Posts Tagged ‘butterflies’

The Moth Post

June 18, 2012

I figured I could wait to visit the bathroom until after I went to the store for the tortillas.  It seemed wrong to ask my husband to go for them, in the interest of getting the dinner in the oven in a reasonable amount of time, since he would never find them but would instead return home to tell me that the Stop & Shop a half mile from our house doesn’t carry them. Aisle seven, by the way.

My light rig-UV light with a Mercury Vapor light attached to a tripod. The UV hangs from the top of the sheet.

After that I thought I better get out there and set up my new mothing rig while there was plenty of light to spare. Since it’s a new one, I could run into a few snags and I wanted to be able to see so I could sort them out. Emptying my bladder would have to wait.

I dashed to the store, finished the dinner and got started on that light set-up and it was all-systems-go by the time sundown came. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in renal failure yet, so I snapped some photos of a couple of moths I saw out by the front porch. Since I work as a mom, wife and naturalist I am, well, a whiz at putting off certain private functions in favor of activities that move the family ship of state forward. Somehow, moths have gotten be a feature on my “must do” list, seemingly ahead even of vital bodily functions. To say that I am a multi-tasker is putting it mildy.

But I am all excited about National Moth Week, a celebration of moths and biodiversity (July 23-29, 2012). It’s the first one ever, and since I discovered what fun “mothing” is, and how much there is to learn, I’ve been avidly trying to soak up as much as I can.  Moths are just beautiful-not at all the plain jane grey and brown things you find in old cereal. They come in every color of the rainbow and there are thousands more species than butterflies. In other countries like England there’s been an interest in moths for many years and there are numerous field guides about their native species. Here, the most recent (until this April) field guide to moths was a Peterson’s first issued in 1922.  The plates were black and white and in general all the moths looked the same.  You had, in my opinion, to be a genius to really identify anything, but some people did.

And now there is a terrific new field guide just published with beautiful plates and commentary.  Also published under the Peterson’s imprimatur, the authors are Seabrooke Leckie (who has a nifty blog The Marvelous in Nature on WordPress) and David Beadle. It’s great. So now anyone can figure out what those moths are that flutter against their back door at night.  And you can participate in National Moth Week. Really, anyone can do it. You don’t actually need any special equipment. Just leave an outside light on from dusk until you can’t stand it anymore and you have to go to bed. You may wish to dive in and get fancy lights-it’s up to you, and it is not only an important area of scientific inquiry, it’s fun!  You can photograph the moths, or just appreciate them. Or, you can go to one of hundreds of moth events that are being held all over the country. You can find out everything about this at the National Moth Week website, along with how-to’s if you want to start mothing on your own.  Take a look at for more information.  Our moth event at Hill-Stead in Farmington, CT is this Friday, June 22 at 8:30.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker



May 23, 2012

American Lady Butterfly
credit: T. Moore

The other day I lay in the grass and searched for butterfly eggs among the Pussy Toes plants.  It was a glorious day, sunny, with gentle breeze and warm earth which felt just right beneath me. I happily spied on the American Lady butterflies as they lit and clambered over the wildflower to find the right places to lay eggs. When I could tell they’d done the deed I’d inch over and, placing my hand lens to my eye I scanned each tiny leaf to see if it sheltered an egg.  I am sure if I hadn’t  seen them ovipositing I could never have found the eggs, since they are not even a millimeter around. Sitting on a leaf they look like translucent, green-tinged tuffets such as might be pulled up to a fairy’s armchair. Minuscule “seams” radiate from a central point at the top and gather on the bottom.  They put me in mind of a pincushion my mother once had, but hers was red.


When you see something like that it makes you realize how much there is around you that you can’t or don’t notice. The American Lady butterfly itself is a lovely creature, and we are fortunate to have them come through this area during their annual migration. The size of the migrations vary widely, so some years just a few flutter through and other years like this one they pour through New England in overwhelming numbers.  I don’t mind a bit being inundated with butterflies.  Who would?  A cousin of the American Lady Butterfly, the Painted Lady,  comes this way too.  Sunny days with a little breeze for lift have made the Hill-Stead meadows seem like a colorful insect freeway.  We have quite a bit of Pussy Toes, a preferred host plant, as well as Pearly Everlasting-related to Pussy Toes and just as relished by the American and Painted Lady butterflies.  So they are out there in colorful multitudes.  They are hard to tell apart-it’s only a matter of a couple of extra dots and they might easily have been classified under one name, with the “extra dot” ones considered a variation.

With names like “American” and “Painted Lady” it sounds as though one bug were upstanding and the other morally derelict.  Since Linnaeus’ time, we’ve had various reasons for the naming of things and before that the Greeks and Romans had their methods.  Darwin’s discoveries threw a wrench into Linnaeus’ system, and Cladistics is a newer game still.  So there is a continuum of naming the more we learn about our world.  Some might say it doesn’t matter, a “rose by another name would smell as sweetly.”  But I’ve noticed that as children grow they like to try on different nicknames like different clothing,experimenting with how a certain identity makes them feel. So names matter.  My husband spent some time as “Jack Blackthorn”, which as a child he thought had a brave and rakish air. But my daughter, who started life with a Chinese name meaning “good luck” and “jade” has not yet made an effort to discard the name we gave her. We chose her first name because we just loved it.  Many parents of Chinese daughters leave the Chinese name in place as a “middle” name, but we didn’t.  Her second name is for my mother, who died shortly before she was born and who would have been besotted with her.  We wanted not to disrespect her origins, but to embrace her entirely as a member of our family as certain as she had come to us “the old-fashioned way”.  We use her Chinese name as a nickname, as it is as surely her name as much as the others.  I love that name too-I used it when we were first together and I snuggled her against me so she would know the love was for her and no one else-days of sharing the caregiver with a dozen others were over. Perhaps at some point she’ll want us to call her something else, or she’ll decide to use her Chinese name.  You never know what kids will do.  I hope I have the sense and good grace just to swallow and use the tag she wants instead of making it all about me.  Giving names is one thing, and accepting them is another.  Unlike plants and bugs, we have some choice in the matter.

Theodate named her house Hill-Stead.  As a name it perfectly conveys the two most important elements in the Hill-Stead backstory, specifically that she was deeply concerned with and connected to the land the house sits on.  The home was sited at the top of a hill with the help of the landscape architect, exploiting the natural features so that each window framed a perfect landscape. They could have sited it in many places on over 250 acres of land, but they faced it toward the Barn Door Hills.  Of equal importance is “Stead” meaning steady, rooted home.  Theodate was determined to create a secure and anchored place for her family to live, underscoring her need for hearth and home to be rooted in the land and nature.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

To New Beginnings

March 11, 2010

The pussy willows were in full bloom today, and life is waking up again throughout the estate. Today I even saw a butterfly -a tortoiseshell type, the earliest I’ve ever seen one.  A butterfly afficionado I know says it might be a record.  Along with Mourning Cloaks, tortoiseshell butterflies are seen in the earliest days of spring. I also spied jumping spiders in the meadow, and incredibly, a grasshopper. The Northern Water Snake that naps near the bridge down by the pump house is awake, and a turtle plopped into the water as I walked along the sunny side of the pond.  Bluebirds circle the newly-cleaned bird boxes. Skunk cabbage is well along now and woodcock are skulking in the woods surrounding the fields.  They rest and forage in the wet woods during the day and come out at dusk to do their bizarre dancing and calling.  Wood frogs are awake, too.

skunk cabbage

We’ll have cold, raw days yet before spring takes a real foothold, but the first sunny days of the season provide such relief even after an uneventful winter.  Today you could almost hear flowers pushing up earth and green shoots unfurling. Beginnings are so much fun.  First date, first dance, first day of school, first car, first love, first kiss, first flower, first caterpillar, first red-wing blackbirds, first phoebes. You might say that without endings, there wouldn’t be beginnings and in a limited sense this may be true.  Organically speaking, there is a cycle of birth and death that doesn’t vary.  But there are human beginnings that seemingly spring from nowhere, and, heaven knows, unforeseen conclusions. Beginnings are rarely bitter, even in plants this is true.  Dandelion salad, for example, is lovely when the leaves are small.

Circumstances and sentiment can all too often dictate endings, when bonds become in their own way overgrown and too big for the container. Last misunderstanding, last farewell, last regret.  At least nature’s endings are free of recrimination. The past melts away graciously and makes way for the new.  Last snowfall, first snowdrop.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Woolly Bear Time

September 12, 2009



Spoiler Alert! Woolly Bear caterpillars are not indicators of a hard winter to come! Children educated on the American East Coast have been misled! Rural folklore says that if the reddish-brown band around the middle of the caterpillar is narrow, a harsh winter is coming. In reality, the size of the band reflects the age of the caterpillar, with the band growing wider as the larva ages.

It’s no surprise that this familiar creature has a little legend attached to it. The thing is adorable! And they are all over-in yards and pastures, crossing sidewalks, moving about in their determined, furry little way. Kids crow and coo over them. Something this cute and plentiful just has to have a sweet (albeit false) story to go with it.

Another fallacy is that the woolly bear shoots venom from its hairs which can cause injury and swelling. Sometimes those bristly hairs do produce a little contact dermatitis in people with sensitive skin. Still, having observed hundreds of children pick up these hairy wanderers, I have yet to know one who got much more than a tickle. What I have seen is children joyfully “helping” the caterpillar get from one place to another. Sometimes the poor thing is sent in the wrong direction no matter how many times it tries to turn around. While a dilemma for the caterpillar, it is a terrific thing for the children, who experience the excitement and pleasure that interaction with nature brings. Anyway, there is no Woolly Bear shortage. During a short walk on a warm Fall day you can find half a dozen woollies moseying around looking for a winter shelter. Let the children redirect the caterpillar. It does more good than damage.

The Woolly Bear is a moth larva as most caterpillars we find are likely to be. There are more moth species than butterfly, so odds are that caterpillars you see will become moths.

Isabella Tiger Moth

Isabella Tiger Moth

The Woolly Bear will grow into an Isabella Tiger Moth. The Tiger moth family is diverse, and known for their pretty colors. You don’t see them often as caterpillars, with the exception of the Woolly Bear, since many are ground dwellers or even burrow into wood. To make identification more complex, many change color dramatically as they mature.

The Woolly Bear may be plentiful because it will eat nearly anything including grass, dandelion and a variety of other vegetation. Becoming more active around the time of the first frosts, it pokes around for a good spot to sleep away the winter. In spring, woollies become active again, searching for a good feed before spinning a cocoon and maturing into a moth.

Take a lazy walk around the meadow one day between now and the hard frost. Count how many woolly bears you find. You can even let me know by leaving a message here or in the trail log.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

All the Yarn She Spun

July 24, 2009

All the yarn she spun on Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus



Moths have a bad reputation.  They are like the homely sister constantly compared to her beautiful counterpart.  Thought to be a harbinger of war, pestilence, death, and even a symbol of insanity (think “The Silence of the Lambs), moths are possibly one of the most maligned creatures on earth.  “Moth-eaten” means drab, worn and useless.  Why should the moth have a reputation for eating our clothing and carpets, and infesting our breakfast cereals, while the butterfly is a cultural icon for loveliness and warm, care-free days?  Moth status is proof that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  People just don’t know enough about them.

moth arrayIf there was ever a group that needed a good lobbyist, it’s moths.  Along with bees, which (except honey bees) are also much-maligned, the moth does a lot of good.  Moths and bees are responsible for a substantial amount of plant pollination.  Because moths work under cover of night, they’ve acquired a shady imprimatur.  Yet we’d never get our “five a day” servings of fruit and vegetables without them.  And there’s nothing sinister about that!  

Closely related members of the lepidoptera family, butterfies are day-fliers and moths fly at night.  Or so it is widely thought.  In reality, there are a good number of day-flying moths.  They are frequently mistaken for butterflies, or even for other insects.  But almost no one pegs them for moths.  Most are just too beautiful for that, and we all “know” that moths are just plain-jane pests.  Conversely, there are quite a few drab butterflies out there, but they are probably confused for moths!

The day-flying grapevine epimenis moth

The day-flying grapevine epimenis moth

moth antennae

moth antennae

Moth versus butterfly identification is fairly simple.  The butterfly has  clubbed antennae with knobby ends.  The moth antennae are feathery, the better to recieve pheromones, those scent-filled billet-doux of the insect world.  The female sends out her perfumed message and the male receives it with those frondy antennae at distances of up to 8 kilometers away.  If people were so equipped, Marconi would have been a taxi driver!  And forget Facebook.

Many moths  look like body-builders.  Big and beefy, they seem to be covered with hair.  It’s just an illusion.  Those “hairs” are scales just like those found on the wings of both butterflies and moths.  The notion that a butterfly or moth is disabled from flying by the loss of scales is a fallacy.  They lose scales all the time in their every day life,and keep on going until they wear out or something eats them.  Lepidoptera lifespan is about two weeks, so if they loose a few scales brushing up against a twig or in a predator’s attempt on their life, no matter.  As adults the main job is to reproduce then make room for the next generation by expiring. 

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

There are moths who disguise themselves as bird droppings, moths who hover at flowers, moths who pitch a tent for their young, moths who make sound, moths whose caterpillar can shoot a spray of burning acid, moths who look like a twig, underwater moths, and moths who live at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal.  Moths come in every color of the rainbow.   The diversity, remarkable life cycle and adaptations of moths makes a darn good yarn.     

And the moths that  eat fabric?  They can digest keratin, making fur and other animal products fair game for them.  All told, the moth has it figured out from every angle.  

This weekend (July 25), we’ll be taking a close-up look at moths and their nighttime insect friends.  I’ve cooked up a slurry of irresitible (to moths) glop that I’ll paint on trees to attract the bugs.  I have special lights to bring them out, too.  We’ll see fireflies, beetles and all manner of infrequently enjoyed night creatures.  Join us!  Bring your bug spray and your curiosity, but no flashlight.  The fun starts at 8:45 PM.   We hope you can make it!

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist