A caterpillar at last

In mid-July I finally started seeing a few monarch butterflies in the garden, but I did not find even one caterpillar all summer. That changed today – the first day of autumn – when I was collecting flower seeds and a line of yellow-and-black stripes caught my eye.

caterpillar on the underside of a deteriorating milkweed leaf, with coneflower and milkweed seedpods nearby

With the nights getting colder, I brought this little one inside to form a chrysalis (at any moment). When he or she emerges as a butterfly in about two weeks, I hope it will not be too late to join the migration to Mexico.


Trilliums in September

Spring ephemerals are plants that bloom for a short amount of time and then die back completely.

Are trilliums ephemerals? They bloom at the same time as other ephemerals such as Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, and spring beauty. It seems every site on the internet says they are indeed ephemerals.

But I am sure I once read an argument that trilliums are not true ephemerals because they don’t die back right away. And now I can’t find that source.

I have seen trillium leaves linger into early summer, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen trilliums stick around until September – but they did this year. Both the large-flowered trilliums and the Trillium sessile are still visible today.

three large light-green bracts with a little brown around the edges, two mostly-brown sepals and the third mostly green, only the very center of the three petals remaining and brown

two Trillium sessile plants, the left with wet bracts, dried sepals and no visible petals, the right with intact sepals with dried petals

Clearwing borer moth

The stiff goldenrod began blooming this week, and that’s attracting many bumblebees and honeybees and at least three locust borers, which are yellow-and-black longhorned beetles. And then I spotted this:

long and thin insect, mostly black with two yellow horizontal bands around the middle, with transparent wings

It looked like a tiny hummingbird moth with its transparent wings and tail shaped like a lobster’s. In fact, when I searched for “clear wings lobster tail,” all the results were about hummingbird moths – but this is just a fraction of the size, and it doesn’t flit like a hummingbird but instead it acts like a bee or fly. It swishes its “tail” up and down like a mermaid.

Instagram to the rescue. Just 20 minutes after I posted a photo and asked for help identifying the insect, one of my buddies identified it as a clearwing borer moth, and I think I’ve further identified it as a dogwood borer.

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability calls clearwing borers “native pests” that sometimes kill trees and sometimes don’t cause serious damage.

This is the third borer I’ve seen in the last two years. The others:

Perhaps the most famous borer these days is the destructive, invasive emerald ash borer beetle – fortunately, I haven’t seen one of these yet. And there are others that aren’t quite as destructive, though they do cause damage.

More about clearwing borer moths


Pop-up mushroom

We’ve received a lot of rain over the last two weeks. On Wednesday when I got home and was making my rounds through the gardens, this cute mushroom jumped out at me from under a tree on the hillside:

mushroom with a thick white stem and a beige rounded cap

The next day its “umbrella” had unfurled.

top view of a flat, round mushroom with a darker spot in the center

side view of the mushroom, with many gills

And one day later, the umbrella was turning brown.

same view but the gills are much darker and starting to fall apart

We were out of town for the weekend, so I didn’t see what happened next. All I know is that on Monday evening, this is what I found:

decomposed black plant material

…which makes me very interested in finding another one so I can watch it every day until the end to see what happens at each step.

Though I can guess that it’s some type of inky cap mushroom, based on the disintegration behavior, DO NOT take this as confirmation or denial for identification purposes. I am way too nervous about mushrooms’ potential for being poisonous, so I’ll just enjoy them in nature and leave my mushroom-eating to what I find in the store.

Red Admiral party

One morning last week I found five Red Admiral butterflies on the purple coneflower. Of course, I was running late and didn’t have time to grab the camera. That evening three butterflies returned.

three red admirals, each on its own purple coneflower within 3 feet of each other

Two of them danced on one past-peak flower and then separated.

one butterfly on each side of the flower, the left with open wings and the right with closed wings

same two butterflies, both with wings closed, one climbing up from the left and the other facing left, their antennae overlapping

one butterfly facing left on a flower, the second a mirror image behind it

Hummingbird moth

Giant bumblebee? Small hummingbird? Flying shrimp?

bee balm with a large yellow-and-black insect

Twice in the last week I saw a hummingbird moth in our garden. The first time I had only my phone to document it. It appears to be a hummingbird clearwing, Hemaris thysbe, and sort of looks like a flying shrimp or lobster.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to see one again when I had a “real” camera. This time it was a different moth – snowberry clearwing, or Hemaris diffinis – which looks more like a giant bumblebee.

yellow-and-black moth viewed from the left side, flying vertically with its proboscis inside a light purple bee balm

I reeled off more than a hundred shots, hoping that at least a few would be clear.

same moth viewed from above, its wings flat but blurry

A hummingbird moth looks like a hummingbird with its small size, darting behavior, and wings that move so fast they can barely be seen, but it is about half the size of a hummingbird and has antennae and a curling proboscis, which the birds do not.

moth nearing a bee balm from the top right, with its proboscis curled

Look how long the proboscis is when unfurled – all the way down into the flower:

moth to the left of a bee balm, with its proboscis extending two inches into the flower tube

The reason for the “clearwing” descriptor is obvious in this photo (at least, one of the clear wings is visible):

moth at the bottom left of a bee balm, with its left wing in focus and the green background visible through the wing

There are four species of hummingbird moths in North America, and in one week, I saw two of them in my own garden! Both times I saw this moth, it was evening, after the sun had gone behind the trees, and both times it was on our big cluster of bee balm.

snowberry at the right of a bee balm with its proboscis deep in the flower

hummingbird clearwing at the left of a bee balm, a little farther away but reaching its front foot to touch the flower

I also tried video both nights, with amateurish results because I could never accurately anticipate where they were going to go next – though a faint humming noise can be heard. This is the hummingbird clearwing:

And this is the snowberry clearwing:

Both nights the moths let me watch them flutter around for more than 10 minutes – and then, suddenly, each was gone.

bee balm on the left, snowberry flying straight up out of the top right of the picture

More about hummingbird moths

A convincing wasp mimic

While wandering around the wildflower garden late last evening, I noticed a small black insect resting on a bee balm leaf. My first thought was that it could be the offspring of the potter wasp I observed a month ago since it was smaller than the wasp I saw in June.

side view of a thin black insect facing to the left, with a white bands on waist and two on abdomen

But I have been fooled by flies that look like bees many times, so I decided to look closer. And sure enough, the antennae were short – a big clue that it’s a fly.

top view of the insect, with the two small antennae at the top

And then I noticed the big eyes – another clue. In fact, these almost look like cartoon eyes.

view from the front, with two large eyes and two large white spots in the middle

Diagnosis: thick-headed fly, possibly Physocephala furcillata. It’s a parasite that indirectly kills bees when it lays its eggs.

top view with the head facing left, showing the narrow waist

This fly is so similar to a wasp, on first glance, that I had to double-check my images of the potter wasp to make sure I hadn’t overlooked a key feature on that one, but I’m still convinced on the potter wasp. (Plus, I don’t think flies build pots.)

comparison of fly vs. potter wasp - hard to see wasp's antennae but heads are different

More about thick-headed flies