Thursday, May 26, 2022

Bees and Breeches

I was surprised to find the parking lot at the St. Peter’s Dome and Morgan Falls trailhead empty on a gorgeous spring morning. Who could pass up this sunshine? Sure, the woods were disappointingly silent because the migrating warblers hadn’t quite made it back, but the hum of mosquitoes was also gloriously absent.

It wasn’t long before I heard the buzz of another kind, though. Low in pitch and low to the ground, whatever it was sounded big. The trail was winding through a little valley on the way to one of several picturesque stream crossings, and wildflowers carpeted the gently rising hills. The sound paused. I paused, too, taking the moment to look more closely at the wildflowers.

Already I’d seen the sunny faces of marsh marigolds along the stream; the tightly furled buds of white trilliums still wrapped in their warm green cloaks; the rounded shrubs of leatherleaf with tiny yellow flowers glowing like Christmas lights; and fairy carpets of spring beauty with their pink-striped petals.

This rich sugar maple-basswood forest is special, and one of the best places to enjoy wildflowers in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It’s designated by the Wisconsin DNR as a State Natural Area (SNA), and by the Forest Service as a Research Natural Area (RNA).

Here, maple trees pull nutrients out of the moist soil, and then recycle them right back down in an autumn shower of orange and yellow. Concave slopes concentrate the compost of rotting leaves, and the resulting loamy soil blankets all but the steepest rock outcrops and sandy floodplains. In just a few more weeks, those maples will have sent soil nutrients back to the sky, and their wide green leaves will once again capture every possible photon to fuel their sugar factories.

In the meantime, spring wildflowers grow furiously. With the resources available in the rich, moist soil, and the short window where ample sunshine and warm temperatures overlap, they sprout from energy stored in their roots, flower, attract pollinators, set seed, and replenish their stores before their visible parts dissolve into the shadows.

That will come soon enough. On this bright morning, hot sun burned the back of my neck and the maple buds were still just long-shingled shoots that had expanded but not yet burst. Moss-covered boulders hinted at the shady future, though, and between them this hillside was dotted with handfuls of lacey green leaves. Sprouting out of the center of most clusters was an arching pink stem and a scene fit for my dollhouse days. The small white flowers of Dutchman’s breeches look like puffy little short pants hung out to dry. The waistbands—actually the reflexed petal tips—are an eye-catching yellow. And each pant leg is a nectar spur, filled with energy-rich fluid.

As I admired the Dutchman’s breeches, the buzz came back. I caught a flicker of movement, too, and followed both on a zig-zag route that paused at string of flowers. When the huge bee landed on the arching stem it sank low under her weight.

Newly emerged queen bumble bees have strong legs and a long tongue that allow them to access the nectar hidden deep in Dutchman’s breeches flowers. These early flowers rely on fuzzy bumble bees for pollination—few other insects are active during cool spring days. Photo by Emily Stone.

Through the zoom on my camera, I watched as she grasped one blossom in her front feet, and then used all six legs and one or two additional flowers to gain stability. The flowers bounced and swung with her effort, but still she worked her head up into the yellow waistbands of several flowers before suddenly buzzing away clumsily like a heavily laden aircraft. She only made it as far as the next patch of floral pants. From her large size and the early date, I was confident that this was a newly emerged queen bumble bee out to gather resources for her nascent colony.

Big bees and breeches are made for each other. This queen burrowed first her tongue and then her head into the flower and angled it toward one of the nectar spurs. Throughout this process, the flower’s anthers brush pollen onto her head, thorax, and forelegs. At her next stop, some of that pollen will land on the flower’s pistil. Without this pollination service, the plant’s seeds would not be fertilized.

Smaller bees can’t quite pry open the petals to access the juice bar inside, and they sometimes cheat by chewing a hole in the nectar spurs. While I didn’t spot this in action, I did notice that all but the freshest pantaloons needed mending. Right where the nectar would be stored, little holes had been chewed by some devious nectar thief. Unlike the bumble bee, the chewers offer no pollen courier service in exchange for their lunch.

Dutchman’s breeches flowers hide their nectar away in the tips of their pantaloon-shaped flowers. Hungry bees who are too small to access the nectar properly will simply chew holes to access the nectar. Photo by Emily Stone.

From flower to flower, I followed that queen as long as I could keep her in view. When she finally buzzed off over the hills, I stood up, stretched my back, and grinned at the world.

According to the Forest Service, this RNA is a place where “natural processes predominate.” In other words, it’s a place where you can watch nature—and bees—do what they’re supposed to be doing. When do you want to go?

Author’s Note: This article was originally published in 2019. I was actually just in Wyoming for a conference!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Growing Up WILD: Dragonflies

“Welcome to Perry Lake and your Growing Up WILD field trip,” I smiled at a small group of kids and adults on our first field trip of the spring.

“Lakes are cradles for all sorts of babies as they grow up,” I told the group. “How many of you like to play in the mud and water as you grow up wild?” The little ones—only 3 and 4 years old, grinned. One student looked up at his teacher. “I love mud best!” I chuckled in agreement.

Then we all transformed ourselves into dragonfly eggs by hugging our knees. We wiggled, and grew, and hatched into crooked-legged-nymphs. Then our job was to eat. “What do you like to eat to help you grow?” I asked each kid. The answers included noodles, spaghetti, mac and you notice a trend here? “Well dragonfly nymphs eat snails and minnows,” I declared. “How would you like that?” Their faces scrunched up just as I’d expected.

“Then, when we’ve eaten enough, we POP into dragonflies and zoom around and eat mosquitoes!” The chaperones cheered at that.

Our next task was trying to catch some actual dragonfly nymphs in the vegetation at the edge of the lake. I demonstrated proper pond net protocol, capturing a few dead leaves, and then turning the net inside out into my big, flat tub of water. Staring intently, I checked for any sign of success. When two demo swishes of my net turned up no sign of life, I got a little worried. Ice only went out a week ago, were the critters still hiding elsewhere?

Still, I handed out nets to the kids, and they ventured off along the shore to try their own luck, each with an adult or two in tow. Of course, someone started on the dock—and was soon shouting about a minnow! The tiny fish—only about an inch long—was striped with dark parr marks. This helps them camouflage into the tall, thin weeds.

I stood sentry at the tub to help kids empty nets and catalogue their catch. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the adults were visiting the bin of extra nets. Within a few minutes, everyone was on a mission to catch more critters. A chaperone later told me that the adults got competitive about who could net the coolest finds. There’s no age limit to being a kid on my field trips!

Soon our tub was home to a giant tadpole—just its bulbous head was an inch long, and the tail added another two—and a tiny turtle. Actually, they were the same size. The difference, of course, is that the tadpole already had legs and was about as big as they get before becoming a frog. In contrast, the turtle must have just hatched last fall, and was about as small as you’ll ever find them!

Finally, I spotted a tiny monster among the leaves just deposited from an adult’s net. “Gold star for the day!” I exclaimed! She had found the dragonfly nymph we’d just been imagining.

This little aquatic monster is a dragonfly in the middle of childhood. Just like human kids, they grow up wild! Photo by Emily Stone.

The nymph stage of a dragonfly’s life is essentially their childhood. After hatching from a tiny egg, they shed their exoskeleton several times as they grow. Dragonfly nymphs may spend anywhere from several weeks to several years growing through the instars. The cooler and shorter the summers are where they live, the longer it takes to emerge as an adult. In the meantime, they rule the bottoms of lakes and rivers as fierce predators.

To catch food, a nymph draws in water through their anus, and clenches their abdominal and thoracic muscles against the water-filled rectal chamber. The amazing amount of pressure now trapped inside the nymph’s body cavity pushes out their labium, or toothy lower lip, in a high-speed strike. The lightning attack may earn the tiny predator a meal of tasty mosquito larvae, a tadpole, a small fish, or even another species of dragonfly nymph.

The dragonfly nymph’s hydraulic system isn’t just used for hunting. By jetting water out the way it came in, nymphs can propel themselves forward at a speed of 10 centimeters per second. That power of acceleration can help when they are on the hunt, and also allows for quick exits if they become the hunted. As the water goes in and out, it passes by gills in the dragonfly’s rectum, and helps the little critter absorb oxygen.

If they survive the winter, dragonfly nymphs will use the abundance of spring and summer to continue growing through their required eight to seventeen instars (depending on the species) before their final metamorphosis into adulthood. The process is astounding. From a split down the back of a scraggly, brown, bottom-feeder emerges a colorful, fairy-like being with delicate, dexterous wings.

There are many different ways to be a kid in nature. Some eat pasta, others eat snails. Some live in the mud, others just play in it. Some shed their exoskeleton as they get bigger, others buy new clothes. No matter whose kids I’m observing, though, it’s fun to watch them grow up wild!

Author’s note: Portions of this article are reprinted from 2014.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Robins and Hermit Thrushes: Cousins in the Woods

The hemlock forest was cool and dim as afternoon faded to evening. I hiked quickly, but with eyes and ears open, hoping to catch a whiff of spring. A flutter of movement caught my eye. Pausing, then creeping forward to see around a trunk, I was rewarded by a glimpse of the plump brown body and rusty tail of a hermit thrush. Silently, they made a series of short flights into the balsam thicket and vanished.

Hermit thrushes are one of the most melodious members of the thrush family.
Photo by Matt MacGillivray.

I smiled at the discovery that this early spring migrator had returned. And then, I listened even more carefully, hoping to hear the bird’s delicate, flute-like song filter through the trees as I have on so many gray-lit walks. “Whyyyy don’t you come to me, to me?” sings the lovelorn bird as the air begins to shimmer with magic. “Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last for more than a few moments,” wrote Mary Oliver.

And from Henry David Thoreau:

“The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest. Here is a bird in whose strain the story is told…Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

But my wish was not granted. Silence reigned.

The following morning, as the first light of dawn and my consciousness expanded in tandem, the incessant voice of a robin pierced through my closed window. Cheer up! Cheerily! Cheer UP! CheeriLY! Over and over he shouted a greeting to the Sun, an invitation to the lady robins, and a challenge to his foes.

Since the robin’s hedonistic exuberance left no moment in which to anticipate his next phrase, I rolled over with a grumble. He was no hermit thrush.

It’s hard, sometimes, to remember that these two birds are related.

The thrush family, Turdidae, includes a few obvious members, like the hermit, Swainson’s and wood thrushes. But there are also a few who are not so aptly named—American robins, veerys, and bluebirds. Of these, only the American robin is a “true” thrush in the genus Turdus.

Now, in case that made you giggle like a middle schooler…and because you know how much I enjoy teaching about scat in nature...I looked up the etymology of both words. Unfortunately, turdus is simply Latin for “thrush,” while turd seems to have its origins in old words that mean “torn off” and also shares some very old roots with the word scat.

Moving on, I think it’s useful to remember the things that robins and hermit thrushes have in common. Both birds are prolific singers, and you’re welcome to disagree with me about the hermit thrush’s song being more pleasant. Both birds have plump bodies in shades of brown and orange. They walk about with upright postures, and they often forage on the ground.

Robins, classically, run across the grass and then stop to search for worms. It may look like they are listening, with their head cocked to the side like we would, but sight seems to be more important. They find worms by spotting the disturbances they make in the soil. Observations have shown that they focus on earthworms for breakfast—presumably when the moist-skinned invertebrates are most active—and then switch to fruit later in the day. Sometimes they do double duty by selectively eating fruits that are infested with insects. Clever!

While I’ve seen plenty of robins in the wilderness, hermit thrushes are rarely seen on lawns. Hermit thrushes have their own fascinating foraging techniques for forest glades. They sometimes hunt by “foot quivering,” where they use their feet to shake the grass and scare up insects and other small critters. One hermit thrush was observed trying to use a 1.5-inch-long salamander as baby food!

Both of these birds, and all the thrushes, build cup-shaped nests that often include mud. Robins build their nest on a horizontal surface. Branches or doorframes seem to work equally well, unless it’s your front door, of course. Hermit thrushes build their nests on the ground. Bluebirds are the odd duck of the thrush family—they are the only cavity nesters of the group.

American robins, like most members of the thrush family, make cup-shaped nests that often include mud. Photo by Emily Stone.

The robin woke me up again today. He’ll likely be my alarm clock for the rest of the summer as he rushes to raise up to three broods of chicks. Hermit thrushes will soon join the chorus, too. Hopefully, as Thoreau predicted, “whenever he [or she] hears it, it is a new world and a free country.”

And now, some more bonus artwork from my young friend!

Hermit Thrush by Annaliese Collins

American Robin by Annaliese Collins

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Curious Cottontails

My typing grew halting, then paused. I gazed out of my office window, trying to figure out how to begin my next Natural Connections article. To my surprise, I had more than just mottled green lawn to look at—a fuzzy brown bunny sat nibbling on the blades!

Eastern Cottontail, by Annaliese Collins

As I watched, their little mouth worked back and forth on the patch of grass, and their ears twitched this way and that, listening to the sides and behind—then abruptly rotated forward with cartoonish focus when a burst of laughter in the office filtered out through the glass. Was the giggling something for the bunny worry about?

A cottontail can rotate their ears three-quarters of the way around, like little satellite dishes picking up any signals that could mean danger and assessing their location. I could see the anxiety in their quivering muscles.

It’s appropriate for the bunny to be on high alert—almost every predator eats them! The long list includes foxes, coyotes, wolves, and domestic dogs; bobcats, lynx, several types of weasels, raccoons, and snakes. Birds of prey might be their biggest threat, though. In some places, they are the primary lunch of red-tailed hawks. In other regions, great-horned owls are their main foe.

Big metal predators do a number on the population of bunnies, too. A study in Missouri found that ten eastern cottontails are killed annually per mile of road, mostly in spring when the ditches green up before the fields. Disease kills another 18 percent. All told, only 20 percent of adult rabbits survive each year, and the mortality rate of babies is even higher. The average bunny only lives to their fifteenth birthday—15 months, that is.

It's lucky then, that cottontail rabbits breed like, well, rabbits.

Rabbits reach reproductive maturity at three or four months of age, which makes their average lifespan seem a little more reasonable. Most females don’t breed until the spring following their own birth, but a few get started popping them out in their first summer.

Since cottontails can be found all the way from southern Canada to northern Colombia, their breeding season varies quite a bit in length—along with the number of litters a female can have in a year. In Wisconsin, three litters is about max, but in some areas they can manage up to seven litters of up to twelve kits each! One literature review published by the Colorado Division of Game, Fish, and Parks found that some females produced up to 35 kits per year.

How is that even possible!?

First, gestation takes less than a month. Second, the doe (female rabbit) mates again soon after she gives birth. Just as her first litter is weaned at about 22 days old, her second litter is on its way.

I’m exhausted even typing that.

Of course, cottontails don’t do very much active mothering. Nests are only 5 inches deep and consist of a scratched-out depression in a clump of grass or under a bush. While the babies are born blind and with hardly any hair, the female does not stay in the nest with them, instead she returns just once or twice a day to feed them. In contrast, my friend’s 3-month-old baby is eating every 2 hours.

The adaptation that makes this extended feeding schedule possible is that cottontail milk is about 14 percent protein and 35 percent fat. Rich milk is common among animals who leave their young alone for long periods. In comparison, whole milk has 3.5 percent fat, and human milk contains 4 percent fat.

Baby bunnies need nutritious food to grow up fast and make more bunnies before they become another animal’s baby food!

The rabbit must have darted off while I was googling them, but soon another movement caught my eye. The brown bunny had reappeared among the dry leaves and stems of our pollinator gardens, which had been left alone through the winter to protect overwintering insects.

I grabbed my camera and zoomed in, captivated by a shiny black eye, those alert ears, and an impressively active nose. Twitching their nose up to 120 times per minute exposes a rabbit’s 100 million scent receptors to the smells of danger.

Plus, they look adorable doing it.

700 words later, just look at how productive staring out the window can be!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

And now, a bonus story:

"When are you publishing a new book? Annaliese wants to illustrate again." I chuckled when this note popped into my message app the other night, especially when the writer admitted that she was Annaliese herself--having commandeered her mom's Facebook account.

Annaliese is the daughter of my first best friend, and Annaliese, at age 6, drew this swan to help illustrate my first Natural Connections book:


I replied to Annaliese, "No new books in the works, but you can illustrate my next article about bunnies!" And, this is the result:

Eastern Cottontail, by Annaliese Collins

She's done quite a lot of growing as an artist!

Six years after the swan, Annaliese is a vibrant, energetic, Girl Scout, dancer, volleyball player, and artist. As I've watched her grow up through her mom's social media posts, I find myself thinking that she looks like someone I'd like to be friends with...even if she wasn't also the spitting image of my first best friend!

I hope you enjoy seeing her artwork as much as I do!