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/

How a Pollinator Plan can Enrich Life in Ames

How a Pollinator Plan can Enrich Life in Ames

Luna Moth

Prairie Rivers of Iowa, Ames Public Works, and the Pollinator Task Force with Mayor Haila proclaiming Pollinator Week and the Ames Pollinator-Friendly Community Plan.

June is National Pollinator Month!

We are *buzzing* with exciting news! Mayor John Haila recently proclaimed National Pollinator Week in Ames, starting on Monday, June 19. Additionally, Haila announced a plan to make Ames a more pollinator-friendly city! To our knowledge, Ames is the first city in the United States to create its own 10-year plan, tailor-made for Ames residents and Iowa-native pollinators. Prairie Rivers of Iowa partnered with the City of Ames Public Works Department to organize a Pollinator Task Force, comprised of Ames residents, who came together to write the City of Ames Pollinator-Friendly Community Plan. Prairie Rivers and the City of Ames are now calling on even more residents to get involved in implementing this 10-year plan. You may be asking: ‘Why proclaim a national pollinator week, and why should we have a plan concerning pollinators for Ames?’. Because supporting pollinators is supporting the Ames community!

Do you like apple pie topped with ice cream? Thank pollinators!

Supporting Pollinators = Supporting Our Food

A pollinator is any animal (insect, bird, mammal) that moves pollen between flowers (the Ames Pollinator Plan focuses on supporting native bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects). The pollen exchange facilitated by pollinators allows plants to be fertilized and consequently grow fruits and seed. The fruits and seed produced with the help of pollinators is infinitely important! About one-third of our global food supply depends upon pollinators. If you like almonds, apples, tomatoes, or even steak and butter, you have pollinators to thank. Wait, steak and butter? Yes indeed. Pollinators are very important in producing seed for growing alfalfa, a hay crop fed to beef and dairy cattle. Without hay in livestock rations, it would be harder to access all things cattle, from ice cream to beef tacos. Lastly, almost 90% of flowering plants depend on pollinators! If you like seeing wildflowers on hikes or along roadsides, then you should want to keep pollinators around. Imagine if we lost nearly all of our flowering species? Our landscapes would be quite boring and colorless, and our plates would look more empty.

Supporting Pollinators = Supporting Ames’ Natural Resources

Yes, pollinators are very important for food crops at the national and global scale. But what are some benefits that we will be able to see locally, here in Ames? We’ll list two: 1) our water quality and 2) our soil health could be improved by planting pollinator habitat. One of the best ways to support pollinators is by planting native vegetation, or plants that have evolved and are originally from Iowa. Pollinators eat the nectar and pollen of these plants, and some also create nests in their stems. Many native plants are perennial, and because of this have expansive, thick root systems. Planting a patch of native plants is similar to casting a thick, wide net underground. This net of roots holds soil in place on slopes, soaks up extra water during heavy rain, and absorbs excess chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides as water moves through. These actions provided through native vegetation will lower erosion, mitigate flooding, and keep our local waterways cleaner if planted in the right areas.

Pollinator habitat also supports water quality!

Luna Moth

Planting for pollinators is also planting for people.

Additionally, because these plants are well-adapted to Iowa, they need fewer inputs such as pesticides and thrive without fertilizer. This creates a low-input, sustainable planting system. Lastly, creating a good pollinator habitat will create a good human habitat (see graphic on page 4 of link). Bear with me here. Being surrouned by greenery and wildlife such as butterflies reduces stress and stimulates curiosity and creativity. Strategically planting more diverse vegetation and flowering plants may increase the observations of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, which could have a positive impact on the mental health of Ames residents. This plan will support the pollinator community to address food insecurity, ecological health, offset the impacts of climate change, and will serve as an example for other cities around the world. Supporting pollinators truly supports the Ames community and beyond!

So What’s in this Plan?

The vision of the Pollinator Plan is for the City of Ames “to become a leader in developing and sustaining pollinator habitat that will enrich the quality of life for the human and biological communities of Ames“. Besides creating habitat that benefits pollinators and people, this plan also contains four pathways to bring this vision to life: 1) public education about pollinators and other important wildlife in Ames, 2) policy enhancements to support habitat implementation in the city, 3) research current and future conditions for pollinators and residents, and 4) the creation/strengthening of partnerships to use all resources to the fullest potential. Through education, policy, research, and partnerships, our plan will leverage the excitement and interest in pollinators to reach a beautiful vision of Ames: a more engaging, sustainable, beautiful, and healthy place that will not only serve pollinators, but the people and visitors of Ames.

You can read the plan in its entirety on the City of Ames’ Bird and Pollinator Friendly Community webpage!

Do you live in the Ames area? Are you excited to be a part of this vision for Ames? If so, click the blue button to fill out our volunteer form! You can also contact Jessica Butters at jbutters@prrcd.org or call 515-232-0048 to let us know you are interested in volunteering!

Trees for the Bees: How to Support Wildlife this Arbor Day!

Trees for the Bees: How to Support Wildlife this Arbor Day!

A native bee visiting a redbud tree.

These warmer days make it hard to sit still; we all want to get a jump on our yard and garden plans! Maybe you’re thinking of adding some small pockets of pollinator habitat. Or perhaps you’ve finally decided to add a tree or two for shade. While there’s a dizzying number of guides for “pollinator flowers”, there’s less advice on how homeowners can utilize trees and shrubs to support wildlife.

Planting a tree can be an investment not only of money but of time as well. When thinking about the long-term goals for your property, it’s important to think about the legacy you want to leave behind, as the tree may outlive you. Planting the right trees can not only increase your property’s appeal; it can also provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators for decades to come! So which trees are attractive to pollinators, are native to Iowa, and look great in our yards? We’ve put together a list to answer some of these questions, just in time for Arbor Day, which falls on April 28 this year!

But first: why trees?

Native trees and shrubs provide excellent wildlife habitat in several ways. Many provide an early flower source for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and they are also great habitat for birds! Trees provide nesting and hiding areas for birds, and can attract insects that birds need to feed their chicks (more on that later). Planting native trees will especially invite butterflies and moths to visit your yard and lay their eggs, which hatch into caterpillars. These caterpillars then snack on tree and shrub leaves (they won’t do any real damage) until they spin their chrysalises or get plucked by a bird. Caterpillars and other insects are fundamental to the food web: they are the juicy, protein-filled link between plants and larger animals. If you want to see beautiful butterflies and songbirds, you should plant native trees that support native insects!

A blue jay with an acorn.

Native trees are central to an exciting, diverse yard!

The nonnative ginko tree (the one with fan-shaped leaves) supports about 4 species of caterpillars. In contrast, native oak trees alone can support 534 species of caterpillars (according to Dr. Doug Tallamy*). Consider the fact that black-capped chickadees need at least 300 caterpillars a day to feed their chicks – that’s about 5,000 caterpillars needed in a few weeks while the chicks grow! And this is just one example. Imagine if you had three chickadee families in your yard, or five other species of birds visiting your feeders. Suddenly, native trees just seem practical, and planting nonnative trees, such as a ginko, seems, as Tallamy put it, “equivalent to erecting a statue” in terms of its usefulness.

A young chickadee and parent.

Unhelpful trees:

Let’s address the elephant in the room: some trees and shrubs commonly planted in yards are pretty damaging; they easily spread from our yards and choke out native plants that wildlife depend upon, and cost cities and counties thousands of dollars to remove from natural areas and building foundations (some of these trees’ roots can actually compromise the integrity of buildings). Some trees and shrubs to stay away from include: Bradford or Callery pear trees (Pyrus calleryana; also their flowers smell bad), Norway maples (Acer platanoides), buckthorn (Frangula species), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and Amur and Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii and L. morrowii, respectfully).

 

 

Lastly, do your best to avoid planting cultivars and hybrids that promise better color, bigger flowers, etc. Most native trees (especially maples) produce spectacular fall color anyway, and the hybrids you see in the nurseries will likely be sterile, and won’t produce flowers that attract pollinators or birds (if they produce any at all). It is also important to note that nonnative shrubs, trees, and hybrids may tout that they produce berries, and therefore support wildlife. Birds in particular may feed on berries only certain times of the year, and that time may not coincide with berry production on hybrid plants. Additionally, these nonnative plants will not come close to supporting the number of caterpillars needed to keep birds nesting in or near your yard.

Bradford pear tree with smelly flowers.

Multiflora rose choking out trees.

Now for the main event: the best shrubs and trees to plant!

How the lists are set up: Shrubs, small trees, and larger trees that are native to Iowa and beneficial to pollinators are listed below in order of bloom time. Each table describes a specific genus or species of tree, which is pictured to the right of the table (or below in mobile format).

Shrubs and small trees are listed first, and larger trees are listed afterwards. A small picture of the blooms produced by a shrub or tree may be displayed in the corner of the picture of the mature plant. These are not exhaustive lists; they are meant to get you started!

{ See end of article for a list of places to purchase native shrubs and trees! }

Shrubs

 

The following native plant species are shrubs and small trees reaching a maximum height of 30 feet. These trees are perfect for small yards, or large yards that want to add visual interest and diversity by planting trees of varying heights. Some of these shrubs also make great hedges or borders near property lines! Be sure to look up how some of these shrubs spread to make sure their maintenance needs meet your expecations.

Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Pussy WillowEarly to Mid-SpringFull Sun, Wet – Moist
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Salix discolor2 WeeksPollinators, Birds
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
6 – 20 ftSmall, fluffy white catkinsDull green – yellow

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Serviceberry (Juneberry)Mid-SpringPart – Full Sun, Moist – Dry
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Amelanchier arborea1 – 2 WeeksPollinators, Birds, and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
6 – 20 ftWhite, 1-inch flowersRed-orange

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Eastern RedbudMid-SpringPart – Full Sun, Moist – Dry
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Cercis canadensis4 WeeksPollinators
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
15 – 25 ftShowy pink flowersYellow

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
American PlumMid- to late SpringPart – Full Sun, Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Prunus americana2 WeeksPollinators, Mammals
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
10 – 15 ftShowy white flowersRed to Yellow

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Prairie Crab AppleLate SpringPart – Full Sun,  Moist – Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Malus ioensis1 – 2 WeeksPollinators, Birds, and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
10 – 25 ftShowy white-pink flowersBrown-orangeish

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
Gray DogwoodLate Spring to Mid-SummerPart – Full Sun,  Moist – Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Cornus racemosa3 WeeksPollinators, Birds, and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
8 – 15 ftShowy white flowersRed-purple

 

Butterfly weed
Common NameBloom PeriodSun and Soil Needs
American ElderberryLate Spring to Mid-SummerPart – Full Sun, Moist
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported
Sambucus nigra canadensis, or Sambucus canadensis3 – 4 WeeksPollinators, Birds
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
4 – 12 ftShowy white flowersBrown-reddish to Yellow

 

Butterfly weed

Trees

 

The following species are taller native trees ranging from 40 to 120 feet tall. These trees will provide high-quality habitat in larger yards, and are sure to attract and support wildlife, especially if mutlitple species are planted. Be sure to check if these trees create any fruits or seed pods so you can determine which trees best match your expectations.

Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Maples (Sugar, Black, and others)Early to Late SpringPart – Full Sun, Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Acer species1 – 2 WeeksPollinators, Birds,  and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
60 – 100 ftSmall yellow-green flowersStriking colors, varies by species
Bicknell's sedge

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Black CherryLate Spring to Early SummerPart – Full Sun,    Moist – Dry
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Prunus serotina2 – 3 WeeksPollinators, Birds,  and more
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
50 – 80 ftShowy white flowersYellow to reddish
Bicknell's sedge
Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Kentucky CoffeetreeLate Spring to Early SummerPart – Full Sun,    Moist – Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Gymnocladus dioicus2 – 3 WeeksPollinators, Birds
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
60 – 90 ftSmall white flowersYellow
Bicknell's sedge
Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Basswood (Linden)Early SummerPart – Full Sun,    Medium
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Tilia americana2 WeeksPollinators
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
50 – 100 ftSmall white flowersDull green – yellow
Bicknell's sedge
Common NameBloom Period Sun and Soil Needs
Oaks (Red, White, and others)VariesVaries
Species NameBloom LengthWildlife Supported 
Quercus speciesVariesInvaluable to countless wildlife
Max HeightBloom DescriptionFall Color
40 – 80 ftVariesDull to striking colors
Bicknell's sedge

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

* = According to research by Dr. Doug Tallamy, author and faculty member at the University of Delaware.\

This article used a number of resources, including:

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center                                      Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Missouri Botanical Garden                                                         Michigan State University

University of Minnesota Extension                                            USDA NRCS PLANTS Database

 

Some great native shrub and tree nurseries:

 

The State Forest Nursery: Ames, Iowa.  1-800-865-2477 or 515-233-1161

Iowa Native Trees and Shrubs: Woodward, Iowa. 515-664-8633

Blooming Prairie Nursery: Carlisle, Iowa. 515-689-9444

Happy Arbor Day, and happy tree planting!

Ames Pollinator-Friendly Practices Pilot Project Completed

Ames Pollinator-Friendly Practices Pilot Project Completed

How can homeowners in Ames be encouraged to increase pollinator-friendly practices in their yards? That was the question addressed by former Prairie Rivers of Iowa Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Coordinator Shellie Orngard in a recently completed pilot project using Community Based Social Marketing strategies. Now that the pilot is completed, the project will move forward in 2023 to explore ways to apply what was learned to increase pollinator habitat along Iowa’s Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.

Community Based Social Marketing was developed by Canadian psychology professor Doug McKenzie-Moher, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is used in developing and implementing community programs that make use of scientific knowledge of human behavior in effecting change. Community programs such as composting and conserving water and energy have used it to increase participation.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 70 to 80 percent of Iowa was once covered by prairie, producing rich agricultural soil and a lush environment for pollinators. Now, with 90 percent of Iowa’s land in agricultural production, less than one percent of Iowa’s prairie remains, simultaneously reducing pollinator habitat. “Doing this project I learned strategies to encourage pollinator-friendly practices that can be employed along Iowa’s byways,” says Orngard. “We are now exploring applying these strategies to make the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway a pollinator-friendly byway from the Mississippi to the Missouri Rivers. Some of Iowa’s other 13 byways have also expressed interest.”

Visitors to Jennett Heritage Area prairie near Nevada Iowa during Prairie Rivers Bees and Berries Family Adventure Day
Urban Pollinator Garden

While a number of groups (including Prairie Rivers) have focused on encouraging farmers, other large landowners, and local governments to improve pollinator habitat, this project will also include urban areas, businesses, and homeowners.

An initial survey was conducted to determine the perceived barriers and benefits of creating a pollinator garden. The results show that homeowners can face some big barriers such as knowing what types of plants to grow that provide diverse and useful habitat during all seasons. Additionally, by implementing pollinator-friendly practices, homeowners may, in some cases, go against societal norms of having a yard consisting primarily of well-groomed turf.

This project focused on strategies to encourage a paradigm shift in what landowners consider desirable, resulting in such practices as reducing pesticide and herbicide use, letting grass grow longer before mowing, and leaving leaves for overwintering insects.

To encourage year-round pollinator-friendly practices, Orngard worked with Xerces Society Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner/NRCS Partner Biologist Sarah Nizzi to create The Pollinator Friendly Yard: A Seasonal Guide informational flyer. Homeowners were asked to commit to increasing their pollinator-friendly practices according to their comfort level.

As a final strategy, Orngard worked with local artist Naomi Friend to create a charming yard sign homeowners can use to educate passersby about why some leaves are being left to provide habitat for overwintering insects.

Pollinator Garden Sign

Pollinator-friendly yard signs are available by contacting our office.

Orngard summarizes the pilot project as a success that will guide Prairie Rivers Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway and Watersheds and Wildlife programs, local community partners, homeowners, other byways, and communities throughout Iowa as they move forward with education and on-the-ground practices geared towards improving the environment for pollinators in our state.

This project was made possible in part by Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP-CEP) funding along with coaching support from the E Resources Group’s Dr. Jean Eells, a frequent Prairie Rivers of Iowa collaborator, and Rebecca Christoffel. The REAP-CEP funding also allowed Orngard to attend an online workshop by Doug McKenzie-Moher on Community-Based Social Marketing and Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition Winter Workshop.

Shellie Orngard also contributed to the content of this article.

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Moths and Butterflies

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Moths and Butterflies

Did you know that National Moth Week is celebrated in July? Read up on Iowa’s native moths and butterflies to be ready to celebrate Moth Week right, from July 23rd to 31st!

Iowa is home to about 110 butterfly species, and over 2,000 moth species! Butterflies and moths are related: both are in the insect order Lepidoptera, which roughly translates to “scaled wing”. Most of us think of moths as the ugly stepsisters of butterflies, but this is not true! In fact, I would call moths the sleeping beauties of our natural world (they are beauties that are often active while we sleep). Don’t continue to sleep on the incredible beauty of Iowa moths, and get to know our butterflies better!

Giant Silk Moths
If you’re lucky enough to have seen a luna moth, then you’ve seen a member of the giant silk moth group, called the Saturniidae family (Saturnia is the daughter of Saturn in Greek mythology). This group also includes the cecropia moth, named after Cecrops, a half-man-half-snake king in Greek mythology. If you squint at the top outer corner of the cecropia moth’s front wing by the dark eyespot, you can see what appears to be a profile of a snake’s head. Lastly, the luna and cecropia moths don’t eat as adults – they have no mouths! They only eat as caterpillars, which is common in the mysterious world of moths.

Cecropia Moth

Hawk Moths and Hummingbird Moths
Aptly named, these moths look and fly like humming birds, hovering while drinking nectar with their straw-like mouths (called a proboscis). Some also mimic bumble bees, like the snowberry clearwing pictured on the right! Belonging to the family Sphingidae, these moths can be diurnal (day-active) or nocturnal (night-active). Some species don’t eat as adults. For those that do, they are important pollinators for prairie orchid and primrose species!

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Owlet and Underwing Moths
Most of these moths are the experts of disguise, using drab colors on their front wings to blend in with bark and dead leaves. They are in the family Noctuidae, the largest family of moths in North America. Underwing moths, however, have a secret weapon: their back wings can have bright colors that hide under the front wings, and can be flashed to startle a predator during escape!

Sweetheart Underwing Moth

Tiger Moths
When wooly bear caterpillars mature, they are called tiger moths, also known as the family Erebidae. These moths can have bright colors decorated with geometric lines, consequently nicknamed “tiger” moths. I saw the tiger moth pictured here the last week of June at Ada Hayden park! This species of tiger moth is called the “reversed haploa moth” due to the fact that it has two color variations: either geometric lines on the front wings with plain white back wings, or the reverse: plain white front wings with geometric back wings.

Reversed Haploa Moth

Brush-footed Butterflies
The family Nymphalidae, commonly called the brush-footed group, is one of the most popular groups of butterflies with monarchs, regal fritillaries, and painted ladies included in its ranks. Why are they called brush-foots? Their front legs are very small, and kept close to their body (similar to t-rex dinosaurs in my opinion). These front legs aren’t used for walking and are basically reduced to little “brushes”.

Common Buckeye

Swallowtails
While one of the most entrancing butterflies, swallowtails are tough; they overwinter here in Iowa! As caterpillars, this group (which is the family Papilionidae) spin their chrysalises and wait out the winter under dead leaves, giving us another reason to leave areas in our yard undisturbed this fall. The caterpillars of this group can just as awe-inspiring, with some having bright green colors, or eyespots that can make them look like snakes to scare predators away!

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Whites and Sulphurs
This group of butterflies has a charming behavior; they like puddles! Belonging to the Pieridae family, these butterflies are the most likely to be found in a “puddling” group, sucking up extra nutrients in the water. Adult butterflies appear white, yellow, orange, and sometimes have black markings. One of the coolest butterflies in this group is the Olympia marble, a species of special concern in Iowa due to declining numbers. Just look at its metallic markings against snow-white wings!

Olympia Marble

Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks
These tiny butterflies are also called gossamer wings, due to the beautiful shimmer that reflects off their wings! These butterflies are a part of the family Lycaenidae, and also love visiting puddles, so don’t let their looks fool you; they are hardcore. Continuing that thought: the species Satyrium edwardsii, or Edward’s hairstreak, has some wild behavior as a caterpillar. At night it feeds on oak leaves, and during the day it rests in active ant nests for protection! This species is also a species of special concern in Iowa due to declining numbers.

Hairstreak

Skippers
If you can’t tell if an insect is a butterfly or a moth, you may be looking at a skipper. Skippers are in the family Hesperiidae, and have chunky bodies with hooked, hockey-stick-shaped antennae. They appear carefree as they skip through the air. From the side, their wings give them a triangular, shark-fin shape. Out of the two butterfly species in Iowa considered endangered, one is a skipper, called the Dakota skipper. It requires high-quality prairie remnants, a habitat extremely hard to find in Iowa.

Skipper

While many people love butterflies, these insects don’t always receive the respect they deserve being diverse and important wildlife. They are more than nature’s gems-they are important pollinators that have fun behaviors to appreciate! Moths are often forgotten, despite the fact that they can be bigger and more colorful than many butterfly species, and have the coolest adaptations, such as flashes of color and mouth-less adults! The world of moths and butterflies is not just a pretty one; it’s a wild one!