It was there and then it was gone – Monarch Caterpillar Watercolor

watercolor sketch of monarch caterpillar anatomy

It was there… I was looking at the reward for planting common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in my backyard. Several times the hubby almost pulled it because he thought it was a weed (well it is), I pleaded for him to leave it and to look the other way.

photo of monarch caterpillar on milkweed

And there it was. A monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus). To say I was ecstatic was an understatement.

photo of common milkweed along a sunny white fence

The first year, one single milkweed happened to grow unexpectedly. Year two, it multiplied to a few plants. During year two, I took the seeds from the pods and spread them all over the sunny side of the backyard. This year, year three, there are many milkweed…even four which happened to grow on the other side of the fence.

Unfortunately, a few hours after I discovered the monarch caterpillar it was gone. I looked above and below each leaf of every milkweed. Gone.

There are two possibilities:

  • (The pessimistic option) I saw a stink bug on one of the milkweed plants. I had NO idea that stink bugs/soldier bugs were natural predators of the caterpillar. It was only after it was missing that I thought to do some research on what could have eaten it. Because the “milk” sap from the milkweed is toxic, I didn’t think I had to worry about this caterpillar. I was wrong. The Monarch Joint Venture website even has a picture of a stink bug attacking a monarch caterpillar. The site also lists a host of other natural predators.
  • (The optimistic option) This caterpillar looked pretty big. It possibly was in its 4th or 5th instar stage. When the monarch caterpillar reaches 5th instar it will leave the host plant to pupate. It will travel up to 10 meters away, pick a nice spot on another plant or even a man-made structure, spend some time in a J-hang formation, and develop its chrysalis.

To prevent my heart from being broken over another lost caterpillar (click here to read about the black swallowtail caterpillar), I’m going to stick with the optimistic version.

To make sure I help the Monarch butterfly population and any other butterfly, I ordered a butterfly cage. Hopefully I will have updates on some success stories soon!

Windy at the Lake Watercolor and Nature Journal Club

watercolor of the lake on a windy summer day

Hearty winds whip across the lake,
Kayaker struggles.

Seagulls hover in the air,
Clouds race above.

Reflections can’t form in this wind,
Dragonfly skips on waves.

I messed my ankle up last Monday, so I’ve been off my feet for almost a whole week. I’m starting to go stir crazy. Yesterday was the first beautiful day we’ve had in a long time….cool…breezy…just perfect, so I had to get out at least in the car to paint some nature. I decided to go to a near by lake which had the perfect spot to paint.

Before I paint, I like to sit still and listen. I empty my brain of any preconceived ideas about what I should experience and I soak in the surroundings, slowly. Then I make notes… I feel you, strong wind. I see you red-winged blackbird. I hear you American goldfinch, but I don’t see you yet. Etc.

The notes are just as important as the watercolor sketch, even more so I think.

So, what have you experienced in nature lately?

Remember a few months ago I was wanting to somehow start a nature journal club? Well, I think I’ve figured out an effortless way we can all participate! If you upload a picture of your nature journal page on your Instagram and use the tag: #letspaintnature, we can do a search for that tag (or follow) and see all of the artwork together. When I upload an image, instead of using a location, for privacy purposes I only type in the state I live in: Illinois. If you do the same, we can tell what part of the world your nature sketch is from.

Let’s form a nature journal club by using #letspaintnature!!!

😀

My Native Front Yard – Blue Vervain Watercolor

Watercolor sketch of blue vervain native plant

Today blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is in bloom in the native garden. I absolutely love its flowers. Up close they look blue-purple. From a distance they look purple to pinkish-purple. The actual flower itself is tiny but grows in clusters on a spike. They start blooming at the bottom and work their way upward.

Toooooooooons of insects love this plant. (Listed above, information taken from The Illinois Wildflower website). I have witnessed many enjoying this plant but not yet small butterflies nor moths. My plant is in its first year so it’s tiny. I am looking forward to the coming years when it can fully develop to 5 feet tall.

Blue vervain likes moist soil, so I planted it at the end of a dry stream bed which is connected to my rain gutter down spout. When it rains, the water collects in the stream bed and the vervain benefits from the moist soil. Too bad in Chicago it has been super hot and super dry lately! We need rain!

It’s difficult to see but the baby blue vervain plant is circled in orange at the end of the dry stream bed.

In your garden, you don’t have to transform your whole lawn to help insects. Just incorporate one or two native plants in your yard and you will be blessed with butterflies and other pollinators. Turf grass has very shallow roots, therefore it cannot hold rainwater so it becomes runoff pretty quickly. The runoff takes with it pesticides and fertilizers which go directly in the waterway. This is why many nearby ponds have a thick green film in the summer because it has too much nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff, creating algae blooms, resulting in fish kills and other aquatic deaths. Native plants have long, deep roots. The roots hold rainwater, cleaning it before it reaches the water table or has a chance to become runoff. Yay native plants! They’re superheros in more ways than one.

If you would like to see blue vervain in the wild, check near ponds that have full sun. Or check prairies that have moist soils.

Update on the black swallowtail caterpillar from last weeks post:
Unfortunately it’s gone. No chrysalis, no relocation to another plant. Just gone. In my human  failings I anthropomorphized my caterpillar, like it was my baby. I was so upset!! Like really upset. Birds do not eat this caterpillar because of its bitter taste. Perhaps a raccoon came by to have a juicy meal. They’re omnivores and will eat just about anything. I have many raccoons in the neighborhood. I don’t know.

Bottom line is: God’s ways are not my ways. This caterpillar was needed elsewhere. It is well with my soul. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD. Job 1:21

Whether a happy ending or not, I am thankful to be able to share my nature adventures with everyone through this platform. Truly thankful.

 

My Native Front Yard Wildlife Edition – Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

watercolor sketch of a black swallowtail caterpillar eating golden alexander leaf
sketch of the black swallowtail caterpillar

The native plants are working! Look who I found munching on some leaves…. a big juicy black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes). That means a black swallowtail butterfly must have laid an egg under the leaf of my Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) plant when I wasn’t looking. I’m so excited! See my sketch and story about the Golden Alexander plant here.

black swallowtail caterpillar

Isn’t it beautiful?!? I found it about a week ago. He or she is eating everyday and growing bigger and bigger. I will keep my eyes on it to see where it forms its chrysalis. 

eaten leaves and flowers from the golden alexander plant

I know this is pretty difficult to see, but inside the red circle the leaves and flowers have been chewed off. This is a BIG clue that you have a caterpillar on your plant. Never get upset if your native plants have holes or missing parts all together. It’s a GOOD thing! The native insects need food. They’re just doing their job.

Black swallowtail caterpillars can be found on any plant in the carrot family: Golden Alexander, Queen Anne’s Lace, Parsley, Carrot, Parsnip, Dill, Celery.
A shout out to my nature friends in Oklahoma and New Jersey…..the black swallowtail butterfly is your state butterfly!

When my butterfly emerges, he or she is going to need nectar from milkweed, clover, or thistle. I’VE GOT YOU COVERED….THERE IS MILKWEED IN THE BACKYARD! 

 

 

I’ve been trying to record all of the insects that visit the Golden Alexander. Here we have some type of bee to the left and a hover fly to the right. Both are excellent pollinators.

On a side note…I have a girlfriend who has been having a lot of anxiety about the world and the various headline catastrophes in the media lately. I tried to calm her fears and point her in the direction to pray and have faith because God is an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:4).

She denied this advice claiming that God is not here. You can not see Him, therefore He does not help her.

Oh, but can I lovingly plead my case??

Jesus told us: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

and…

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5).

When I sketch nature, I study every inch of my subject. Today I learned that the black swallowtail caterpillar has some black spots that touch each other with a very thin line on the dorsal part of the body, some that don’t, and on the sides the black dots are always separate. Why? I don’t know. But God does. Can man create a butterfly from an egg? No, it must go through stages. Every stage is necessary. The whole life-cycle is a plan.

There remains a plan to the chaos in the world. God is in control yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Do not fear.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:6-8).

When I paint nature, I am meditating on those things that are lovely…
May the peace of God protect and guide you. And may you never lose your mustard seed of faith.
Amen.

Update on the black swallowtail caterpillar:
Unfortunately it’s gone as of July 7, 2020. No chrysalis, no relocation to another plant. Just gone. In my human  failings I anthropomorphized my caterpillar, like it was my baby. I was so upset!! Like really upset. Birds do not eat this caterpillar because of its bitter taste. Perhaps a raccoon came by to have a juicy meal. They’re omnivores and will eat just about anything. I have many raccoons in the neighborhood. I don’t know.

Bottom line is: God’s ways are not my ways. This caterpillar was needed elsewhere. It is well with my soul. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD. Job 1:21

Whether a happy ending or not, I am thankful to be able to share my nature adventures with everyone through this platform. Truly thankful.

 

It’s a Boy! Update on Polyphemus Cocoon

Do you remember last year when a Polyphemus caterpillar visited my house? (Click on the link to see post with video of caterpillar eating maple leaves.) I was completely shocked as I just happened to find it on my siding. Suddenly, in a matter of minutes it spun a silk cocoon right there. Worried a racoon would eat the cocoon before it hatched because it was so close to the ground, I protected it with a barrier.

That was August 15, 2019. I had no idea it would overwinter! I assumed it would emerge in a couple of weeks, but it did not.

Sometime during December or January, we had a sever winter storm with strong winds. The gust knocked down my barrier AND the cocoon. I just happened to find the cocoon about 20 feet away. As I picked it up, the cocoon rattled inside. As if there was a hard ball inside…you could literally shake the cocoon and hear something inside. Wanting to protect this cocoon, not knowing if it would even make it, I placed it inside a flower box.

It remained for 10 months….until TODAY!!!!! He emerged!! And it’s a boy!!

Funny, I didn’t even recognize him hanging from the ceiling of my front porch. I asked my son, who is 6’5″, to knock off that brown leaf. He said, “That’s not a leaf, that’s a moth.”

Me: “What?!?” Could it? Is it? Is it my Polyphemus? It’s huge!

I ran to the flower box to examine the old cocoon. Sure enough I found an exit hole!


(cocoon is on the far right)

IT IS HIM!!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

I know it’s a male because his antennae are huge, like giant feathers. He is beautiful, but he wont live long. As a matter of fact, this moth will only live about 1-2 weeks. His sole mission is to find a female and mate. He wont even eat a speck during this time.

I am so thankful to my Heavenly Father for allowing me to host a place where this Polyphemus moth can overwinter, emerge, and fly away. He should leave tonight as they are nocturnal.

Well wishes my moth friend.

 

My Native Front Yard – Golden Alexander and Prairie Alumroot

Build it (a native garden) and they will come (insects)! He he he. That was the famous quote from the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, without the garden and insects insert. But in all seriousness, they will come. Why do we need to help the insects? Because they’re disappearing and they pollinate our food. More details on the Wild Geranium post. Not only that, but grass does not serve much good. It costs time and money to maintain but doesn’t do much for wildlife.

Today Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) and Prairie Alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii) are in bloom.

Both are super easy to grow. They can tolerate bad soil and drought.These plants are on year two of growth. I have witnessed strange bees on the golden Alexander already! Hopefully one day I will capture their photo, research, and sketch them.

Prairie Alumroot has the most delicate tiny green bells as flowers that have brilliant red anthers which hang below the bell shape. I have witnessed the tiniest of flying insects pollinating the bells. Like the other plant, I wish to record and research all of the native insects visiting this plant.

The non-native plants that we purchase at nurseries do not attract native insects. Sometimes, they don’t attract any insects at all and they’re genetically engineered that way. Beautiful flowers with no visitors. That’s not how a healthy ecosystem was designed.

 

Here are the photos. On the left: Golden Alexander (3 of them), on the right: Prairie Alumroot. These spring-time blooming natives are a joy to watch grow.

UPDATE: To see what insects are visiting the Golden Alexander and what caterpillar is eating its leaves click here.

All insect facts on the sketches were taken from the site: Illinois Wildflowers

Breakfast on the Grill

This is a true story of love and provision.

My husband is a truck driver. Wednesday, his truck broke down about an hour and a half away from home. Wanting to save money on a tow, I hopped in the car at 5 am with a bag of tools in the hopes that he could fix the problem himself.

I arrived at a truck stop in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Indiana, gave my husband his tools and waited in my car. Suddenly, my eyes locked onto a pair of sparrows. I watched as they flew from one truck grill, to the next truck grill, to the next, all the way down a line of parked trucks a half mile long.

What in the world are they doing?

Then, I noticed something big on the truck grill in front of me. I got out of my car, approached closer, and instantly knew…

They’re eating breakfast!!
They eat insects from one truck, then they fly to the next eating more insects. On down the line… What a wonderful mutual symbiosis, really a +/+ situation. The truck gets cleaned and the sparrows are fed.

So why is this a story of love and provision?

Because of this…

“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:29-31

Especially during this global pandemic, there are many who are afraid. Many have been laid off from work or lost their job all together. But take heart, you are loved and your Father is strong to provide. He wants you to know that you are more valuable than even these sparrows. And look, look how they feast on their breakfast buffet!

But you have a job to do. You must employ that tiny, tiny, mustard seed of faith. Switch fear for prayer. Hold on to that mustard seed and don’t let go!

My Native Front Yard – Wild Geranium

Last year I converted my front yard into a native habitat. Goodbye grass, hello native plants! Why? To save the insects.

First, lawn grass does not benefit much in nature. If there is little rain, you must supplement with water from your hose. Water is very costly. Next, you must buy gas for your lawnmower so that you can spend some time each week mowing. Finally, to keep it weed free and healthy, you must buy fertilizer and some type of weed blocker. You do this, your neighbors as well….now times that by every household, park, school, and commercial property. The insects are wondering…where did our food go?…where did our habitat go?

Recently an article came out which gave a figure to the current insect collapse: 27% in the last 30 years. Why is this significant? Why should we care? Because insects pollinate our food. Insects are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

If you are at middle age or older, think about your childhood. Do you remember all the fire flies on a summer night? So many that you couldn’t count? Do you remember being constantly chased by bees? I do. Not any more, however.

Native plants not only provide food, shelter, and a breeding ground for insects, but the roots of the native plants are much longer than lawn grass. Long roots filter pollutants and provides clean water. Best of all, native plants do not require extra water or fertilizers. Once established there’s no need to water because they are drought tolerant. Win for humans – win for insects.  +/+

My native front lawn is being planted in stages. A few last year were planted, a few this year. Eventually the plants will cover the area. The neat thing about this yard is that something will be blooming in every season. When it blooms, I will feature the plant and provide some neat facts. Today, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) is in bloom. This is the second year of its growth.

Wild geranium is easy to grow. It has beautiful leaves and it supports a host of insects. On the pink flower, you will find stripes leading to the center. This is called the nectar guide.
Insects that benefit from nectar and pollen:

  • bumblebees
  • mason bees
  • cuckoo bees
  • long-horned bees
  • Halictid bees
  • Andronid bees
  • Syrphid flies
  • dance flies
  • butterflies
  • skippers

Insects that benefit from the leaves and stems:

  • Leaf-mining larvae of the beetle Pachyshelus purpureus
  • geranium aphids
  • yellow plant bug
  • burrowing bug
  • stink bug
  • moth caterpillars

These insect stats were taken from the Illinois Wildflower site.

If you are interested in creating a native habitat, small or large, and you live in the Chicagoland area, Denise from Good-Natured Landscapes can help with your design. She knows native plants…which ones thrive in shade/sun or a combination of both. Which ones work well together, what season they bloom, and what insects they benefit.

Where can you find native plants to buy? The Growing Place (Naperville and Aurora, IL) or on-line at Prairie Moon Nursery.

Soon my golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) will bloom! I can see the buds! To be continued…

 

Cup Fungi Watercolor

What a mouth-opening surprise I had when I found these cute cup fungi growing in my own yard! What’s so neat about these fungi? Why, let me explain their coolness. First, they look like tiny cups on the ground. Awwwwwww. Second, they want it to rain. For when it rains, drops hit the inside of the cup splashing spores out of the cup and onto the ground. What a neat reproductive strategy. Most fungi use wind as a means of spore dispersal. I believe these are common brown cup (Peziza badioconfusa), but there are many different types so I could be wrong.

Yesterday it had rained the whole day. I went outside to see if the cups were filled with water, and sure enough they were…

Can you see the rainwater in the cup?

They come in amazing twisted cup shapes. Each cup looks slightly different. I have about 7 of them in my mulch.

I hope you are able to find this beautiful and neat fungus where you are at and I hope you find some water inside!

Chorus Frogs Sing – Watercolor

That song.
The chant of chorus frogs that stops you in your tracks as you hike in the woods. Such a bold sound coming from such a tiny frog…so small your eyes can’t find them even if you try and I did try. When you hear this sound, you know it’s spring.

The watercolor sketch is of the frogs’ vernal pool. I learned that it’s proper to call it a vernal pool and not an ephemeral pond. An ephemeral pond describes a temporary pond any time of the year but a vernal pool only exists in the springtime. And that is exactly what we have.

I hope this post uplifts your spirits at this time. The chorus frogs are doing their job out there…reproducing! And if you cannot get out to hear them, you can do so here.
Happy spring.