Inch Your Way to Loving Worms!

Inch Your Way to Loving Worms!

The pretty cecropia moth caterpillar!

 

We won’t be talking about love or flowers this Valentine’s Day, but we will talk about some love-able critters that can eat flowers! They’re squishy, fluffy, or prickly, and sometimes called worms. They can be striped, spotted, or elaborately camouflaged. They are mini bird burritos, have secret appendages, and can trigger gag reflexes. They will become tomorrow’s moths and butterflies. We’re talking about CATERPILLARS!

What exactly is a caterpillar?

These curious creatures are the larval stage of growth in butterflies and moths. The term “caterpillar” is colloquial, and almost exclusively refers to moths and butterflies (although some moth caterpillars are also called “worms” or “inchworms”). Other insects have different terms for their larval stages, such as “maggots” for fly larvae and “grubs” for beetle larvae.

Most people know that the caterpillar/larval stage is one step in the development process called metamorphosis. But did you know that there are two general kinds of metamorphosis: “complete” and “incomplete”? The big difference between the two is that insects using complete metamorphosis go through a pupal stage (a period where they are inactive for a bit). Butterflies and moths go through complete metamorphosis because a caterpillar forms into a pupa when it develops into a chrysalis or rests inside a cocoon. Insects that go through incomplete metamorphosis do not go through a pupal stage (some examples include dragonflies, praying mantids, and crickets).

A black swallowtail caterpillar with beautiful warning stripes that say “don’t eat me”.

Why so squishy?

Back to caterpillars: why would any animal want to be small, slow, and squishy for a period of their life? What is the advantage, considering how tasty caterpillars are to birds, rodents, and many other animals? About 80% of insects (including bees, ants, fireflies, and more!) use complete metamorphosis to grow, which requires this vulnerable phase. Why is this?

Besides the pupal stage, another hallmark of complete metamorphosis is that the larval stage and adult stage have virtually nothing in common. Most scientists agree that this difference is key to the success of complete metamorphosis: young and adult insects don’t have to compete for the same resources. Caterpillars munch on leaves and grow in vegetation while moths and butterflies sip nectar and fly around looking for mates. But what about the fact that most caterpillars are specialists? Why would caterpillars evolve to be picky?

A lucky four-leaf clover.

The brightly colored cloudless sulphur caterpillar!

Luna Moth

A red admiral caterpillar feeds on nettles in Brookside Park!

Why so picky?

To name two examples, monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, and red admiral caterpillars will only eat nettles. Wouldn’t it be much more advantageous to be able to eat any kind of plant, or at least a more general group of plants? Not necessarily. Specialist caterpillars seem to have better defenses against predation than generalist caterpillars: monarch caterpillars eat poisonous milkweed plants, and red admiral caterpillars hang out in nettles that sting – most animals will learn to avoid these caterpillars. Scientists also think that specialist caterpillars are better at identifying and choosing plants, and consequently eat more. Because so many caterpillars are specialists, it is imperative to plant as many native plants as possible if you want to help butterflies and moths. It’s surprisingly beneficial to be a picky, squishy caterpillar, but it’s still a dangerous world.

Worm weapons!

Plants can’t supply all necessary defenses – many caterpillars must deploy their own wacky weapons to defend their soft, protein-filled bodies. One tactic is coloration. Caterpillars can be camouflaged to look just like bird poop, or have colorful patterns to warn their predators they are poisonous or bad-tasting. Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars look almost exactly like miniature snakes, frightening off birds with their life-like eye spots. These caterpillars also have secret appendages, called osmeteria, that they strike out of their head to mimic a snake’s tongue! Other swallowtail species also have colorful osmeteria they can stick out in conjunction with nasty smells and sometimes irritating secretions (not harmful to humans). Other caterpillars take defense to new lengths: fecal firing.

You read that right. To help hide their smell from parasitic wasps, silver-spotted skipper caterpillars catapult their smelly frass (excrement) 38 body lengths away, a distance equivalent to 228 feet for a six-foot human! Curiouser still, some caterpillars like the walnut sphinx moth can squeak or whistle. The whistle sounds like a bird warning call, causing the hungry bird to drop the caterpillar. But let’s get into some hairier defenses.

A snake-mimicking eastern tiger swallowtail, with its osmeterium acting like a snake’s tongue!

Many caterpillars are hairy enough to make some 1980s bands jealous. Sometimes the fluff just means the caterpillars are cute; other times it means they shouldn’t be touched. Many fuzzy caterpillars can have hairs that break on contact, causing irritation on the finger or mouth that touched them. This doesn’t always affect humans; if you’ve handled woolly bear caterpillars before, you’ve handled these kinds of irritating hairs. Other caterpillars can have more irritating hair, or have specialized hairs that can actually deliver mild venoms. Puss caterpillars get a lot of media attention for the sometimes blistering results they can give to human skin, however there have been no sightings of these caterpillars in Iowa (puss caterpillars grow into a particular species of flannel moth). The buck moth and some slug and saddleback moth caterpillars can cause serious irritation, but sightings and encounters are very rare in central Iowa and symptoms normally do not need medical attention (for specifics on venomous caterpillars, read here). Most fuzzy caterpillars in Iowa are harmless or merely have irritating hairs. Removing hairs with tape, washing the area afterwards, and ice or baking soda paste is the best care for minor rashes from caterpillar hairs.

Pictures: Above, a touch-friendly woolly bear caterpillar. Below, a slug caterpillar that may irritate the skin. While not seen often in Iowa, some slug caterpillars can deliver more of a sting. Besides that, they look SO STRANGE! In nature they look like a spider’s shed exoskeleton, and are well-camoflaged in leaf debris. Read more here!

The last caterpillar defense tactic is one that we hope you aren’t dealing with this Valentine’s Day: manipulation. Some caterpillars can trick animals that are usually predators into being their caretakers! Many gossamer-winged butterflies (a family of butterflies comprised of hairstreaks, blues, coppers, etc.) exude pheromones as larvae that trick ants into thinking the caterpillar is a fellow ant. Some of these dainty blue butterflies use this trick to commit social parasitism! Exactly how they utilize ants varies for each species of this butterfly family; for today we will focus on Edward’s hairstreak, a species of special concern in Iowa. This species of butterfly munches oak leaves as a caterpillar, and utilizes mini shelters created by ants. As a young caterpillar, it stays in the trees. But as it grows older, the Edward’s hairstreak caterpillar eats in trees only during the night; as dawn approaches it drops to the base of the tree to hide in ant-made shelters called byres, which are small piles of thatch created from leaves, sticks, and other forest floor materials. The caterpillars secrete a honeydew as a reward for the shelter and protection the ants provide. This relationship is much more in the spirit of the holiday, giving us a loving mutualism rather than parasitism.

Above, an inchworm on my kale plants this year. Below, a monarch caterpillar that could be harmed by garden pesticides!

From beautiful colors to shooting feces and feeding ants, caterpillars are worthy of love and appreciation! To support this wonderful world of worms, be sure to plant a variety of native plants in your yard, and most importantly do not spray pesticides! Yes, many caterpillars will chew on your garden plant leaves. I suggest allowing a part of your garden to become a “nursery”, a subset of plants that you don’t mind getting eaten by caterpillars. You can “babysit” the caterpillars by moving them off the plants you care about and place them onto the plants in the nursery (using gloves if they are fuzzy). By not spraying pesticides and allowing caterpillars to stay in the garden, you win the fun of watching the caterpillars that ate your dill and carrots turn into black swallowtails! Keeping from spraying pesticides also allows you to enjoy bumble bees visiting your tomato plants and bees sleeping in your flowers. By tolerating the presence of insects and a few munched leaves, you can support an entire little ecosystem with your garden, and witness all the drama the insect world has to offer while pulling weeds and watering plants. Let the backyard garden be your gateway to the curious world of caterpillars!

Visit the following links to dive even deeper into the curious world of caterpillars!

– A list of butterfly/caterpillar host plants: https://henderson.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/05/plants-that-host-butterfly-larvae/

– More information on the importance of caterpillars: https://extension.psu.edu/a-case-for-caterpillars

– A fun read on caterpillars in the US: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/20/the-little-known-world-of-caterpillars

– More on metamorphosis: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/insect-metamorphosis-evolution/

– More on ant-butterfly relationships: https://sites.tufts.edu/pollinators/2019/07/the-butterflies-who-are-raised-by-ants/

Prairie Rivers Wins Grant to Help Pollinators and Farmers

Prairie Rivers Wins Grant to Help Pollinators and Farmers

Prairie Rivers of Iowa has been protecting Iowa’s natural resources for over 20 years. We recently received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support our work! The grant is awarded through the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinators Conservation Fund. Prairie Rivers of Iowa is one of 18 organizations to receive this grant, including The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the Pollinator Partnership.

Helping with Habitat
Prairie Rivers’ project, titled Pollinator Patchwork: Enrolling Private Working Lands into Monarch Butterfly Habitat, focuses on providing technical assistance to farmers and landowners motivated to help pollinators while receiving on-farm benefits as well. Our project, in particular, focuses on women landowners and farm operators, a group that has been historically left out of conversations and under-recruited for beneficial programs for decades. This group is also an un-tapped source for converting low-quality cropland out of production and into beneficial pollinator habitat. To address this issue, Prairie Rivers is creating general and women-specific field days, webinars, and effective outreach materials while partnering with area experts to accomplish these tasks! Our partners include Story County Conservation, Dr. Jean Eells of E Resources Group, area farmer Jim Richardson, Boone and Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the Story County Water Quality Monitoring Planning Team.

Dr. Jean Eels during a Women Caring for the Land event in 2019.

Dr. Jean Eells is excited to partner with Prairie Rivers of Iowa for this project. Eells received her PhD in Agricultural Education and is highly experienced in effectively creating field days and outreach materials for women:

“This funding will allow us to hold events for landowners that will answer their questions and let them see directly how monarch and pollinator habitats can be created on their acres. I’m especially excited to hold meetings for women landowners where they can get their questions answered in a very friendly forum, whether they are very experienced or just beginning to make space for monarch butterflies.”

Jim Richardson, as a grain farmer and president of the Hamilton County Conservation Board, holds unique insight into farmer attitudes:

“As a farmer, I always like to participate in programs that are a “win-win,” relates Richardson, “I consider Prairie Rivers’ new project to be a “win-win-win.” It’s a win for the landowner who will get maximum revenue off of low-productive ground. It’s a win for the tenant, who will not have to put expensive inputs into marginal land. Lastly, it’s a huge win for our monarchs and all of our pollinators, who will find food sources where they have never been able to before.”

PRI Pollinator Conservation Specialist Jessica Butters

“UPDATE 2023-03-31: Prairie Rivers of Iowa is currently hiring for a pollinator conservation specialist to manage the project. Jessica Butters, outgoing pollinator conservation specialist and lead grantwriter had this to say about the potential of the project.

“It is exciting to start pollinator-focused projects in rural areas.  Prairie Rivers has started many successful pollinator projects in urban areas. Given that over 85% of Iowa is agricultural land, pollinator conservation on farmland is an enormous piece of the puzzle in supporting monarch butterflies and pollinators. Creating pollinator habitat in agricultural areas will allow us to connect pieces of pollinator habitat together, allowing monarch butterflies and other pollinators to move throughout the state.”

A Year of Pollinator Progress!

A Year of Pollinator Progress!

With your help, Prairie Rivers of Iowa accomplished many pollinator goals in 2023! From mobilizing a city-wide plan to improve the plight of pollinators to receiving a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, we have been working hard to educate the public and serve our community! Besides creating over 30 educational social media posts, providing in-person presentations, and educating at events such as the City of Ames EcoFair, this program has achieved several significant milestones this year:

Mobilizing the Ames Pollinator Plan

This year, we brought the Ames Pollinator Plan to life! Prairie Rivers led the formation of small groups and started projects for pollinators in Ames! Some interesting projects include drafting educational messages about how to support Ames butterflies, understanding how city policy can help residents create more pollinator-friendly yards, and identifying research methods to determine “who”, in terms of pollinators, live right here in Ames! Understanding which pollinators are present will allow us to appreciate and understand the immediate needs of pollinators in Ames. Read our plan that started it all here!

Monarch Magic!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted its first monarch tagging event this year, “Monarch Magic!”. This event pulled many dedicated partner organizations together to create a fun-filled educational event! We had attendees ranging from infants to senior citizens, with over 95 families and groups attending! Together, we tagged 146 monarch butterflies to help scientists track the monarch migration route, their migration timing, and other data to understand how these magnificent butterflies survive one of the most arduous migrations in the animal kingdom. Read more about this event and our incredible partners and sponsors here!

NFWF Grant to help Monarchs and Women!

Most of Iowa’s land is in agriculture (over 85% as of 2021). This fact alone makes it imperative to have farms that mitigate harm and actually benefit Iowa’s natural resources! To achieve this, Prairie Rivers has created a new project, which was recently awarded a grant by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Our project will plant more monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat on farms by reaching out to all farmers but with a particular focus on women landowners and producers. Women landowners and farmers have historically been left out of many beneficial farm and conservation programs due to dated outreach efforts and cultural assumptions. They are an under-utilized group that is very likely to install acres into conservation practices, especially after learning more about pollinator decline! To provide higher-quality outreach and services to these women, we are partnering with Story County Conservation, Boone and Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Story County Water Monitoring Planning Team, local grain farmer Jim Richardson, and agricultural education expert Dr. Jean Eells. With this team, we will construct messages that are inclusive and compelling to all farmers and landowners, including women, create field days of learning specifically for women, and raise women’s awareness of opportunities for cost shares and conservation programs. We hope this project will not only get more pollinator habitat on the ground, but that it will also create peer and mentor networks for women in agriculture and also set up an effective and sustainable communication system between women and the NRCS (National Resource Conservation Services). Our project will focus on reaching farmers and implementing conservation practices within Story, Boone, and Hamilton counties.

THANK YOU again for supporting Prairie Rivers of Iowa and our pollinator program! Together, we are creating a lasting, positive impact for the people and pollinators in Iowa!

To invest in a positive Iowa future, click here!

Unexpected Friends: Bugs Are Not Invading Your Home

Unexpected Friends: Bugs Are Not Invading Your Home

This time of year we seem to notice more bugs* indoors. For some people this isn’t worrisome. For others, it may mean frantic googling to ensure you’re not seeing an unknown pest. In this article, we discuss 1) trustworthy sources of information about bugs in the home, 2) common bug misconceptions, and 3) which bugs you might see in your house this time of year.

 *The term “bug” in this article is being used to refer to any insect, spider, or other arthropod. Technically, the word “bug” refers to insects within the order Hemiptera, which is a specific group of insects. We are using this term generally to keep the text simple.

Let’s get right down to it: pest control company websites are not good sources of information. Many are hoping to sell you a service. Some companies may state on their website that certain bugs are harmless, but a nuisance. This is an accurate statement (although, is the bug actively annoying you, or are they just standing on your wall 10 feet away?). However, these companies continue on to exaggerate the venom in spider bites (more on this later), rare allergic reactions, and inflate the idea that bugs are trying to “invade” your home (most are not). Additionally, I’ve found pest control companies that call some insects beetles that are clearly not beetles, and make false statements about native bee nesting behavior. Pest control’s expertise is in extermination, specifically of truly harmful pests. When it comes to harmless bugs, which is what you are likely finding in your house, they simply do not have good information.

The best place to learn about a bug in your house is through university and extension websites. These websites are created with a focus of educating the public, not selling services. If you look through these websites and can’t find information about your specific bug, Iowa State University offers free photo identification through their Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, and their entomology department staff would probably be willing to receive bug photos through email as well. You can also email me photos of your bugs for free here!

Unfortunately, when you google “house bugs in winter”, pest control companies have paid to be the links that appear at the top of the return list. You’ll have to scroll down to get better sources to answer your question or add terms like “university” or “extension” to your search. I also love to read Chris Helzer’s blog, articles from the Xerces Society, and our Prairie Rivers newsletter to get truthful and fascinating information about bugs!

Glowing Jack-O-Lantern

Bugs add beauty to our world!

Common bug misconceptions

No, most bugs are not actively trying to enter your house. Bugs are adapted to thrive outside, and mostly wander in by accident or are brought in by you through clothing or wood for your fireplace. No offense, but most bugs think your home is a subpar habitat. Compared to the outdoors, your house is probably too dry (many bugs are prone to drying out, which is lethal to them). Secondly, your house has very little food in terms of dead leaves, other bugs, and plants. You may have indoor plants, but they are probably not what most bugs are adapted to eat. Lastly, many bugs in Iowa overwinter outside, near or in the ground, as larvae, eggs or pupae. The adult bugs you see are likely on their final days because most adult bugs in Iowa are not adapted to surviving winter. If they do overwinter as adults, they are likely slow, don’t eat much (if at all), and don’t reproduce. The best way to keep bugs out of your home is to caulk holes and cracks, check screens for holes, and fix any drafts in doors and windows. Many pest control companies boast about their pesticide treatments that “create a border/defense” around your house to keep all bugs out. This kind of broad treatment will also harm non-pest insects, such as next year’s fireflies (their juveniles overwinter in soil), ground-nesting bees, and other beneficial insects.

Bugs you may see around your house this winter

Spiders: Some spiders have the ability to bite, but most will not unless they are handled roughly. They are not “invading” your home. They may have been in your house for a while, but are now more active because it’s mating season. Another reason you may see them more is because your doors and windows were open thanks to the lovely fall weather, and they wandered inside. Serious reactions to spider bites are very rare. Even the brown recluse spider avoids people, and only 10% of people develop a reaction to their bite. Truly: 90% of people who are bit by brown recluses are completely fine, with no complications or problems. A quick iNaturalist search will show you how rare brown recluses and black widows are in Iowa. If a spider (or really any bug) bothers you, catch them and release them outside, or vacuum them up and empty your vacuum (minus the household waste) outside.

Reversed Haploa Moth

A pretty emerald jumping spider.

Multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis): These beetles are not native to Iowa, though they look similar to many of our native species. They helped you in the garden all summer by eating aphids and other pests. Yes, they can nip if handled, but it feels like a small prick and leaves no resulting bump or itchiness. Like most bugs, they do not reproduce in homes. Lastly, don’t you think this is the cutest bug you could hope to find in your house? I’m always happy to find one inside when it’s cold out; it’s like a small piece of summer reappeared.

Common Buckeye

The cute multicolored Asian lady beetle.

Brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys): These bugs are not native to Iowa, and may nibble on some indoor plants. Yes, they do seek warmth, but they want to stay outside, where they receive direct sunlight. If found indoors, know that they didn’t mean to find a gap in your window and wander in. I only get them when I don’t check outdoor plants before bringing them inside. These bugs only stink if you smash them, so be sure to catch and release them or vacuum them up. They will not reproduce/lay eggs during winter. I’ve never been bit or smelled anything foul by just removing them with my hands and tossing them out the door into some bushes.

Common Buckeye

The friendly stink bug!

Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata): Yes, they gather on the sunny sides of buildings for warmth, but that’s where they want to stay. Maybe when you opened your door two of them were swished inside. These bugs are great because they don’t bite, don’t harm plants, don’t eat human food, and do not reproduce during the winter. They don’t even harm the plants they’re famous for feeding on (boxelder and maple trees)! They have cool red lines and little red eyes, making them look like little superheroes or race cars, which I find quite endearing!

Swallowtail Caterpillar

The boxelder bug with racing stripes.

As the days get colder, try to be curious and more understanding when you find a bug unexpectedly in your house. They are not invading vermin; oftentimes they are friendly wanderers that found a crack near your window. Take some time to take pictures and learn about the bug before releasing it outside. You might learn something new, and it would be a nice reminder of summer during some of the drearier days of the year.

Support bugs this season by leaving your leaves, keeping your outdoor lights wildlife-friendly, and staying curious!

Other great sources to learn more about bugs are the University of Wisconsin’s Bug of the Week and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Further reading: An article explaining a study by the California Academy of Sciences on the ecology of bugs found in homes (homes are likely a passive travel area for bugs, and not an attraction).

How to Have a Delightful Halloween Hike

How to Have a Delightful Halloween Hike

As the rays of summer creep towards the embers of autumn, now is a great time to go on a long walk to breathe in the changing of the seasons. While most people will be putting up lights and hoarding candy for Halloween, you can hit the trails to see some of the most interesting and spooky beings found naturally, right here in Iowa! Here we compile all things October to give you the best time to hike, where to find fairy fires and ghostly plants, and facts about curious birds this autumn.

Fantastic Foliage and When to Find It

To enjoy the best fall leaf display, the best practice is to go for a walk each day. If this is impossible, or you love planning, check the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Fall Color Report online (or sign up for email updates on their report page).

Toadstools at Twilight

Did you know that Iowa is home to glowing mushrooms?! The Jack-O’-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens) is pumpkin-orange in daylight, and lights up at night! Its light, also called fox fire or fairy fire, is created through bioluminescence. Remember that mushrooms are merely the reproductive parts of fungi. The majority of the fungus is actually underground. To find Jack-O’-Lantern mushrooms, search forests during the day for orange, classic-shaped mushrooms at the base of trees, and then return to areas where you found them on a dark night (with a friend for safety!). Give your eyes time to adjust after you put your lights out – the glow comes from the gills (on the underside of the mushroom) and will be faint. Please don’t harvest the mushrooms – they are poisonous.

Glowing Jack-O-Lantern

Glowing Jack-O’-Lanterns on a dark night

Peculiar Plants

Some native plants you can see now in central Iowa, with quintessential Halloween-like names, include “false boneset,” “doll’s eyes,” and “ghost plant.” False boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides) is named for the fact that its bone-colored flowers and plant structure resemble “true” boneset flowers. However, it is in a different genus of plants. False boneset is an important late-blooming flower for pollinators, and has a fluffy white display after flowering. It also does not spread aggressively, making it a great addition to pollinator gardens.

Sweetheart Underwing Moth

False boneset in bloom

“Doll’s eyes” (white baneberry, Actaea pachypoda), is native to eastern Iowa. This small shrub produces white berries with a large black spot in the center, looking eerily like doll eyes. Adding to this eeriness, the “eyes” are poisonous to mammals, including humans. The closely related red baneberry (Actaea rubra) is native to central Iowa and sometimes produces white berries as well. Berries of both plants are eaten by birds, who don’t digest the poisonous seeds. You can find both plants in forested, shady areas with deep leaf layers.

Reversed Haploa Moth

Doll’s Eyes keep watch in the forest

Ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora) are the star of our peculiar plant category. This plant is truly ghostly white, containing no chlorophyll (read: no green color) for photosynthesis. So how does it get its nutrients? It steals it from fungi! The fungi (specifically, mycorrhizae) share nutrients with neighboring tree roots, and the ghost plant taps into this nutrition-sharing system to help itself. October is near the end of this plant’s flowering season, but the best chances of finding it are in undisturbed forest areas with a deep organic layer.

Common Buckeye

Pale Ghost Plants on the forest floor

Alluring Animals

The harbinger of spooky season is the caw of the crow. Though present year-round, they are more appreciated during the twilight of the year. Seemingly ominous with their dark feathers and willingness to scavenge, these birds are in fact quite endearing. Not only are they intelligent enough to create and use tools to get food, but their offspring, once grown, normally return the next year to help tend to their younger siblings! Maybe groups of crows should be called “families” rather than “murders.” Lastly, how can you tell the difference between a crow and a raven? Firstly, ravens aren’t really found in Iowa – the closest area of their range is in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Secondly, the classic “caw” sound is distinctly crow, while ravens croak instead.

Swallowtail Caterpillar

A crow perches in a young tree

October is a lovely time of year, providing unparalleled weather and colors to enjoy Iowa’s outdoors. It is easy to agree with Aldo Leopold’s musing, that “…other months were constituted mainly as a fitting interlude between Octobers.” May you soak up this golden month of the year, and all it has to offer!