Thursday, July 28, 2022

Pretty Pipsissewa

On the first afternoon after the Museum’s summer naturalist interns arrived, we took a walk up the driveway. Despite head nets and long sleeves, we slapped continuously at mosquitoes who found slivers of bare skin.

You’ve read about my driveway before—fluorescent moss, wolves on the trail cam, tracks, scat, fungi, oak apple galls, and contemplative walks provide inspiration not far from my house. I’m lucky to live where mycologists can spend an entire three-hour program just exploring the few tenths of a mile that lead to the Museum’s staff house.

But for all its wonders, there’s one treasure on my driveway that’s been eluding me: pipsissewa.

“There!” we all squinted through bug netting as I pointed out a tiny grove of evergreen plants. While sometimes called Prince’s Pine, the shiny, dark, oblong leaves look nothing like pine needles or like the clubmoss that also bears that whimsical common name.

It’s these evergreen leaves that inspired pipsissewa’s genus name—Chimaphila which means “winter-loving” in Greek. It’s also the leaves that have been used for medicine throughout the millennia. Native Americans, colonists, and pioneers all report using this plant to treat rheumatism and kidney issues, among a long list of other ailments. Modern chemistry has demonstrated the potential of chimaphilin to have antifungal and antioxidant effects.

But it’s the flowers I’ve been longing to see. The memory of hot pink petals with a bright green center is emblazoned onto my memory from a July 4th canoe trip in the Boundary Waters in 2007. I dropped my pack beside the portage trail and crouched down to admire the splash of color. Somehow, that’s the only time I’ve managed to catch this beauty in bloom.

On my driveway, one plant, with four whorls of those elegant leaves climbing up its stem, displayed a dry, brown cluster of last year’s seed capsules on the tip of the stalk. Should that make me feel hope or frustration? I obviously missed the flowers last summer—probably while zooming past on my bike. But those empty seedheads are also confirmation that at least one of these plants is mature and will likely put up a flowering stalk again this year. The question is, will I see it?

“Help me out,” I pleaded with the interns on that walk in early June. “If we all remember to check for flowers once in a while, surely one of us will notice when they bloom!”

Each day as I passed the little grove of pipsissewa in my car or on my bike, I slowed down to look, and the interns did too. “Still not blooming,” we confirmed back at the house. And even when a cluster of pale pink buds appeared at the top of the stalk, they seemed to pause there for ages, sleeping beauties waiting for some cue to open.

For some flowers, the cue seems to be the touch of the sun. But in all the times I paused to check on their status, the plants were never once in direct sunlight. Hemlock boughs formed a lacy ceiling just the same color as pipsissewa’s leaves. How can a plant survive in such darkness? Certainly, the woody stems and leathery leaves that can last four years are part of that. Their durability allows for thriftiness in the face of limited resources. But pipsissewa has another secret.

Down under the ground, attached to pipsissewa’s roots, are the pale, threadlike mycelium of fungi. Those fungi are connected to other roots from other plants within this grove. Like the rest of their cousins in the Health Family—Ericaceae—this diminutive plant is networked into the Wood Wide Web. About 90% of all plant species have a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi on their roots. The intricate net of fungi is highly efficient at gathering water and nutrients. In return, plants manufacture sugar during photosynthesis and share some with the fungi.

Pipsissewa, a diminutive plant of the deep shade, is a bit of a mooch. Known as a partial myco-heterotroph, they produce some sugars on their own, but also steal some of their energy from other plants, siphoning off sugars from the mycorrhizal network in order to supplement their own photosynthesis.

That energy is essential to construct tiny pink buds and then burst them open into vibrant parasols—which they finally did on July 8th. Each nodding flower contained a lime green center pistil shaped like a stocking hat, surrounded by a lovely pink brim, with a fringe of ten pairs of pink anthers, all ringed by five white petals arching gracefully toward the sky. They were just as beautiful as I’d remembered.

It’s hard to begrudge pipsissewa a little bit of stolen sugar, when that energy allows their sweet flowers to brighten up their dark forest home.

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, July 21, 2022

Adventures with Princess Entelegyne

As the sheer, white curtain material of my mom’s homemade insect nets unfurled, small children seemed to materialize out of nowhere as if called by the Pied Piper. The wooden dowel handles with bent coat hanger frames were longer than any of the kids was tall.

Same net, different adventure (they've been on lots of them!). It's made out of an old curtain, a wire coat hanger, and a wooden dowel. Not too hard to make your own! Photo by Larry Stone.

The nets were light, though, and the long handles allowed us to keep feet and bare legs firmly planted in mowed grass while reaching into the tall field of goldenrod, rattlesnake master, and other flowers of the restored prairies in Honey Creek State Park in southern Iowa.

The adults of the Stone Family Reunion were busy hugging each other hello, setting up camp chairs in the cabin’s yard, and organizing a taco bar for supper. This gave me time to demonstrate proper sweep netting technique to my cousins’ kids: swish the net back and forth across the tall plants, then fold it over to keep the flying insects in while preparing to catalogue our finds.

I think it was Catherine, age 9, or maybe Freyja, age 7, who caught the first spider. We all crouched around the net for a better look, and I let the spider crawl up on my hand. As she climbed, and I twisted my hand to keep her in view, the light caught her tiny abdomen and it shimmered like white satin. We oohed and aahed.

Princess Entelegyne, a juvenile female banded garden spider.

“What kind is it?” asked Catherine, with her eyes transfixed on our new friend. I wracked my brain to match the narrow, slightly teardrop shape of this spider with eight equal-length tan legs to any of the spider groups I knew. Crab spiders are easy to identify with their larger pair of front legs. Wolf spiders’ two body segments are roughly equal in size. Jumping spiders are hairy. Cellar spiders are leggy.

I peered at this little spider’s face, trying to find something I could tell the kids. The two little sensory appendages under her chin (called pedipalps) were uniformly thin and looked simply like shorter legs: a female. In male spiders, the last segment of the pedipalp is swollen and looks like little boxing gloves.

I looked around the cluster of little girls and their brothers, all at prime fairytale age. Then I looked back down at the young, female spider, shimmering in the sun…” She’s a princess spider!” I exclaimed, and suddenly the air crackled with magic. Even Rosemary, age three, with eyes full of awe, held out her hand to let the tiny spider tickle her fingers.

The kids ran off with the nets to catch more critters while I quickly uploaded a photo of the spider to my SEEK app. “We believe this is a member of the order Entelegyne Spiders,” was all it could tell me.

“Princess Entelegyne is her name,” I told the crew when they rushed back with nets full of more strange and colorful creatures. And then we got to work, picking through the nets and corralling the rest of our menagerie into little plastic “see boxes” with magnifiers in the lids.

Not a great photo of the Halloween Pennant dragonfly, but this shows the "see box" we used to hold the bugs long enough to look at them. They've been a hit with my family since my mom was our Girl Scout leader. The Museum uses them, too. Here's one place I found to buy them.

Before I collapsed into my bed that night, I posted a photo of the spider to the ID Request section of By 8:30 a.m. the following morning, I had an expert identification: Banded Garden Spider, Argiope trifasciata. Most of the photos were of large, female spiders with fat, black, yellow, and white striped abdomens, and elegant, banded legs. Spider royalty, if you ask me! They build the most beautiful round webs with a shiny lightning bolt down the center, but usually aren’t noticed until late summer. This was early July.

Males are the same shimmering white as the spider we found, but only grow to 5 mm long. Our catch was twice that size already. So, I surmised, Princess Entelegyne was (appropriately!) a juvenile female, and wasn’t building conspicuous webs yet. In a few weeks, after a few molts, she would don the colors and stripes of her kind and finally debut in a form that would make people sit up and take notice.

The prairie was full of life, and our nets caught the magic. There was a tiny male lynx spider with big black pedipalps; a yellow crab spider with round abdomen and large front legs; and a young praying mantis with swivel head and giant forearms. We marveled at the sharp beak of a robber fly and admired the colorful markings on a bush katydid. Tiny grasshoppers elicited laughs of surprise as they vanished ahead of poking fingers.

During the round of goodbye hugs, Catherine gave me a serious look. “Thank you! I learned so much from you.” I grinned. Some of the insects and spiders they’d caught were ones I’d never seen either. “Thanks to your excellent bug catching,” I told her, “I learned lots of new things, too!”

Catherine was a dedicate bug catcher and became fascinated with this Carolina mantis.
Photo by Emily Stone.

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, July 14, 2022

Carnivorous Caterpillars

“Oh wow! No way!”

Exclamations like this, spoken with absolute, unbridled enthusiasm, have become the soundtrack of my summer.

In this case, Cade Campbell, one of our two Summer Naturalist Interns, was delighting over a small, rusty, spotted butterfly. Perched on the leaf of a chest-high shrub in the dappled sunlight of the deep forest, it looked to me like many of the other small, rusty, spotted butterflies that Cade had been exclaiming about all day as we explored a prairie, a fen, and now this. Of course, I’m not complaining.

My typical, nearsighted M.O. is to see something interesting, try to zoom in with my camera, get it in focus before it flies away, and then identify it later when I can zoom in even farther on the detail. Cade’s younger eyes and knack for taxonomy mean that he’s able to put a name on butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and more, right there in the field.

Is he right 100% of the time? I’m often not in a position to argue, but almost every time, my squinting, computer-aided IDs have matched with his.

“It’s a Harvester,” replied Cade when I asked him to explain his excitement. “They are carnivorous. Have you heard of them?”

I had heard of a carnivorous butterfly, or rather blood-drinking moths. Vampire moths include several members of the same genus that belong to a larger group of moths who feed on fruit. They use their barbed proboscis to pierce tough skin and lap up sweet juices. Sugar from fruit isn’t a complete diet, and males need to acquire sodium and nitrogen to give to their love interest as a nuptial gift. The females then use the nutrients to lay eggs.

Many butterflies and moths engage in a behavior called “puddling,” which occurs not just on the edges of puddles where salts are concentrated, but also on animal scat, rotting plants, and dead animals. Vampire moths learned that they could use their barbed tongue to puncture the skin of an animal, lap up the blood, and get necessary nutrients that way. Unlike mosquitoes, it’s just the males who drink blood. While they occasionally feed on humans, they don’t seem to be dangerous. Thankfully, vampire moths are not native to North America.

“Their caterpillars eat woolly alder aphids,” explained Cade, as we both crept closer to the Harvester butterfly with our cameras ready. “And the adults sip on the aphids’ honeydew.”

I felt a little twinge of dismay. Woolly alder aphids are one of my favorite creatures! In the fall they float around like little fairies covered in wispy strands of white wax. I’ve written about them before. Just like most aphids, woolly alder aphids suck plant juices from a host. The alder shrub harvests sunlight, water, and air; the aphids harvest the alder’s sap; and then ants (and, I just learned, Harvester butterfly adults) feed on sugary honeydew secreted by the aphids. In return, ants provide the aphids some protection from predators…predators like the Harvester butterfly’s caterpillars.

Woolly Alder Aphid adult

Except that the caterpillars somehow manage to avoid detection by the ants, and thus avoid eviction from the aphid colony. Wax from the aphids clings to the caterpillars’ hairs, providing them with camouflage. The caterpillars may also weave themselves a silk blanket and decorate it with the dead bodies of aphids—more camouflage.

Ants aren’t visual creatures, though. Their communication is chemical. So, the caterpillars endeavor to have a similar chemical composition and therefore smell like aphids. The caterpillars may even scrape against a leaf to mimic the sounds of aphids eating. With all of these tricks, the caterpillars are able to live among (and feed on) the aphids undetected by the ants.

As the Harvester caterpillars munch on a rich diet of tasty aphids, they grow incredibly quickly. Monarch caterpillars, feeding on the tough, toxic leaves of milkweed, take up to 17 days to reach full size. Harvesters make in 8. Then they spend the winter in their chrysalis, never straying too far from an alder swamp that houses their buffet.

Something lured Cade deeper into the forest as I finished snapping photos of this particular rusty-colored butterfly. From somewhere in the sun-dappled forest emerged the familiar cry of “Oh wow! No way!”

Nature, it seems, is just full of surprises and delights—if you know how to see them.

Cade, looking for butterflies!

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, July 7, 2022

European Skipper Butterflies

It was like something out of a fairytale. Hundreds of tiny orange butterflies rose up in waves before me as I walked down the grassy path. Each fluttered delicately for a moment before sinking back to rest on the green blades, the lupine leaves, and almost every surface in the community garden.

Later, after photographing chickadee parents at a friends’ house, I spotted more clouds of the rust-colored sprites twinkling among the needles of a spruce tree where mowed lawn met meadow edge. Other friends report similar flocks of orange.

And then, in the Museum’s pollinator garden, I was able to creep up on one who had perched on the sunny yellow center of a coreopsis flower. Rusty orange was the dominant color, but a dark border around their wing margins streamed inward along veins in an elegant pattern of scallops. A cream-colored fringe decorated the trailing edge of the wings. And, for such a small butterfly, their body was surprisingly plump and furry—a characteristic of the Skipper Family to which they belong.

Their name, however, gives them away as an interloper. European skippers are native to many places—Europe, Scandinavia, North Africa, and Central Asia—but they aren’t native here. They were introduced to the United Kingdom in 1889, and to London, Ontario, in 1910. They now range across the Northeastern United States, and into a group of western states as well.

As I observed in the community garden, this cosmopolitan species can be astonishing in their local, short-term abundance. The Museum is conducting butterfly surveys in our pollinator gardens as part of a Statewide Community Science Project with the Milwaukee Public Museum. On one 15-minute survey in late June, the Museum interns counted 35 European skippers and not a single other species of butterfly. A few days later, a handful of species showed up one at a time, but the count of skippers was still the 20s.

If you watch closely, you might notice some of the skippers flying low over grassy areas with a seemingly nonchalant, wandering pattern. These are the males, searching for receptive females. Once mated, females lay a string of about 30 greenish-yellow eggs on the stem of a grass. Those fragile dots survive the winter. This is the only member of the Skipper Family to overwinter in the egg stage. Others endure the cold as caterpillars or in a chrysalis.

This habit, of being inconspicuous and durable on blades of grass, is likely how European skippers have become such world travelers. Back before the days of packing peanuts or bubble wrap, fragile items like ceramics were packed in dried grass. That’s probably how they first arrived in Ontario. Since then, they’ve been moving around within the continent, too. One study found over 5,000 European skipper eggs in a single bale of timothy hay—another introduced species. Ship that around for rabbit food or cattle fodder and suddenly you have clouds of rusty orange butterflies in lots of new places.

Starting in mid-May, the eggs hatch, and green caterpillars eat the tender young shoots of grass. Where abundant, the caterpillars can strip entire stalks bare, and eat the mini-cattail-like seedheads, too. When ready to pupate, they sew a shelter out of leaves and silk and metamorphose into an adult butterfly.

The short-term abundance of the European skipper we’ve been seeing for the past couple of weeks is partly due to the phenology of their life cycle. All of the butterflies emerge, feed, and lay eggs just once per summer, and all about the same time. Their incredible numbers are also related to their status as a non-native species. The European skipper has few natural predators or parasites to control populations on this continent, and so can reproduce unchecked by feeding on another abundant, introduced species—timothy grass.

As with any introduced species, there is the danger that the newbie might compete with native species or otherwise disrupt an ecosystem. It’s possible that European skipper adults are reducing the nectar availability for other butterflies. And if you grow timothy hay, you might be unhappy with an infestation of the caterpillars. Unexpectedly, showy lady slipper orchids might be the biggest loser.

The orchid’s game is to trick bumblebees into wallowing around their pink pouch in search of (non-existent) nectar while surreptitiously attaching pollen to the bees’ hairs. When European skippers enter the pouch in search of nectar, they get trapped and die. Their bodies take up so much space that the actual pollinators can’t enter. Pollination fails, and there can be little to no seed production.

It’s unclear if this is a widespread problem. On a recent foray to see showy lady slipper orchids in a fen, I don’t recall seeing a single European skipper. The fen habitat is just too unique and too intact to support the non-native grasses their caterpillars prefer, and the butterflies don’t stray far from the host plants where they need to lay their eggs…I hope.

So, as you walk through tall grass and clouds of little rust-colored sprites fly up around you, take a minute to appreciate the world-traveling European skipper. Who knew there was such a big story behind this tiny butterfly?

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, July 1, 2022

Stinky Stonewort

“Can’t you smell that?” asked Cade from the bow of the canoe. A warm breeze tickled the back of my neck and blew any odors away from me. He’d brought up a small piece of an aquatic plant with a similar structure to the bladderwort leaves I’ve examined recently. The central, green stem bore whorls of thin leaves.

As Cade placed the curiosity on the blade of my canoe paddle, the breeze swirled, and I caught more than a whiff of sulfur. “It’s chara!” he declared.

Also known as muskgrass or skunkweed due to its strong odor, chara is a type of algae that grows in clean, hard water with a high pH and lots of minerals. Those conditions are rare in the igneous bedrock and glacial sands so prevalent around Cable. Acidic bogs or lakes tinted brown with tannic acid are much more common here. But my bedrock maps show the possibility of nearby dolomite—a calcium-rich rock similar to limestone. We knew we were exploring a special place.

The last time I saw chara was in another special place: Alaska. When I tagged along with four young geologists taking sediment cores from the bottom of Kelly Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, we found stripes of pale “marl” deposits along with the gray-brown silt.

The pale stripes are marl--calcium carbonate from dead chara stems. We tested that hypothesis by dropping HCl on them, and they fizzed! Photo by Emily Stone.

On the scientists’ sampling raft, I pulled out a small bottle of 10 percent hydrochloric acid leftover from Professor Tom Fitz’s rocks and minerals course in college, and let a few drops fall onto a band of marl. Bubbles erupted. “Mad fizzer!” I exclaimed. The acid was reacting with a base—the same way that vinegar and baking soda make mini volcanoes. The base was calcium carbonate from the long-dead bodies of chara. (Read more of this Alaskan adventure in my blog post titled “Masters of Mud.”)

Stonewort is another name for chara, since mineral deposits form on its stems as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Not unlike the acid I dropped onto the marl, the chara itself pumps hydrogen ions (which make acidity) into the water, where they react with calcium bicarbonate and release carbon dioxide—which the plant uses to photosynthesize.

A further series of reactions in the calcium-rich water (this section is intentionally vague; please note that I have not taken chemistry since high school) results in the deposition of calcium carbonate on the chara’s surface—making it feel rough and grainy. If left to dry or decompose, chara turns ashy and gray.

Sometimes calcium phosphate forms as part of the processes, which locks up phosphorous that might otherwise fuel blooms of harmful algae and phytoplankton. Those would compete with the chara for sunlight. Humans also generally prefer the very clear water where chara grows to the somewhat soupy water that often results from phosphorus pollution.

Another side benefit of having chara in your lake is that it seems to interfere with the development of mosquito larvae. In a 1928 issue of the Journal of Tropical Medicine, R. Matheson and E.H. Hinman published an experiment they conducted with mosquitoes and chara in aquariums. They found that adding powdered chara to the aquariums killed a significant percent of mosquito larvae, and they hypothesized that the high pH of chara has something to do with it.

Curiously, in 1929 the same guys found that dead or dying chara didn’t impact the development of mosquito larvae in their aquariums. They did find that vigorously growing chara resulted in the death of all the introduced mosquito larvae. Matheson and Hinman hypothesized that high oxygen or low nutrients might be the issue. Cade and I wonder if those hydrogen ions or the stinky hydrogen sulfide might also be at work.

Looking back at my photos of the chara, one other oddity stood out. Some of the whorled stems had small, red-orange appendages. Wikipedia tells me that these are antheridia—sort of like anthers in plants—the male reproductive structures. A fertilized egg forms an oospore with a hard, mineral case. With spiraling ridges on an oval shape, the oospore looks like a mini foam football. These fossilize easily and provide a record of past habitats and climate for anyone who wants to bring them to the surface in a sediment core.

As Cade and I circumnavigated the pond, our paddle strokes stirred up more of the skunkgrass odor. My underwater camera revealed that diatoms—a smaller type of algae—grew in a golden film over all of chara’s surfaces. Thick beds of chara rose high enough to break the surface at one end, and there we found dozens of snails, a newt, and other critters hiding out in the mass of stems.

Last week I asked what new mystery I would discover the next time I went exploring in a fen. This week, we followed our noses and found chara. Next week…?

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.