The Sweet Smell of Milkweed

Its flowers are very flagrant and when in season, they fill the woods with their sweet exhalations and make it agreeable to travel in them, especially in the evening.

~Peter Kalm, Swedish scientist, on Common Milkweed, 1750’s

I don’t really remember how long ago it was that I spread some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds around the yard. I think I did it a couple of years in a row, and finally, one spring, there were some shoots that popped up. Not where I had put the seeds, of course (and that should have prepared me for how this plant “behaves” in garden), but I was excited nevertheless. Years went by, and the milkweed would appear and send up new shoots well beyond where I had intended it to grow. But no flowers…I figured it was due to our wooded setting and these normally field habitat plants just could not get enough sunlight to send energy into flower production. Then, a few years back, the first flowers appeared. At first, on only a couple of the taller stems. But last year and this one have been spectacular showings of the sweet-scented floral globes.

common milkweed flowers

Common Milkweed flowers blooming in the yard (click photos to enlarge)

The patch of twenty or so milkweeds has been abuzz with activity since the flowers opened with honeybees, bumblebees, and large butterflies being the most frequent visitors.

bees on milkweed

The flowers are centers of pollinator activity, especially bumblebees and honeybees

Zebra swallowtail on milkweed

I have seen three species of swallowtails visit the milkweed patch

Besides their wonderful fragrance and obvious benefit to pollinators, milkweed flowers have something else going for them…their unusual structure. In addition to a whorl of sepals and petals (the petals are reflexed downward), milkweed flowers have a third whorl of five hoods (seen here as the upward facing openings) each of which encloses a horn (the modified filaments of the anthers).

Common milkweed flowers close up

Close up of flowers – look for the orange-ish pollinia in the gaps between the five open hoods of each milkweed floret

Instead of the loose, powdery pollen grains most of us are familiar with, milkweed pollen grains are packed into two connected sacs (pollinia). Together they are called a pollinarium and are shaped like a tiny saddlebag.

Large milkweed bug

Large Milkweed Bug with a pollinarium attached to its leg

When an insect lands on the flower, its leg slips into the crevice between the hoods and can pick up a pollinarium. When it visits another flower, the waxy pollen sacs can be deposited if the leg slips into a vacant crevice. These slits can occasionally capture some insects if their leg gets stuck.

milkweed pollinia on milkweed bug leg

Close up of a milkweed pollinarium

I have seen a few bumblebees that have several of these pollen structures stuck to their legs so I think large (and strong) insects like bees and butterflies make the best milkweed pollinators.



Frills, No Frills

It is almost impossible to think of something no one has thought of before, but it always possible to add different frills.

~Isaac Asimov

Friday morning when I went out the basement door to fill the bird feeders, a fuzzy blob on the window caught me eye. I leaned over and saw this strange-looking moth. It looks the way many people have during this extended time of hair salon closures – very floofy.

Frilly Grass Tubeworm on glass Acrolophus mycetophagus

The bizarre floofiness of a Frilly Grass Tubeworm Moth (click photos to enlarge)

I had seen one of these at the NC Botanical Garden once before, but never here at the house. The moth is about 1/2 inch in length, its beautifully patterned wings held tent-like over its back, and the anterior region adorned with elegantly curved “hairs”. I looked online and in my field guides and discovered it is a Frilly Grass Tubeworm Moth, Acrolophus mycetophagus. The frills are apparently extensions on the central pair of legs. I could not find any reference as to the function of these adornments, so let’s just assume it is a fashion statement of some sort.

Frilly Grass Tubeworm, Acrolophus mycetophagus

Looking down on the nice doo of this moth

Members of this group of small moths are often accessorized with extended labial palps held over their head like helmet crests or with fringed scales along the wing edges. The other trait they share is their unusual diet as larvae – most feed on decaying organic material or fungi. It turns out, the caterpillars of this frilly species feed on what seems to me to be rather unpalatable bracket fungi (shelf fungi). Its species name, mycetophagus, actually translates to “eats fungi”.

Frilly Grass Tubeworm head close up, Acrolophus mycetophagus

A close up of the frills

A few inches away on the door that morning was another, larger, moth with some distinct dark markings on its otherwise plain wings.

Deadwood borer moth, Scolecocampa liburna

Another door moth that morning – the Dead Wood Borer Moth

It has the uninspiring name of the Dead Wood Borer, Scoleococampa liburna. Larvae of this species feed in dead wood of various deciduous trees, and may, in fact be feeding on the fungi within decaying wood. So, two moths, two very different styles of dress, but a similar unusual diet. Once again, it is always amazing what you can find right outside (or on) your door.

Day 1

There is beauty to be found in the changing of the Earth’s seasons, and an inner grace in honouring the cycles of life.

~Jack Cornfield

A recent post discussed the eclosure of several Cecropia Moths that had spent the winter with us as cocoons. There was a mated pair when I found them that morning. I released all but that pair, keeping those two one more night to try to get some eggs, which the female obligingly laid on the inside of the mesh butterfly cage.

cecropia moth on leaves

Cecropia Moth adult that emerged on May 29 (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday, the eggs started hatching. Eggs were laid on May 30 and began hatching on June 10.

cecropia moth eggs hatched

Hatched eggs

First instar larvae are gregarious feeders (I have put them on Black Cherry, one of their listed host plants). They are small (~3/8 inch), dark, and covered in black spikes. They will undergo five molts with each stage lasting about a week. So, for the next 4 or 5 weeks, we will be busy feeding some very hungry caterpillars. The changes will be amazing and I’ll be sure to share photos along the way.

Cecropia moth larvae day 1

First instar Cecropia Moth larvae on their first day



Good bug and bad bug

Holy pose or killer strike

Survival instinct

~G.S. Romero

I was working in my shop yesterday when I saw something skitter across one of the work tables. I went over and looked, and found two baby mantids. I carried them outside and released them. A few minutes later, a couple more. Obviously, somewhere in my shop is a hatching egg case with perhaps a couple hundred tiny alien-looking insects ready to take on the world. I looked around but could not find a source (perhaps on some wood I brought in for the winter?). The last one I released in one of our wildflower beds. It quickly ran up one of my favorite native grasses – Bottlebrush Grass, Elymus hystrix. You can see the resemblance to a loose lab bottlebrush in the grass flower/seed head below.

bottlebrush grass flowering

Bottlebrush Grass in flower (click photos to enlarge)

The little guy ran up into the spiky flower head and started grooming, and then climbing among the thin plant filaments. Its slender, leggy shape blends in quite well.

Baby mantis

Baby mantis checking out the world for the first time

Baby mantis 1

After posing, the mantis headed out on patrol, looking for a meal

I’m not sure which species of mantis this is, although, for some reason I think it is probably a Carolina Mantis. They tend to be more common here in the woods than the much larger Chinese Mantids, and this one looks a little different than the Chinese Mantis babies I have observed in the past. Whichever one it is, it is well equipped to hunt creatures large and small and play an important role in the invertebrate jungle of our backyard.


You do not just wake up and become the butterfly. Growth is a process.

~Rupi Kaur

Eclosure = the emergence of an insect from the pupa case, or of a larvae from the egg…

Nature is always providing examples of remarkable survival and transformation. Witnessing eclosure is one of those magical things to me (must be because of my love for all things caterpillar). I have been lucky over the years to stumble upon freshly emerged butterflies and moths in the wild a number of times. It is always a special moment to see these fragile creatures as they begin their relatively short-lived winged lives. Here are a few of my favorites over the past few years…

Luna mothfreshly emerged

Luna moth just after eclosure, Jones Lake State Park (click photos to enlarge)

Red-spotted purple butterfly freshly emerged

Red-spotted Purple butterfly in our yard, hardening its wings while resting on its chrysalis

Zebra swallowtail shortly after emergence

A stunning fresh Zebra Swallowtail discovered by a summer camper at the NC Botanical Garden a few summers ago

It is thrilling to find a fresh emergence in the wild, but most of my experiences with eclosure have been with caterpillars I have raised or pupa I have found and protected. We have some mesh pop-up butterfly cages that we raise larvae and house pupae in on our screen porch. This gives them the temperature changes and humidity needed for survival. The mesh sides (and plenty of sticks in the cage) allow the newly emerged adult to climb and hang until it can pump fluids from its swollen abdomen through the wing venation to pump up the wings and allow them to harden for flight. Last year, I had a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar create a chrysalis inside one of the chambers and overwinter. We were also given a few Cecropia Moth cocoons to rear. These have been with us since September, and, earlier this week, they all made their official entry into the world as winged beauties.

spicebush swallowtail freshly emerged

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly with spent chrysalis in foreground

One of the best things about seeing these newly emerged butterflies and moths is being able to closely examine and photograph them as they complete their transformation. You can get details that are much more difficult to capture once they are capable of flight.

spicebush swallowtail closeup of head

Close up of head and proboscis

spicebush swallowtail wing detail

The colors and patterns are at their most vibrant just after eclosure

cecropia moth antenae

Close up of antennae of Cecropia Moth

The amazing thing about the Cecropia Moths is that they all emerged on the same night. We released 4 of the 6 the first night, but kept two that were mating, releasing them the following evening.

cecropia moth on leaves

North America’s largest native moth (wingspan up to 7 inches) just after release

The female laid several patches of eggs inside the chamber so we now will have a bunch of hungry mandibles to feed in the coming weeks. I can’t think of a better summer pastime…

cecropia moth eggs

The next generation

First of Season

Camouflage is the most interesting of all the arts.

~Kris Saknussemm

I sometimes feel like we live in the jungle. Looking out across the small sunny area around the house you see a green wall of vegetation before the tall trees of the forest begin. The yard itself is a tangle of all sorts of wildflowers and shrubs, layer upon layer, with years of accumulated leaves in between the green patches. Being at home so much this spring has given me a rare opportunity to actually do some tidying up (also known as weeding). Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually like the wild look, but there are unwanted species (like Microstegium) that tend to infiltrate everywhere and then some wanted species that like to take over if not watched. But, here in the hood, I try to be careful about where I put my hands and feet in this jumble of greenery because of one local resident in particular, the Copperhead. Yesterday found me repairing a patch of deer fence where a dead snag had fallen during the heavy rains. As I was walking through the woods dodging tree branches with my armload of tools I thought…Jeesh, it is hard to watch where you step in here, and they blend in so well with these leaves. Well, an hour or so later, I walked down the road to check on something, and on my way back, there was the first of the season, out in plain sight, where its usually incredibly effective camouflage was not so effective.


First Copperhead of the season (click photos to enlarge)

This one was particularly beautiful, with a bright, contrasting pattern of dark and light colors. As I approached, it flattened its body in what I assume is a defensive posture (to make it look bigger perhaps?) and remained motionless (one of their usual defensive modes). I took a few images with my phone and then walked back the hundred feet or so to the gate to our driveway to get my real camera. When I returned, the road was empty.


Distinctive traits include a vertical pupil, the pit between the eye and nostril, and the Hershey Kisses-shaped pattern along the sides (like hourglasses when viewed from above)

I walked into the woods where the snake had been headed, only to see nothing but leaves. At least, that was all I could perceive. The snake was now back in its element – advantage Copperhead.

Not a Feather

Wide, curved, tall or long, so many shapes but none are wrong.

~Hermione Little

It is a little harder (or at least less pleasant) to explore our yard and woodlands during a deluge like we have had the past few days. But, I was out filling bird feeders in the rain when a light-colored shape in the flowers caught my eye.

Plume moth

Plume moth resting in its characteristic T-shape position (click photos to enlarge)

As I got nearer, I recognized its distinctive T-shape as belonging to a plume moth. These unusual moths rest with their wings held out at a right angle to their slender body looking somewhat like an old airplane profile. These narrow wings actually are pleated or lobed and fold out wider when in flight.

Plume moth detail

Detail of wing

I looked in my field guides and online and am pretty sure this is the Groundsel Plume Moth (aka Baccharis Borer Plume Moth), Hellinsia balanotes, due its large size. As a group, they can be difficult to identify to genus or species, but this one had a wingspan the size of a quarter (greater than 30mm). Most plume moths are half that size.

Plume moth top view

Looking down on this unusual moth

The larvae of many plume moths bore into the stems of various shrubs and wildflowers or are leafrollers. The unusual shape of the adults is said to help them camouflage themselves when at rest in vegetation during the day as they tend to look more like dried plant stems than a tasty moth. Whatever the reason, they make for an interesting discovery on a rainy day (this moth stayed in this spot all day in spite of my intrusion).



The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

~Mark Van Doren

Melissa was producing a short video on trees as part of her museum educational offerings for teachers when she made a fascinating discovery. While filming the segment, she was encouraging folks to observe trees in their neighborhood and look for interesting things living on them. When she grabbed a hickory leaf and looked at it, she found one of my favorite spiders – a Magnolia Green Jumper (Lyssomanes viridis). We have a lot of these beautiful little jumping spiders in our yard and woods, but this was one even more exciting than usual as it has just molted.

Magnolia Green Jumper and shed 2

Magnolia Green Jumper next to its old shed exoskeleton (click photos to enlarge)

Magnolia Green Jumper shed

Recent shed of a Magnolia Green Jumper

I have posted on these amazing arthropods a couple of times in the past, But here was a spider shed and a freshly molted spider together on the leaf where this magic had just occurred. If you look closely, you can see how the spiders’ cephalothorax (the fused first two body parts) pops open during the molting process and the old legs split open. The spider is then able to pull itself out of its old skin as a larger version of itself. Some spiders hang from a silk thread when they do this, but it looks like this species makes a silk pad to anchor its old body, and then crawls out as a new spider.

Magnolia Green Jumper on leaf

Freshly molted male Magnolia Green Jumper

This one is a male as you can see by the enlarged tips to its pedipalps (those appendages that look like two short legs right in front of its face). Male spiders typically have swollen tips (often described as boxing gloves) that they transfer their sperm to before mating. I guess it is safer to keep your distance during courtship if you are a male spider (especially since you are usually smaller than your ravenous mate). After a couple of shots, I brought the spider inside for a photo shoot in my collapsible white box. I’m still learning the tricks of photographing on white backgrounds, but it does often highlight details you may not otherwise notice.

Magnolia Green Jumper on white background

Magnolia Green Jumper posing inside a white box

One of the issues in a white box is the creatures don’t tend to take direction very well, but this little guy finally settled and looked straight at me for a couple of quick portraits.

Magnolia Green Jumper on white background close up

The impressively large anterior median eyes (those two large eyes on front) of a Magnolia Green Jumper

One of the things I love the most about these spiders is how it is really easy to see the retinas in the large eyes on front move around inside as they spider looks around (the lenses are fixed to the the carapace, but the retinas inside can be moved by tiny muscles). When the eyes become dark, the spider is looking directly at you (I think this guy is looking at my pandemic haircut). After a couple more shots, I took him back outside to patrol the yard in his new duds.



Red and Black

Without black, no color has any depth…

~Amy Grant

A simple post this morning of something I rarely see, a top side view of a male Scarlet Tanager. They are still visiting the mulberry tree out back and have consumed all the easy to reach berries, so they are exhibiting some impressive acrobatics to snag the remaining fruit. This provides some great views of their amazing color scheme.

Scarlet tanager male dorsal view

Dorsal view of a male Scarlet Tanager (click photo to enlarge)

Still Hanging

Red is the ultimate cure for sadness. 

~Bill Blass

I’ve been working in the shop on a project and, as was the case last week, the tanagers are still at it, although the mulberry supply is dwindling fast. I am surprised at how tolerant they are as I walk to and from the shop door, but I am happy they allow me to take a break from my chores and admire their redness. Here are a couple of shots of a male Scarlet Tanager that was chowing down on the berries yesterday. By the way, I think I have now seen at least three separate males in this tree based on their slight differences in yellow patches.

Scarlet tanager male in leaves

Male Scarlet Tanager scoping the branches for fruit (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager reaching for berry

The berries that were easy to reach are mostly gone now, so it requires a little extra effort to grab one

Scarlet tanager getting berry

The birds are hanging upside down or flying up from underneath the branch to grab berries

Scarlet tanager eating berry

They usually pull off berry and stem and then perch nearby to chew up the berry and spit out the stem