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Contents tagged with winter

  • To Bee or Not to Bee

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    Tags: bees, honeybees, winter, spring, honey, pollinator, pollinators, beekeepers

    Created: 3/6/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    We had a mini moment of truth up on the roof this past week -- we took a look into our honey bee hives to see if by chance, some had survived the winter so far. Honestly, there was not much hope. With beekeepers around the country reporting major losses it seemed too much to hope that any of our hives had made it through one of the harshest Chicago winters on record. 

    Honey from the Hive

    Last fall we made the decision to leave all the honey in the hive for our bees, taking none for our traditional honey sale in the museum gift shop. You can buy a little taste of the previous seasons labors in a jar from our gift store. The jars are small, just enough to taste how special our roof top bees are, and not so much that we did not leave them what they need to get through that year, or so we thought. 

    Truthfully, even in the best of years it seems a bit rude and even a little crazy to take honey. Open up a box of bees and take some of their most precious resource, without getting stung…too may times.  We spend the whole summer watching and waiting for this other moment of truth.  How strong is the hive? How much were they able to produce and store? Can they spare some for their caretakers and fans?

    It’s not a new story. People in cultures around the world have been after honey for centuries. There is evidence of humans harvesting honey in cave paintings. Only bees can make it, with their remarkable nectar gathering skills, specialized honey stomach, and a work force to rival whole cities. 

    The manner in which bees are kept, and the ease with which we are able to take a little of the extra honey, has made some real strides over the years. It used to be that you had to completely kill a colony in order to harvest that honey. Now with the use of moveable frames we simply take a few out, process them for honey and return them with much of the comb still in tact.

    Harvesting honey
    Harvesting excess honey in a banner year.

    The previous year it was a hard winter for many of the honey bees in the area and the ones on the roof of the museum were no exception. Like many of the local beekeepers we were sad to see that despite our efforts, few of our bees made it through the winter in 2012/2013.

    We started fresh this past spring with new colonies. With the help of our local beekeeper Anne, we installed them in June and were happy to see them get as busy as, well, bees. They could be seen around the grounds buzzing around flowers and collecting nectar in the various habit recreations featuring native plantings throughout the growing season. 

    Supplementing hives with sugar water
    Supplementing the hives with sugar water.

    So without taking any of the fruits of their labor, we tucked our bees in for the winter of 2013/14.  We added a little extra nutrition to tide them over and some insulation so it would be less drafty. We hoped for a strong start in the spring.

    Hope Springs

    Rooftop hives with snowmelt
    A good sign of live bee activity. Snow melt around the hive.

    The good news so far is that when we looked into our hives we found 10 out of 12 with activity. Some look stronger than others and there is still a long way to go until we can say they’re going to make it into the full growing season, but this is far more then we dared hope for.  

    Working with bees
    Working quick to minimize cold exposure

    We keep hoping for better years for the honey bees and their relatives the native bees. These species are important in helping to provide the pollination that gives us many of our favorite summer flowers and fruits. It’s hard to over estimate the importance of these services in both the natural world and in the cultivated crops we rely on for much of our diet. For now we’ll take this small victory.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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  • Oh What Fun it is

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    Tags: winter, warm-up, winter activities, family activities, family, public programs, chicago winter

    Created: 12/16/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Winter is in the air and I couldn’t be happier! I have lived in Chicago my whole life and have learned to embrace this chilly season a long time ago. What’s there not to like? Buildings are lit up for the holidays. Sledding hills and ice skating rinks are open. Everyone looks cozy- bundled up in coats, boots and hats. We drink delicious hot chocolate. What is a prettier sight than a bright red cardinal perched on a snow covered tree? The list is endless.

    Cardinal in snow-covered pine tree

    It is also a season of bustling activity. If you are like me, you spend extra time with your family and friends.I’m always looking for new winter experiences. Here at the Nature Museum we have a great line-up of seasonal activities for all ages.

    Bison sculpture with holiday wreath

    You can complete your gift list at Green Gifting December 21st and 22nd with make and take projects like jar terrariums, natural lip balms and handmade snow globes. Live animal shows like Flying Fox on December 21st and Natures Creatures on December 26th are a great way to escape the cold. We even can help you decide on a New Year’s resolution at our Habitat Conservation Fair where you can meet representatives from area conservation organizations and discover opportunities to become involved.

    Chicago skyline

    I hope that the museum can become part of your seasonal traditions. Enjoy this beautiful city with all the wonder and excitement that winter brings. I have to go now- there’s an ice rink somewhere calling my name!

    Laura Saletta
    Public programs educator

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  • Where Do Butterflies Go in the Winter?

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    Tags: winter, butterflies, conservation, Mourning cloak, baltimore checkerspot, painted lady, monarch, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 2/22/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Even though it's been a pretty mild winter, we have had some snow and cold weather. It's been months since I've seen a butterfly outside - yet I'm quite confident that as the weather warms next spring, there will again be butterflies here in northeastern Illinois. So where are the butterflies now?  Did they migrate off someplace else? Are they hibernating? As it turns out, the answer varies from species to species.

    Some butterflies do spend the winter elsewhere. The most familiar example is the Monarch, which spends the winters in the highlands of Michoacán in Mexico. It's the only local species that makes an annual round-trip migration.

    Monarch butterflies in Mexico
    Monarch butterflies in Mexico



    About a dozen other species spend the winter in the desert southwest or along the Gulf Coast in the Deep South. These include species such as the Buckeye, Painted Lady, and Little Yellow. They don't seem to have much of an organized southward migration; they simply die off in more northern locales as the weather cools in the fall. Each spring they begin dispersing northward as the weather warms, though it may take several generations to arrive here.

    Painted Lady butterfly
    Painted Lady



    Although it may be hard to believe, especially on a really cold day in the middle of winter, some species of butterflies hibernate and spend the entire winter here. Each species has one particular life stage that hibernates. There are examples of all four species being used. Species such as the Purplish Copper overwinter as eggs. These are laid on twigs or leaves, where they remain for the entire winter.  Many species, including Baltimore Checkerspots, hibernate as caterpillars. The caterpillars burrow into the leaf litter at the base of their host plants as fall approaches. Many swallowtail butterflies spend the winter as chrysalises. About a half dozen Illinois species, such as Mourning Cloaks, even overwinter as adults.  They spend the winter tucked into crevices in logs, or underneath loose bark on trees. These are the species that can be seen flying on the very first warm days of spring, and occasionally even during warm spells in January or February.

    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars
    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars



    How do the hibernating butterflies survive? As cold-blooded animals, their body temperatures drop to that of their surroundings. The secret turns out to be in their chemistry. As the days shorten during the autumn, they begin secreting natural antifreezes into their body fluids. The natural antifreezes are necessary no matter which life stage overwinters. If ice crystals form they rupture cells, which is fatal to eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies alike. The natural antifreezes are small molecules such as glycerol. Glycerol shares many chemical properties with the antifreeze that is used in car engines.  Although the body temperature of a hibernating butterfly may drop to well below zero, the glycerol in its body fluids prevents the formation of ice crystals. The butterfly can therefore survive the very low temperatures, become active again when the weather warms in the spring and complete the life cycle.  Next time you are taking a walk in midwinter, consider that there are thousands of butterflies tucked away in warm spots, waiting to fly next summer.

    Mourning Cloak butterfly
    Mourning Cloak



    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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