Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blog Hiatus

I am going on blog hiatus. I am leaving for a backpacking trip to the High Sierras of California. I will have no internet access, no email access,and no cell phone. Yay! This means no postings for me, and no commenting on other peoples' blogs as well. I'll be back home September 9. I'll blog about the trip after I get home.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Butterfly Release

Silver-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene)

Well, it finally happened. After bacterial outbreaks, a very low population at the donor site in 2006, a trip to Florida by a member of my lab for pointers in breeding butterflies in captivity, and some unexpectedly violent weather last week, we released Silver-bordered Fritillaries at Glacial Park on Monday. The poor performance of the species in 2006 was particularly difficult. We went out five times before we finally managed to collect gravid females last September. This was right at the end of the flight period and left no room for problems (which we, of course, had). This year, we managed to collect our breeding stock in mid July, and things have gone very well ever since. The early start was one of the reasons that last week’s thunderstorm delay did not concern me overly- we still have plenty of time for additional releases this season.

Releasing the butterflies at Glacial Park
L-R: Janice, Vincent, Dawson

After all of the buildup and false starts, the release itself was surprisingly uneventful. True, the mosquitoes continue to make things somewhat unpleasant at the moment. But the weather was lovely and it’s always great to be able to do some of my work in the kind of beautiful surroundings that we were in on Monday afternoon. Glacial Park is part of the McHenry County forest preserve system. It’s a huge site, with lots of potential habitat for this particular species of butterflies. So if a population successfully takes hold it has the potential to become fairly large.

Vincent and I look on as 2 newly-placed butterflies warm up.

On Monday, the adult butterflies were chilled in the refrigerator, placed in about a dozen small containers, and packed on ice in a cooler. When we got them out to the release site, they were nice and cool (read: inactive) and we could easily place them on plants. We released 90 individuals. They slowly warmed up and became active. My one concern was that the butterflies would warm up and then rapidly leave the area- but that’s not what we observed. As they warmed, they circled around in the large field we were in. They would land on flowers, and several were observed actively nectaring. It was so rewarding to see this beautiful species checking out its new home. I’m hoping that a lot of them mated yesterday and today. If successful, the females will spend the next week or so laying eggs. Think fertile thoughts!

Janice, me, and Vincent with a cooler of exotically-packaged DNA

So what’s next for this project? A bunch of stuff. We didn’t release all of our adults. Some in the lab have already begun mating and laying eggs. We hope to get a second generation of adults, and will attempt additional releases next month. We may even release at a second site. We are still working with other species such as the swamp metalmark. We still have over 80 caterpillars in the lab. Next month, we will obtain the beautiful and endangered Regal Fritillary for egg collection. We will field release some caterpillars in October, shortly after they hatch. The remainder will be released next season.

The Silver-bordered Fritillary Team
L-R: Vincent, me (both from the Nature Museum),
Janice and Marla (both from McHenry County College)

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Friday, August 24, 2007

About Last NIght....

I've been getting email inquiries about my well-being after last nights amazing thunderstorms. I fared well, though others did not. Storm damage on the Museum grounds has been minimal. Cleanup efforts are underway right now. We only lost two trees from the grounds, both trees that predate the construction of the building. Like many of the older trees that date from a period of neglect of this corner of the park, the two that we lost were in bad shape anyway, and can now be replaced with more interesting species that can be properly tended. The rest of Lincoln Park was not so lucky, and there are numerous huge trees down all over the park, and indeed, all over northern Illinois.

Across the street, my car narrowly escaped being crushed by a tree. I went out after the storm to find the very top part of the crown brushing over my hood. I feel very lucky. My commute home was bad last night, but I've encountered worse in snowstorms. The fact that I waited until nearly 8 PM to leave work helped. Traffic was particularly hindered by the fact that one of the major expressways north of the city was closed because of flooding. I didn't have to alter my route, but had to deal with the traffic that would normally go that way merging back onto the Kennedy Expressway.

There was little damage on my property at home, even though Elgin reported wind gusts of 75 mph. Additionally, my neighborhood did not lose power (nor did the Museum, for that matter). Tomorrow I'll get out and see how Bluff Spring Fen fared. An additional round of thunderstorms is expected this evning. Even if they aren't severe, we do not need any more rain right now.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Abort, Abort, Abort!

Murphy has discovered where the project lives. Yesterday's much-anticipated silver-bordered fritillary release had to be aborted. Here Vincent expresses all of our frustration as we give up on the endeavor. The storm clouds in the background are only part of the reason. Here is what you can't see from the picure:

  • It took over 2 hours to get to this spot from downtown Chicago. We were trying for a very late day release. Traffic was, therefore, horrible, and certain unnamed mambers of our party became lost.
  • The field behind Vincent ranges between ankle-deep and knee deep in water. Not only did we all get very wet feet and legs, all of the caterpillar food plants that were previously scoped out are under a couple of feet of water at the moment.
  • The storms that caused all of this have been doing a lot of damage here in the upper Midwest. Some of it has involved signifncant injuries, property damage, and even loss of life. We have all been lucky, but it can be difficult to remember that when the worst mosquito outbreak in over a decade is draining you dry.
So where do we go from here? The butterflies that were to be released have been put in flight cages in the lab to breed and create at least one more generation that can be released in September. Fewer than half of the chyrsalides that we have in the lab have emerged, and there should be plenty of adult butterflies for us to try again with next week. There is higher ground near this picture with plenty of host plants, so we should be OK with just some minor re-adjustment to the plan. I'm also learning a new value of blogging. During frustrating times you can comfort yourself by knowing that the story will make a good blog entry.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Service Interruption

We apologize for the interrpution of service here at Gossamer Tapestry. Doug and Vincent will be heading out into the field shortly to release silver-bordered fritillaries. Gossamer Tapestry will resume usual blogging tomorrow. Meanwhile, enjoy this cactus weevil from Arizona.


Monday, August 20, 2007


Strange doings are in the lab. What could be happeining?

The caterpillars have been doing so well in their cages. Why is Vincent taking them off of their racks?

Whoa! We've got a whole lot of metamorphosis going on here. We've got over 70 adult silver-bordered fritillaries. On Wednesday afternoon, we will have our long-awaited field release of these guys.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the swamp metalmark larvae are still doing very well.

Swamp thistle leaf with swamp metalmark caterpillars

Thanks to Lisa for the photos.

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Friday, August 17, 2007


Can it really be a year already? This whole blogging thing started out as an experiment, and has really gotten to be an important part of my life. I had been reading blogs for longer than that. They were mostly well-known blogs with huge readerships, like Andrew Sullivan and The Panda's Thumb. I'd even occasionally leave comments, though mostly I was a lurker.

Then my friend Michael started his Spo Reflections blog. This was new to me. The other blogs were like marketplaces of ideas, but Michael and his circle of fellow bloggers were more like a community. I started leaving comments, and eventually started this blog. It's been a wonderful year, filled with wonderful folks. Some highlights:
  • The gift of pickles and jam from Rodger and Mark, two of my favorite bloggers.
  • Meeting bloggers Tony and Homer, both fine fellows and a lot of fun to hang with.
  • The discovery just this week of somebody doing a photoblog of my butterfly exhibit.
  • Bug Girl saying embarassingly complimentary things about me.
  • Sharing my successes and failures with a bunch of supportive people.
And then there was the accidental discovery, sometime last spring, of a blog called The Taming of the Band-Aid. This is the blog of a guy in south Florida doing ecological restoration on his little plot of land, and sharing other thoughts on the natural wold. He and his blog are both interesting in theior own right, but his blogroll linked me to a whole bunch of like-minded folks scattered across the country. They have all become important reads to me.

So as my first year of blogging comes to a close, I'd like to thank my readers for making this a rewarding and worthwhile effort. My readership may not be large, but they're quality people. I know this because of Scott from Wisconsin, who lurks but doesn't comment. He's taught me all about quality people.

I guess it's time to stop referring to my blog as "an experiment" and just view it is something that I'm doing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pickles & Butterflies

Lots of stuff happening up here in the stormy Midwest at the moment. Using a great recipe from Rodger and Mark, I made pickles over the weekend. It will be November before they can be tried, but the finished product came out looking very pretty. Per the recipe, I tucked a grape leaf into the bottom of each jar. The only real problem that I had with the recipe was difficulty with finding alum, which is used as a crisping agent. I made do with a package mix that contained salt, alum, and spices. I’m hoping that the grape leaves will provide most of the crisping anyway. I’ll pick up some alum in the canning section next time I’m in Farm and Fleet.

Jars of pickles in the hot water bath

The butterfly restoration work is going better than ever. We currently have over 100 (112 at last count) chrysalides of silver-bordered fritillaries. The first adults have already begun emerging, and I anticipate having enough for a field release late next week or early the week after. I wonder if I’ll blog about that? We have enough going at the moment that we should be able to hold some back to do another generation in the lab. One thing that makes this species nice to work with is that they have at least three generations each year. In addition to opening the possibility of doing an additional generation in the lab, we will get to look for the offspring of the released butterflies in the field a mere month after we release them. Given that most of the species that I work with have but a single generation annually, this seems like instant gratification.

People have left questions about the butterfly restoration efforts, and I thought I’d answer them here.

Robin Andrea asks:

So what are you doing to make the lab particularly agreeable for the metalmark and fritillary?

The changes have mostly involved hygiene. We were given an entire room in the museum in which we do nothing but raise butterflies. Until recently, we were rearing large numbers of caterpillars communally in containers. No more. We now make individual cages out of paper cups. Each one holds no more than 2 caterpillars, at least in the more mature stages of caterpillar growth. We use lots of bleach and lots of hand sanitizer. Cages are cleaned every three days. The result has been excellent survival of our larvae.

Dave asks:

I hope your new transplants flourish! Is there a particular plant they prefer? Maybe you could deliver any "extras" to Cook County!

Thanks. The host plants are various species of violets, such as marsh violet, that grow in wet prairies and sedge meadows. This species turns out to be relatively easy to work with, and it is my hope that we can do additional sites. I am considering a second release this year in DuPage County. The main issue is having sites that are ready to receive the butterfly. Given that, I’d really enjoy trying a release on a Cook County site.

Thingfish23 asks:

Let me know when you're hiring.

Heh. You Florida boys would never survive a Chicago winter. Kidding aside, very similar work is going on much closer to your home (and virtually in FC’s back yard). The McGuire Center for Lepidoptera (out of UF Gainesville) is doing restoration work with a number of imperiled Florida species, including restoring the Miami Blue in the Florida Keys. Volunteer work is available through the Florida Butterfly Monitoring Network.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Cautiously Optimistic

Last October, my lab experienced severe technical difficulties with our butterfly breeding for conservation. This year, we have revamped our efforts considerably. One of the main changes has been to become totally paranoid about lab hygiene. In July, we brought a half dozen silver-bordered fritillary females into the lab and got hundreds of eggs. As of this writing, we have over 400 caterpillars. Pupation has begun- I just counted 43 chrysalides. We are far ahead of where we were last year when disaster struck.

Our new breeding lab. This is about 1/3 of our stock.
Each cup contains 2 silver-bordered fritillary caterpillars

Over the next several weeks, adults will begin emerging from the chrysalides. I will be taking the adults to a site in McHenry County for release. If all goes well, I will also hold back about 50 chrysalides and start an additional generation. We will attempt a release on at least one more site if we have enough offspring (which shouldn’t be a problem). The sites where we will be releasing butterflies are sites where management and ecological restoration have been happening, but where the butterfly is not currently found. The goal here is to establish new populations on each of these sites.

Silver-bordered fritillary larva on host plant (violet).
This is a mature caterpillar that should pupate in the next day or two.

If that weren’t enough, we now also have about 100 swamp metalmark caterpillars in the lab. This species is more delicate, and more difficult to work with. Unlike the silver-bordered fritillary, there is but a single generation per year. The caterpillars that are hatching right now will not become butterflies until next summer. Carrying them over the winter will be a challenge, but will be worth the effort. That species is critically endangered.

Vincent moving newly hatched swamp metalmark caterpillars onto host plant (swamp thistle). He's wearing magnifying glasses because the larvae are so tiny.

Over the rest of the summer, we hope to bring two additional species of butterflies into the lab, with the goal of starting new populations of them, as well.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Field Trip Day

Patagonia Mountains near Harshaw Creek

Every year, Thursday of the Invertebrates in Captivity Conference is field trip day. It’s one of my favorite parts of the trip. For one thing, it divides the attendees into much smaller groups, which makes it a great way to get to know the new folks. This year, the field trip that I chose had three distinct destinations: Harshaw Creek, Empire Cienega, and Florida Canyon.

The hills are alive- with entomologists

We got to Harshaw Creek about 8:30 in the morning. This segment of the trip illustrates one of the challenges of collecting at this year’s conference. It had rained heavily through the pre-dawn hours. The vegetation was wet and the air still chilly when we got there, so there wasn’t much flying. I feel like I spend most of the entire week with damp socks. Still, the scenery was beautiful, the company was engaging, and we did manage to find a few good things.

Bagworm cocoon at Harshaw Creek

Fence Lizard

We got to Empire Cienega right around lunchtime. By this point, the weather was again touch and go. Empire Cienega is a desert wetland, but it’s also a historic site that’s being renovated. On the way in, we ran into one of the archaeologists. He suggested that we keep a close eye on the weather, and leave if the rain got heavy. For about an hour, the sun was in and out, and the collecting wasn’t half bad. Lots of folks got vinegaroons, but alas I got no photos. Right when we were ready to eat, the skies opened. Heeding the archeologist’s advice, we managed to get all 27 entomologists back into the cars and on our way in no more than five minutes. What we didn’t know was that it had been raining heavily upstream from us for some time. One of the washed between the highway and us was in full flood when we got there. We were trapped (though in no danger) along with the archaeologists. Abruptly, the weather improved. We stood around for about an hour waiting for the creek to go down. Eventually, it dropped enough for the high-clearance vehicles to pass. About 20 minutes later, the flood had subsided to the point that even the rental cars could cross.

This picture doesn't really capture how deep the water was, nor how swift the current

The water has already dropped over a foot here. It would be another
20 minutes before the passenger cars ventured across

We reached Florida (pronounced flo-REED-a) Canyon high in the Santa Rita Mountains around 2. The sun shone brightly the whole time we were there. Clouds of thousands of bordered patch butterflies lined the roads. The monsoon season has been so heavy this year, that the canyon stream was virtually a river and not crossable. Still, we had a nice time collecting there and I managed to get a nice selection of Chrysomelid beetles. The trip ended in time to get home for the keynote speech, which was about a really cool type of insect called a velvet ant. More about them later.

Florida Canyon with lots of water in the wash

Arizona Rainbow Cactus

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Arizona Wednesday

The entrance to French Joe Canyon

I’m way behind on posting about my Arizona trip. The problem is that once I got to the conference, I was going the entire time, from about 6 AM till after midnight most nights. So this week, I’ll play catch up and recap my trip. Last Wednesday was the day that we drove from Tucson down to Rio Rico for the conference. We did not, however, take the direct route. Our path took us far to the east to Benson, Arizona, where we headed south along the east flank of the Whetstone Mountains to a favorite collecting spot called French Joe Canyon.

Gyascutus caelatus

John and I have been visiting French Joe for about five years now. We first discovered it late in the day, and were only able to take a short walk. We quickly discovered a large population of a beautiful metallic wood-boring beetle called Gyascutus caelatus. These bad boys are about as big as my thumb, and take off with an alarming buzzing sound. They sit in the branches of acacia shrubs, and feed on the foliage and flowers. This is the first time I’ve managed to get photos.

Trachyderes mandibularis

We found lots of other beautiful stuff, including an amazing longhorn beetle called Trachyderes mandibularis. I’m not really happy with the photos- they don’t pose well. This is another big bug, about as big as the Guyascuta, and that’s if you don’t count the antennae. Their elytra (wing covers) are a very shiny black and yellow pattern. They look like they have been shellacked.

The plateau above San Rafael Valley, with approaching thunderstorm

John descends from the plateau into San Rafael Valley

Painted Grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor)

We grabbed a quick lunch at a convenience store (this was the trip of eating badly) and headed further south to the head of San Rafael Valley. Just above San Rafael is a brood grassland plateau. We encountered very beautiful painted grasshoppers there. Descending into the valley itself, we found a diversity of other interesting grasshopper species. At one point, I was walking down a dry creek bed, and a nearby manzanita bush began making a very alarming buzzing sound. Retreating to the bank above the creek bed, I discovered that the source of the sound was a black-tailed rattlesnake. Alarming, but I managed to get pictures.

Boy, could this guy play the maracas

Be this time, the day was winding down. We were chased from San Rafael by an approaching thunderstorm. We decided to call it a day, and arrived at Rio Rico just in time to freshen up before the Bugs In Bondage Buffet.

OMG - Bugs in Bondage!

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