn’t cause allergies at all. Weeds are usually defined as unwanted plants growing in a certain location. Maybe these plants encroached on farmers’ forage fields and were not palatable to livestock. Perhaps if our local Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was called “Monarch Butterfly Flower” it would get less of a bad rap.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on the fragrant flowers of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Photo by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Now, with the news of world pollinator declines and the movement to improve backyard and community biodiversity, milkweeds are all the rage. They should be, for not only are these plants among the top pollinator nectar plants for all kinds of native bees and butterflies, milkweeds are the only larval food plant for the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Monarch Butterfly caterpillars butterfly feed only on the leaves of milkweeds. The caterpillar will crawl up the stem and bite the plant’s midrib to cut off the flow of milky, sticky sap, and then move to the outer edge of the leaf to begin feeding. They do ingest some of this milky substance, which contains a heart poison (a cardiac glycoside). This sap deters many other insects, but the Monarch has evolved with this plant and is not harmed by it. In fact, the chemical makes the butterflies toxic to birds and other predators.

Three milkweed species are most common in our area: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Common Milkweed spreads by rhizomes, so the plant tends to roam. You will need a bit space to let it do so. I let the grass grow in a section of my lawn, but the milkweed has decided to pop up in another area. Oh well. I’ll just leave it for the Monarchs and gradually get rid of more lawn.

In the meadow I am slowly creating in my yard, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is slowly “running” left into the lawn; Photo by author

In many places of the country Common Milkweed is not so common anymore, particularly with increased planting of glyphosate-ready crops as well as roadside invasive plants taking over. When was the last time you saw milkweed in your neighborhood?

Butterfly Weed and Swamp Milkweed are both clumping species and would be fine in a pot outside your apartment or planted in your garden. Butterfly Weed can take dry soils once established, but is very adaptable.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is rather drought resistant once established and can do well in a pot. © Derek Ramsey / derekramsey.com

Swamp Milkweed, as its name implies, likes moist soil, but it is also adaptable to regular garden soils. All three milkweeds will thrive in full sun, but will also do well in part-sun spots.

One of the most attractive milkweeds for Monarch Butterflies is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Despite its name, Swamp Milkweed can do fine in regular garden soils. Photo by peganum from Small Dole England/ CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Monarch butterflies, like other pollinators, are better able to see and find a grouping of plants rather than an individual milkweed hidden within lots of other plants. A study at the University of Kentucky found that planting milkweeds in clumps out in the open or at the edge of a garden bed attracted more caterpillars than plants within a bed. It also showed how important our urban gardens are to pollinator conservation.

A Monarch Butterfly larva’s (caterpillar’s) bright coloration warns predators that they are toxic. Photo by Bernard A Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand / CC0

Here in Connecticut, there are several generations, or broods, of Monarchs. The final generation is the “Methuselah” brood. Monarchs that hatch, or eclose, in this final brood in September will migrate 2,800 miles to a mountaintop oyamel fir forest in Mexico’s Monarch Biosphere Reserve! These butterflies have never been there. Scientists think they use Earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s position to guide them.

Many families like to raise Monarchs by seeing them through their life stages from egg to larva to pupa to chrysalis, and then releasing the adults. But research has shown that raising these butterflies indoors can cause them to not migrate successfully. Monarchs that are raised outdoors and purchased locally, rather than from elsewhere, are better able to migrate.

Scientists have found that Monarch caterpillars raised indoors don’t migrate properly. You can solve this by raising them outside in mesh laundry baskets. Just put milkweeds in pots or plant stems in water for larvae to feed on. Photo by author.

We can all help pollinators like the Monarch. Whether on an apartment stoop, in a garden, or at nearby open lot—plant it and they will come.

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

To get to the other side of course! At this time of year, many female turtles are crossing busy roads to find a place to lay their eggs. I saw a snapping turtle doing so just the other day. With more and more roads being added all the time, however, these reptiles are finding it harder and harder to survive these crossings. Please be on the lookout for them! Drive slowly, particularly near swamps, freshwater marshes, streams, ponds, and lakes.

The familiar Eastern Box Turtle (Terrepene carolina), a yellowish orange woodland turtle with a high-domed shell, was once common in the state. It now is a Connecticut Species of Special Concern, meaning that its population has declined and so is protected by law from being collected. Its decline is in part due to habitat loss and the increased network of roads.

Eastern Box Turtles (Terrepene carolina) aren’t able to close into their hinged shell until four or five years old.
Photo by Greg Watkins-Colwell

Years ago, when I was working at a nature center, a truck driver dropped off a box turtle he had found crossing a road in Georgia. He thought he was “rescuing” it by dropping it off here in Connecticut. A kind instinct, but not helpful. In reality, box turtles have a strong territorial and homing instinct. Had we released it in Connecticut, it would not have survived. Fortunately, we were able to find a permanent home for it. If you see a turtle in the wild, please don’t remove it. First, turtles can carry salmonella. And, in captivity they require a lot of care with a special diet and lighting. Once captive, they should not be released back to the wild. They would be unlikely to survive and can pass diseases to wild turtle populations.

With good habitat, such as an overgrown meadow near a wetland, box turtles can find plenty of food. They are omnivorous and eat plenty of slugs and other invertebrates, plus fruits like wild strawberries. In a high quality habitat a turtle can spend its whole life on only a half to 10 acres. Unfortunately, such habitat is increasingly fragmented. Protecting choice wild tracts is key for the continued survival of these reptiles. Box turtles reach sexual maturity only after 10 years or more and can live to be 100 years old!

Eastern Painted Turtles might now be in competition for food and basking areas by non-native, invasive Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta) which were released by pet owners.
Photo by Greg Schechter / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

When you’re near ponds, lakes, and wetlands, be on the lookout for aquatic turtles like the Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemmys picta), Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), and Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata), among others. The Eastern Painted Turtle and the Common Snapping Turtle are two of our most widespread species. They are often seen in ponds, slow-moving streams, rivers, and lakes. To regulate its body temperature, the Eastern Painted Turtle loves to bask on logs. Snapping turtles don’t bask very often. All three turtles have an omnivorous diet, feeding mostly on fish, tadpoles, aquatic invertebrates, and vegetation. Snapping turtle females “come ashore” to lay from 20 to 50 (occasionally 80) round eggs, which look like ping pong balls, in warm, loose soil. Interestingly, studies have shown that soil temperature influences the sex of the turtles that hatch. If the eggs remain at 58 degrees F (about 14 degrees C), all the turtles will be females. At 73 degrees F (about 23 degrees C), all will be males. But, if the temperature is raised to 77 degrees F (25 degrees C), the hatchlings will be females! Because soil temperature varies and the eggs are laid at different depths, there will be different combinations of male and female offspring in a season.

When you see aquatic turtles such as the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) walking on land, it is a female searching for a place to lay her eggs.
Photo by Twan Leenders

The Spotted Turtle is also a Connecticut Species of Special Concern, because the slow-moving streams, bogs, and other freshwater wetlands habitats they prefer are decreasing. This small, 4.5-inch (about 11 cm) turtle is often seen in early March basking in the sun after emerging from a deep type of hibernation called torpor. Females travel to lay an average of four to five eggs in sunny locations such as roadsides and meadows.

Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) can sometimes be seen basking in freshwater wetlands during early spring.
Photo by Twan Leenders

Turtles have been on the planet for millions of years. We need to help them survive much longer. So, if you see a turtle crossing the road, please slow down and give them a “brake”!

Worms Eating Up Forest Leaf Litter? That’s Crazy!

They might be coming to a yard or forest near you.

Sounds rather like a horror movie, right? Well, it is actually a bit scary. The Crazy Worm, also called Jumping Worm or Crazy Snake Worm (Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis, and Metaphire hilgendorfi), are three species from Korea and Japan who are co-invading our yards and forests here in the Northeast and other parts of the country.

Jumping Worms (Amynthas spp.) can be identified by having a milky white band called a clitellum. They also feel less slimy and wiggle or jump around.
Photo by Susan Day, UW Madison Arboretum

These species are called “crazy worms” or “jumping worms” because they wiggle violently when disturbed. They will even jump out of a shallow dish. When wiggling they often lose a section of their tail, which may be an adaptation to escape from predators. Crawling with a back and forth motion earned them the nickname “snake worms.” You can tell them from other worm species because they feel less slimy and have a milky white clitellum, the reproductive part of the worm.

We have heard about the “Red Wiggler” Worm (Eisenia fetida), which helps to break down our leftover fruit and veggies in our compost piles, and about vertical tunnels created by the European Nightcrawler (Eisenia hortensis), which aerate the soil. These species are beneficial in gardens. But did you know that all the worms here in the Northeast are not native, but have been introduced? There haven’t been worms here since the glaciation from the Laurentide Ice Sheet over 10,000 years ago. Colonists weren’t the only organisms arriving on these shores in the 1600s. Potted plants and soil from ships’ ballast contained worms that also colonized our area. And many worm species have since been introduced through landscape material.

But why are these “crazy” worms invasive? These worms don’t tunnel deep into the ground like some European species. They live in the top leaf litter or duff layer. This is a moist, thick, spongy layer that is slowly decomposed by fungi, bacteria, small isopods, and other invertebrates. These invasive worms ravenously and quickly consume this layer, leaving behind a thick deposit of their castings (waste) that looks like gray, chunky coffee grounds. This new top layer drains quickly and loses nutrients through runoff.

Jumping worm castings look like grey, chunky coffee grounds.
Photo by Annise Dobson, Michigan Invasive Species Council

Spring ephemeral plants such as Trillium (Trillium sp.) and tree seedlings can’t survive in this dry layer. I haven’t seen many Redback Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lately. This amphibian also lives in this moist duff layer and studies have shown they are also affected by Jumping Worms. Karen Caballos from the New York Master Naturalist Program created a Jumping Worm claymation video that explains this well.

This photo show most of the duff layer is gone and tree roots are exposed.
Photo by Annise Dobson, Michigan Invasive Species Council

Crazy Worms are extremely successful because they are parthenogenic—they can reproduce without mating. In the fall, the worms die at the first frost, but not before releasing small (2 to 4 mm, about the size of a fruit fly), difficult to detect cocoons that survive through the winter. The cocoons hatch when the soil reaches 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) in April. By July, they become adults that are 6 inches (15 cm) long.

What can you do? First, you can check to see whether you have these worms with a simple test: mix one-third cup (79 ml) of ground yellow mustard seed in one gallon of water (3.75 liters). Clean a section of bare ground and slowly pour this mixture over it (it won’t harm plants). This will drive the worms to the surface where they can be collected and identified.

Next, be really careful that you don’t introduce these worms to your yard. Make sure to buy heat-treated compost and soil amendments. Studies have shown that the cocoons cannot survive above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). Most commercial composts are required by law to be heated above that. Worms can also be introduced in potted plants from plant sales and swaps, and even nurseries. Look through the soil and refuse these plants if you see the telltale gray, coffee ground-like castings. Even if you don’t see those castings, discard the potted soil in the trash and just plant your new purchase with its roots. You can also buy bare root plants and grow plants from seed.

If you like to fish, don’t buy worms called Alabama or Georgia Jumpers (other names for our bad guys). Never dump excess worms of any kind in the wild. Dispose of them in your trash. When gardening, clean all shovels, forks, spades, and other tools, especially if you garden somewhere else.

Experiments with biochar, a soil amendment that has tiny, sharp edges, and a chemical containing tea seed oil may offer hope for the possible control of these invaders.

Migration Madness

The night sky in spring may seem serene, where nothing is going on. But in fact, it is bustling with energy and activity.

Why do birds migrate? First, to take advantage of a plentiful food source at their destination. Most birds in forest habitats feed on caterpillars and other invertebrates, fruits, and nectar. All are abundant during the warmer months. Also, there is less competition for nesting territories than in the tropics. During the day, most migrants land to rest and feed. Warblers—small, colorful “butterflies of the bird world”—flit from branch to branch to feed on the caterpillar and other insect “hatches” that they depend on as they migrate north.

Black-throated Blue Warblers (Setophaga caerulescens) winter in the Caribbean and nest in Mountain Laurels and Rhododendrons in mature deciduous forests in the Northeast and southern Canada down through the Appalachians.
Photo by C Wood

Most people don’t look up to notice them in the trees or realize they are even there. Nor do they hear their songs, a combination of trills and buzzes. As long as there are the right native trees, shrubs, and other plants with insects feeding on leaves, you will find warblers and other migrants passing through even in cities.

Worm-eating warblers (Helmitheros vermivorum) are named after eating caterpillars not worms. After spending the winter in tropical forests in the Central America and the Caribbean, they migrate north to breed in mature deciduous forests from Connecticut to Missouri.
Photo by C Wood

It’s not easy being a migrant. Many species of neotropical migrants are experiencing long-term population decline due to habitat loss at both their breeding and wintering grounds, not to mention their re-fueling stops. And there are other threats. Birds collide with skyscrapers, attracted by bright lights at night or fooled by reflections in the glass during the day. Millions are killed every year by predators, such as free-roaming cats. Climate change may make the availability of food out of sync with the birds’ arrival.


Some Blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) that breed in western North America migrate up to 6,000 miles (10,000 km) to their breeding grounds after making a nonstop, trans-ocean flight from South America. When you hear or see a blackpoll warbler, the spring’s neotropical bird migration is almost finished.
Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

What can you do? Actually, you can help birds greatly by providing critical stopover habitat in your own yard or neighborhood. Plant native trees such as willows, oaks, cherries, and birches. For planting information in your area, go to the National Audubon Society’s Plants for Birds or the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder. Consider converting your lawn for birds. Our lawns are actually biological deserts and we are a turf nation. The amount of turf in the United States equals the size of New England. Imagine if each year we committed to taking out just some of the grass in our yards, lots, and parks and planted native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. We would increase our local biodiversity and those warblers might just stop by.