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Up-Close Insect Observations and a Relaxed Form of Nature Study

This past month saw a return of the Outdoor Hour Challenge to a more topical approach as opposed to a seasonal approach. For our family, it breathed new life into our time outdoors and although we had a focus we were much more open to letting things just happen.

As we gardened, sat outside for our dinners, and traveled to various local locations, the insect topics came to us and we worked on paying close attention to the opportunities. This truly is the kind of nature study that interweaves itself into your everyday life, the kind you can do just about every day.

We were trimming lavender when we noticed this foamy white globs on many of the plants. We knew right away that it was some sort of insect that was creating these globs but we were not sure which insect. When we were back inside, I Googled “white foam on lavender” and right away we could easily see this was a common search. There were many resources that all pointed to the Spittlebug.

After doing some reading online, we found that it is many times found on rosemary plants too so we went out to look. Yes! There it was on our rosemary plants.

  • They are related to aphids.
  • They feed by extracting plant sap.
  • Nymphs cover themselves with a frothy mass that provides protection from predators.
  • There can be more than one nymph in a glob.
  • Oh, and the “spittle” is not spittle at all and actually comes from the other end of the insect. 🙂

Although they can do minimal damage to plants (according to most sources we read online), we decided to take the advice of most and just wash the globs off with the hose. Easy enough.

We have had a huge increase in the number of flying insects in the front garden. The sage, the butterfly bushes, and the lavender are all still in bloom and each day there are hundreds of flying creatures that come to enjoy the flowery goodness. The fiery skipper above is the most common butterfly we have in our garden at this time of year. Isn’t it amazing to see all the parts up close? Can you see the probiscus?

The bees are thick and it makes me realize how easy it is to provide a healthy bee habitat. Plant bee friendly plants and provide even the smallest amount of water and they find you. We had a visitor the other day ask if we were afraid of bee stings and I honestly answered that even though we are in close contact with the bees, they avoid us more than we avoid them.

The flying insect we do have trouble with is the yellow jacket. We had to put up a trap for them because they were stinging my son…..who somehow seems to attract them. Every evening when we sit outside to eat our dinner, one or two of the pesky little insects come to buzz around us and our plates of food. They are very persistent this year for some reason. I think this is the fourth time we have had to rebait our yellow jacket trap. This style has been very successful for us and it is very economical to use since you just buy little packets to bait the trap after it gets full. (You can buy them on Amazon: Rescue WHYTR-BB8 Wasp Hornet Yellow Jacket Trap Reusable.)

I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between native plants, non-native plants, and insects since reading a book on this topic. Bringing Nature Home is another one of the books I received from Timber Press to review and share with you in a post. This book goes more deeply into how introducing non-native plants into our habitats creates an environment that can make life harder for native insects and plants.

It is far more in-depth than I could grasp on the first time through reading it but it has given me lots to think about. It is a book that makes me wish I was staring over with choosing plants for our whole yard but since I can’t do that, I can look forward and make better choices in the future.

If you are interested in reading and learning about how plants and insects (and other creatures), both native and non-native, thrive or die because of choices we humans make….this is the book for you. I am going to read it through again once I have some time to think and meditate on my responsibility as a garden owner.

We are still experiencing temperatures far above normal and the abundance of sunshine has drawn us out into the garden just about every day this week. We did lots of pruning and composting but we are still delaying our actual autumn garden clean-up until we see a change in the weather. The birds and insects and I suspect a skunk and raccoon are still frequenting our garden and enjoying the food source.


Jami’s Tuesday Garden Party meme is open from Tuesday to Thursday so there is still time for you to jump in and participate!

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Family Monarch Study – How To Conduct a Nature Study Follow-Up

In any blackboard reading lesson, and, so far as possible, in individual written work by the children, tell —
First. What I did.
Second. What I saw.
Third. What I thought.
If this order is habitually followed, the children are more apt to think for themselves, and to base their conclusions on what they have seen. If told in the first person, as far as possible, class reproduction is apt to be more thoughtful and the pupil’s work more individual.
Nature Study and the Child by Charles Scott, 1900

What We Did:
We sat in the garden on several occasions to try to spy out some butterflies as part of the Outdoor Hour Challenge for summer butterflies. Mom had her camera and was ready to snap some images if a beauty came along. We mostly saw bees of various kinds and the occasional dragonfly.

Fiery Skipper from 2009 – I forgot to plant my cosmos this year…just realized.

What We Saw:
Western Tiger Swallowtail (We studied this butterfly during the summer of 2011.)
Cabbage White
Fiery Skipper (We identified this way back in 2007.)

Swallowtail on butterfly bush
Photo from a few weeks ago showing the damaged wing.

What We Thought:
We wondered why we never see the caterpillars in our yard so we investigated the host plant for the Western Tiger Swallowtail. Turns out we have no host plants so that solves that mystery. The host plants are: willow, cottonwood, and chokecherry. (You can use this link to learn about host plants: Create a Butterfly Garden.)

We also noticed that quite a few of the butterflies that come to our yard have tattered wings. We did a little research and found that butterflies can still fly even with up to 70% of their wings missing. It is really a blessing that they are capable of flying even after a bird has taken a bite out of their wings. (See this webpage.) Did you know that some people actually repair a butterfly’s broken wings? Never knew that.

I forgot to mention here on the blog that my milkweed that I had been nurturing along for a few years in a pot on my deck was totally and completely destroyed by the roofers that came to roof our house back in June. They somehow managed to dump it to the ground and it was just smashed into a million pieces, beyond saving. I shed a few tears and promised myself that I would try again. Reminds me I need to order some more seeds and buy a new pot. I am determined to start a monarch habitat in my yard.

Butterfly garden June 2012 (14)
We didn’t see any monarchs this week but we did last month.

So to wrap up this post, I want to encourage you to try the simple process that Charles Scott outlined in the quote at the top of this post. It is an easy way to structure a nature journal entry….even young children could give a few words in response to the prompts.

 First. What I did.
Second. What I saw.
Third. What I thought.


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Fall Insects and A Pear Tree Update

Bee on the Sunflower

Cooler weather means more time spent outside during the day….we went from really hot weather to cool weather in the span of a day or two. I am so pleased with these late blooming sunflowers and I am going to plant more of them next year. The insects have been visiting them every day and when I went out to snip a few flowers for the kitchen table, I saw this big guy!

Praying Mantis

This praying mantis decided to hang out on my stove one morning. It must have been pretty funny watching me try to scoop him up while he was hopping from side to side. I would try to scoop him up and he would hop just out of my reach. I would try again and he would hop too fast. Finally I got a bowl and set it over him and then slid a piece of paper under the bowl. Success! I transplanted him outside to my potted plants and he was happy to pose for a few minutes on the allysum.

Skipper on the Butterfly Bush

Our butterfly bushes are still blooming, in white, lavender, and deep purple. I see the hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies all buzzing in and around in the morning sunshine. Makes me happy to see such a busy community right in my flowerbeds. We have spotted a few monarchs lately…none captured with the camera yet. They are fast!

Pears on the Tree

We were out for a drive and took a back road only to find a pear orchard within about two miles of my house! It is tucked away off the beaten path and as we slowly drove down the lane I tried to snap a few images…..glorious fall pears to enjoy!

We are going out and about tomorrow so stay tuned for some more back roads loveliness.

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Fiery Skipper in the Flower Garden and a Few Turkeys

Fiery Skippers in the garden are pretty common this time of the year.

Just as ordinary to our autumn season are the turkeys that wander onto my dad’s property everyday as they make their rounds. Even though they are not my favorite bird, I have come to recognize their beauty…..and also their silliness.

They think if they hold still I can’t see them. They will be as still as statues until some signal goes through the flock and they trot off for cover.

There they go making their little gobbling sounds. Silly turkeys.

Enjoying our gorgeous weather…..perhaps a hike later today.

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Chasing Butterflies -Outdoor Hour Challenge #22

Look at the eye!

Today we went out to look for butterflies as part of Outdoor Hour Challenge #22. We were optimistic. We persevered. We were rewarded.

I can’t tell you how much it helps to focus on a particular aspect of nature as outlined in the Outdoor Hour Challenges. If you had asked me if there were butterflies in our backyard, I would have said a definite maybe. We see them from time to time fluttering in the garden but they move pretty fast and we don’t get to spend a lot of time observing any one particular butterfly…..usually.

Today we sat out and watched and right away I saw a cabbage white skipping across the clover in the grass, not really sitting but flitting from blade to blade and then off he went. Next we saw what I think was a swallowtail of some sort. I am totally guessing and I say swallowtail because that is one type of butterfly we frequently have in our backyard. He was there and then he was gone way too fast. Then, after much sitting and focusing our eyes on the garden, we saw the best subject of the day. It was a fiery skipper. He sat on a bloom of the butterfly bush and we got to look at him closely. I went to get the camera. A few minutes later, he was back again and this time I was able to take the photo at the top of this entry. Fantastic!!!

The lesson of this blog entry. Pick your focus and be patient. I am ready and anxious to take some more time to go out with the boys and wait for butterflies.

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Fiery Skipper

I am going to share something with you about these photos. I was walking to my mailbox the other morning to put a letter in to my sweet aunt. I went right past my newly planted butterfly bush and saw to my delight that there were about six butterflies skittering around the blooms. I was so surprised that within a matter of days, my new bush had attracted such a flock of butterflies.

I immediately ran inside to get my camera, hoping that they would still be there when I got back. As I approached the bush, they flew away to the lavender that is planted in the same row. I sat down quietly almost in the flowerbed, hoping that they would come back and they did. I must have taken twenty photos of the butterflies because I wasn’t sure any would come out clearly. I sat and observed these beautiful insects as they flitted from bloom to bloom and noticed so many details about them. I am finding it is easier to remember what I see if I actually say it out loud. Hairy body, small wings, orange and black, dots underneath, long legs….anyone walking by would have thought I was a little nuts. But, it did make it easier when I came inside and pulled out the field guide. I confirmed what I suspected it was by doing a search online and looking at images.

Hylephila phyleus
Fiery Skipper

The zoomed in photo of his head makes me laugh every time I see it. He looks as if he is wearing sunglasses. Can you believe the shape and size of his proboscis? Amazing creature and I will never forget the morning sitting in my lavender, waiting for the butterflies to come back so I could see them.