Recalling Charlotte

Malevolent, scheming, horrid, wretched, malignant, hideous, and nasty. When you google words for spiders, these are what come up. Spiders need a good PR firm.

I find the distain for spiders interesting, given that one of the most beloved children’s books of the past two generations is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. This could be a learned behavior. White wrote:“I think it is too bad that children are corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skillful, amusing, and useful, and only in rare instances has anyone come to grief because of a spider.”

Now is the time of year when we often see orb-weaver spiders of the family Araneidae, the third largest of the spider clan. The Barn Spider (Araneus cavaticus) likes to build webs around human structures. This is the species White noticed in his barn in Maine and whose egg case he brought back to his apartment in New York City.

The spider E.B. White wrote about in Charlotte’s Web is based on the Barn Spider (Araneus cavaticus). Photo by Kilarin / CC BY (

The Black and Yellow Argiope or Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) is a common and sizeable orb weaver often seen in meadows. Although large, it is not aggressive and will only bite if grabbed or stepped on. Its bite is like a bee sting. Once mated, the female Argiope produces a ball-shaped egg sac that is up to an inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. She’ll guard her eggs on her web as long as she can through the fall, when she’ll die. Come spring up to 1,000 spiderlings will hatch. They will spin a long strand of silk that catches in the wind and so disperse. This is called ballooning and spiderlings have been known to be taken into the jet stream. They have been detected by weather balloons collecting air samples at 16,000 feet (5 kilometers)!

The Black and Yellow Argiope or Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) is frequently seen in meadows. Photo by Judy Gallagher / CC BY (

When people think of spider webs, they usually have in mind webs from orb weavers. Each evening these spiders consume their old web, then make a fresh one by spinning a strand of silk that floats to a nearby shrub or other surface. The spiders drop a line from the center, making a “Y,” then create “spokes” of plain silk and concentric rings of sticky silk. The non-sticky spokes let them travel around their web more quickly to subdue prey. Try touching the spokes and rings sometime to feel the difference.

An orb web from the family Araneidae. The radiating “spokes” are not sticky and let the spider travel quickly to secure prey. The concentric circles are sticky and catch prey. Photo by Beatriz Moisset / CC BY-SA (

Spider silk has extremely strong tensile strength, comparable to steel. We humans have put that strength to use in many ways. Spider silk has been used as crosshairs in telescopes, microscopes, and telescopic rifle sights. Different methods of producing spider silk, such as combining with silk from silkworm moths, has created such products as ballistics armor, athletic footwear, personal care products, breast implant and catheter coatings, insulin pumps, and outerwear.

When an insect flies into a web, orb weaver spiders bite their prey, inject venom, then use silk to wrap the prey. They also spin a zigzag pattern of silk, called a stabilimentum, in the center of the web. There is debate about the purpose of this. Possibly it’s meant to warn birds away from the web, as a lure for prey, or to decrease the visibility of the web to insects, making it harder for prey to avoid the web.

The stabilimentum is a zig-zag patterned part of the web; there are different theories as to its purpose. Photo by Rhododendrites / CC BY-SA (

Orb weavers and other spiders are important in ecosystems. They not only prey on species we consider to be garden pests, but in turn they are food for many other species. For example, much of the diet of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) includes spiders. Ruby-throats use spider silk to weave lichen into their nests.

Give spiders a chance—they are amazing creatures. And as my wife will avow—anything that eats mosquitoes is OK.

You’ve Got Gall

It’s the science of cecidology. Now there’s a Scrabble word for you! Cecidology is the study of plant galls (cecidia).

What are galls? They are a kind of growth or swelling on the external tissues of plants, fungi, or animals. When leading nature walks I am often asked about growths on leaves and stems. Many of these galls are often characteristic in size, shape, and color and can be easily identified. It’s what causes them that is not always apparent. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, mites, and more, can all produce galls.

Plant galls caused by insects are usually a reaction to the larvae of midges (a type of fly), wasps, or aphids that tunnel into the leaf or plant stem. After being disturbed by the insect, the plant’s cells rapidly divide and often provide food and protection for the developing insect. Scientists don’t know all the details of how this happens. On a walk along the Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway in Hamden, I recently found an Oak Apple Gall blown off an oak tree during a recent storm. Oak Apple Galls are found in North America and Europe and form most often on members of the red oak group.

An Oak Apple Gall showing the tiny exit hole of the wasp Amphibolips confluenta.

Here in the East, this gall is caused by the wasp Amphibolips confluenta. The wasp’s life cycle begins when it lays eggs underground among the roots of the tree. The eggs hatch and the larvae feed on these roots. They develop into pupae. Wingless adult females hatch, or eclose, in spring of the second year. They emerge from the ground and climb up the oak tree to the leaves. There the female injects an egg into the veins of a newly growing leaf. Chemicals and hormones released by these eggs alter the leaf’s typical growth, causing galls to form. The round galls create homes and food for the tiny wasp larvae and usually give protection from predators. In midsummer the larvae pupate, then the adults hatch and tunnel their way out. Males and females mate and females lay eggs in the ground to begin the cycle again. A video by Sir David Attenborough shows the fascinating life cycle of a British gall wasp species.

Oak galls are full of tannin. In Europe they have been used to make ink since the Roman Empire. Iron gall ink was made by mixing tannins with iron sulfate and gum arabic. It was the main medium used for writing from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century.

In British folklore, if a “worm” (insect larva) is found inside a gall on Michaelmas Day, then it will be a good year. If a spider is inside, then it will be a bad year with food shortages and ruined crops. I guess spiders were persecuted long ago too!

Oak Apple Day is a former British holiday that was celebrated on May 29. It commemorated the restoration of Charles ll in 1660. Charles hid in an oak tree during the English Civil War.

You will often find different galls on goldenrods in our area. The Goldenrod Bunch Gall is caused by the gall midge Rhopalomyia solidaginis. This fly is a specialist on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). The female Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis) lays her eggs in the stems of several goldenrod species, which then form the characteristic ball-shaped Goldenrod Ball Gall. The larva first tunnels an exit hole and then travels back to the center of the ball to spend the winter there. If you ever find a ball gall that looks like the hole has been enlarged, it’s usually the work of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), which eat these larvae.

Goldenrod Bunch Galls are only found on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Photo by the author.
The tiny midge Rhopalomyia solidaginis is what causes bunch galls to form on Canada Goldenrod. Photo by Beatriz Moisset / CC BY-SA (
You can often find Goldenrod Ball Galls which have their exit holes pecked open by Black-Capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers. Photo by UMN Arboretum.

Other galls include the Witch Hazel Cone Gall, which looks like reddish witch’s hats on the leaves of Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). They are caused by the aphid Hormaphis hamamelidis.

Witch Hazel Cone Galls are caused by the aphid Hormaphis hamamelidis and resemble red witch’s hats.

The mite Eriophyes cerasicrumena causes the finger-like galls on the leaves of Black Cherry (Prunus seratina).

Black Cherry Finger Galls are caused by the mite Eriophyes cerasicrumena. Photo by Judy Gallagher / CC BY (

Pine Cone Willow Galls really look like a pine cone. They are are usually found on the terminal buds of some species of Willows (Salix sp.) and are caused by the midge Rhabdophaga strobiloides.

Willow Pine Cone Galls really do look like pine cones, but they are not! Photo by Ryan Hodnett / CC BY-SA (

Most galls don’t affect a plant’s health and it’s not necessary to control them. Only a few, such as those triggered by fungi, can actually damage trees by causing branch dieback. Remember that galls are part of the plant and the life supported by them are also part of the ecosystem.

The Reigning Butterfly

They can travel 3,000 miles on a migration. They can glide at an altitude of 11,000 feet. You probably know them well, but there is more to them than meets the eye. The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) can surprise you.

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia, an annual that attracts many butterflies and other pollinators. Photo by the author.

Monarchs are naturally poisonous to predators, because the milkweeds their larvae eat contain cardiac glycosides, a heart poison. Their bright orange color is aposematic, warning predators that the butterflies are toxic. It was always thought that the Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) was a non-toxic mimic of the toxic Monarch, an adaptation known as Batesian mimicry. It turns out that both species are toxic! When one toxic species imitates another one, that’s called Müllerian mimicry.

Both Monarch (left) and Viceroy (right) butterflies concentrate their toxins in their wings, where they are likely to be bitten by predators. They are an example of Müllerian mimicry, where one toxic species mimics another toxic species and both gain protection from predators. Photo by
PiccoloNamek (2005-08-22, uploaded by User:Lokal_Profil on 13:50, June 15, 2006) and Derek Ramsey (User:Ram-Man). / GFDL 1.2 (

One explanation for the origin of  the Monarch’s name is that early British settlers in North America were so impressed with the butterfly’s orange color that they named it after King William III, Prince of Orange.

There are actually three species of Monarch butterflies. Danaus plexippus is the species everyone knows in North America. It is also found in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. They are called “Wanderer” butterflies in Australia. The Southern Monarch (Danaus erippus) is found in tropical and sub-tropical South America. Some researchers believe the North American and South American Monarch were once the same species. The third species is the Caribbean’s Jamaican Monarch (Danaus cleophile), which ranges from Jamaica to Hispaniola.

Soon, in early September, only the “Methuselah generation,” the fourth generation to hatch in the eastern population, will migrate south 3,000 miles (more than 4,800 kilometers) to an isolated mountaintop—the oyamel fir forest in the mountains of southwestern Mexico. Amazingly, the butterflies have never been there before! Scientists are still trying to figure out how they find their way. During migration, a Monarch can soar to 11,000 feet (more than 3,300 meters) and spend a lot of time gliding, using warm, thermal air currents the way that hawks do. Many Monarch butterflies arrive at their overwintering sites in Mexico at the beginning of November, when local communities celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. According to traditional beliefs, the butterflies are the souls of the ancestors returning for their annual visit.

Many Monarchs from the eastern population overwinter at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Video by the Florida Museum of Natural History.

How do the butterflies know what path to follow on their migration? Researchers have found that the butterflies have a pair of molecules that are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, like a compass. They use these molecules and information from the position of the sun to find their way. You can follow the northward and southward Monarch migrations at Journey North.

I’ve seen Monarch butterflies laying eggs later in the season this year, and I’m not sure why. There are so many factors that can affect the population size and timing of hatches and arrival. Both the eastern Monarch population and the western population (that migrates along the Pacific coast to southern California) have been experiencing serious declines in the last 20 years. There are several reasons for this. Some farmers are using genetically modified crops that are resistant to herbicides, but the herbicides also kill milkweeds growing next to these crops. There is a major decline in milkweed populations due to habitat loss. Cars striking butterflies and habitat loss at overwintering sites are also factors. Climate change might cause Monarchs to migrate farther north, and that might make it harder for future last generations to reach Mexico.

What can you do? Planting a garden for them will help. Monarch larvae (caterpillars) eat native milkweeds (see my post Milkweeds Aren’t Weeds from June 11, 2020 for more on different species). Many nurseries should be having sales and now through fall is a good time to plant. Always ask whether the plants you buy are neonicotinoid free. Neonicotinoids are widely used systemic insecticides that will get into plant leaves and pollen and poison caterpillars, bees, and other insects.

Although larvae eat only milkweeds, adults feed on a variety of nectar plants, including Joe-Pye Weeds (Eutrochium sp.), Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.), Asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.), Goldenrod (Solidago sp.), and more.

Monarch larvae (caterpillars) feed only on milkweeds. Their bright warning coloration helps them let predators know they that they taste bad, but tachinid flies aren’t affected and can lay their eggs on the caterpilars. Photo by USFWSmidwest / Public domain.

Many people raise Monarch caterpillars. Put them in a protected location (pots of milkweeds in mesh containers work well) outdoors rather than in your house. Studies have shown that caterpillars raised indoors fail to migrate properly.

A Monarch pupa eclosing or hatching from a chrysalis is one of nature’s miracles. Video by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another way you can help is by tagging migrating Monarchs in the fall. Each tag is a small dot of glue-backed paper with a unique identifying number. You gingerly place the tag on the lower hindwing. Tagged butterflies help researchers learn about migration timing and movement. To order, learn more about how to tag monarchs, and order tags, go to Monarch Watch.

Tagging Monarchs help researchers understand the origins of the butterflies that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of the migration, mortality during the migration, and changes in geographic distribution, Photo

Let’s all help the Monarch by including milkweeds and nectar plants in our gardens or planting pots of them on our apartment stoops and patios. We can work toward creating connecting habitats along Pollinator Pathways.

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 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 (

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 (

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

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 (

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: 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 (

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 (

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 (

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 (

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(

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 (

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 (

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 /

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 (

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.