Tag Archives: butterflies

A Beautiful Spring and Explosive Summer at WCCW

Photos and text by Jacob Meyers, Prairie Conservation Nursery Coordinator

Pop. Pop. Pop. Scream. Laughter. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Crew members (left to right) Tammera Thurlby, Danielle Castillo, and Angela Jantzi harvesting Viola adunca on a hot summer day.

That may sound like a group of teenagers watching a horror movie while waiting for the popcorn to finish in the microwave. In reality, it was a scene that played out a couple weeks ago, as I and several nursery technicians spent the afternoon harvesting Viola (violet) seeds. The scream was mine: a seed pod caught me off guard when it unexpectedly exploded in my cup. The crew (rightfully so) hasn’t let me forget that a Viola seed pod scared me half to death. (In my defense, a spider had just crawled across my leg and I was a little bit on edge.)

It’s rarely a dull moment at WCCW these days. While most of the flowers finished blooming in early May, June and July have been full of exploding violet pods and which means there is a lot of work to be done! As my co-worker wrote a few weeks back, the early-blue violet (Viola adunca) is an extremely important prairie plant in the recovery of prairie landscapes, and to the Fritillary butterflies (Zerene FritillarySpeyeria zerene bremnerii – and the Great Spangled FritillarySpeyeria cybele pugetensis) in particular. At WCCW, we have two species of viola currently – the aforementioned early blue violet and the yellow violet (Viola praemorsa). The Viola adunca cultivated at WCCW is collected for seed to aid in the recovery of the Zerene fritillary (Speyeria zerene hippolyta) on the Oregon Coast.

Violets are commonly known to even the most inexperienced gardener. Heck, even people who don’t garden are familiar with the small, heart-shaped flowers that are typical of the genera. But what you may not know is that the Viola genus contains more than 500 species! The ones we grow at SPP are a bit hardier than your typical Viola. The species we cultivate are found in places where water is hard to come by—prairies, savannahs, sand dunes and on the edges of woodlands. Regardless of where they are found, Viola species serve as an important nectar source for pollinators.

Here are some pictures of the beautiful blooms we had at WCCW this year:

 

The early-blue violet (Viola adunca) is found across the cooler states and provinces of North America in coastal sand bluffs, prairies, and woods. Another of its common names is the sand violet.

 

There are 8 beds of Viola adunca at WCCW. The plants are six inches apart, which is a bit tighter than is typical for a seed farm or nursery, but allows us to cram in approximately 400 Violas in each bed!!

 

Viola praemorsa, or the canary violet, is far less common than its bluish-purple cousin. This violet is only found in western North American oak savannahs and oak woodlands.

 

This is a wide view of all the raised beds at WCCW. Viola praemorsa in the foreground, Viola adunca (purple flowers) beyond, and two beds of wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) all the way in the back. Strawberries are also an important pollinator plant in prairie habitat.

 

 

Scott Skaggs is the Grounds & Facilities Supervisor at WCCW and helps manage the Nursery Crew. In the photo above Scott is doing a little bit of spot weeding.

While very pretty, the beautiful flowers have a forthcoming message – it’s reproduction time! And after those beautiful signals go off and a little bit of magic (sexual reproduction via pollination), little baby plants (aka seeds) begin to emerge!! After baking in the sun for a number of days or weeks, Viola species all form capsules or “pods” that split open and disperse. Or as is the case in the species we grow at SPP – the pods explode like the one in my cup. The photos below show seed pods developing, and their processing after we harvest them.

 

In the above photo, a Viola adunca plant is starting the reproduction process. The seed pods are typically green colored and curled up like an umbrella when they first emerge. As the pods mature, their color whitens and the stems stands up straight in preparation for pod explosion.

 

A mature Viola adunca seed pod: notice the whiter coloring and erect stem; this is the perfect time to harvest the pods.

 

This photo shows what happens when Viola pods go unharvested. Most of the pods’ seed disperses about 5 feet in every direction during the explosion – some have been found up to 10 feet from their parent plants!!

 

Sometimes, however, the seed stays put. This isn’t great for the plant’s reproductive success rate; for people collecting seed, it’s a welcome sight!

 

Harvesting all of the seed pods ready at one time can take the entire WCCW crew anywhere from 3 to 5 or 6 hours. Depending on when during the collection season we’re harvesting, there can be a lot of pods to pick!

 

After harvesting, all of the pods go into bins where they can continue to dry out and “pop” for easy collection. Here is a bin of Viola praemorsa sitting on a window ledge to get a little extra sunlight.

 

A tule cloth on top keeps all the seeds from flying all over the office!

 

In this photo most of the pods have already exploded and left behind their seed on the bin floor. These are Viola praemorsa seed which is quite a bit larger (at least 2-3x larger) than Viola adunca seed.

 

After going through several rounds of sifting with professional grade sieves all that remains is A LOT of Viola adunca seed. It has been a tremendously successful season at WCCW. We anticipate easily surpassing our goal of 2-3 pounds!

 

This picture illustrates just how small Viola adunca seed actually is! The small size is another reason why harvesting seed mechanically or after the pods explode is nearly impossible!!

Looking through these pictures one might be able to deduce that the task of harvesting viola seed can be monotonous, and quite time consuming. As technician Tammera Thurlby told me, “I harvested so many viola seeds/pods that when I close my eyes it’s all I can see.” But beyond helping the Fritillary butterflies prairie habitat here in the Pacific Northwest, the caring for and cultivation of violas at WCCW also produces something that might be harder to see – an opportunity for the technicians to grow and heal themselves. “My life has been a lot of taking, so it’s nice to be able to give back,” said Ms. Thurlby.

“Give back to what?” I asked.

“To everything. Helping save an endangered species, doing something positive and constructive with my life rather than destructive,” she replied.

Her words reminded me of what I heard from a technician at Stafford Creek, Michael Gorski; he said to a group of partners, “A lot of what they’re [SPP] growing is people. They’re saving lives – opening the master key for life.”

Little Viola seeds turn into plants with beautiful flowers, which in turn may feed an endangered butterfly; but you never know what kind of seed you are planting in any given moment or interaction when working with people.

Technician Tammera Thurlby holds up a tiny Viola adunca seed pod during a day of harvesting this past summer.

Flight of the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterflies

By Christina Stalnaker, SPP Graduate Research Assistant and Roots of Success Coordinator

It was a smaller crowd than usual: two males fluttered around a single female. The lighting was ideal and temperature at just the right degree for a successful pairing. As these butterflies moved in their miniature habitat, two inmate technicians quietly watched to verify if they had a fruitful engagement. We had just entered the greenhouse of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly (TCB) captive rearing program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women on an early spring morning.

A technician waters flowers that will be placed in TCB habitats for captive rearing. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

A technician waters flowers that will be placed in TCB habitats for captive rearing. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

These butterflies were the first of their cohort to eclose, marking the beginning of TCB flight season. Eclosure is one of the final stages of a Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly’s life cycle—it occurs when the butterfly emerges from its cocoon. When the remaining butterflies join them in flight, the technicians will place two females and up to seven males in an insect habitat. Lindsey Hamilton, SPP’s TCB program coordinator, later explained to me that placing so many in the habitat at once ignites the male’s competitive behavior. In the wild, TCB males can be found next to a female pupa, waiting for her to eclose.

Having just emerged from its cocoon, a Taylor's Checkerspot Butterfly patiently waits to feed on honey and take flight for the first time. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Having just eclosed (emerged from its cocoon), a Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly patiently waits to feed on honey water and take flight for the first time. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

The technicians had been waiting for us to arrive at the prison’s greenhouse to “process” two more butterflies that had just completed eclosion. The word “process” is far too ordinary to describe this next step in caring for these beautiful, endangered butterflies. Upon emergence, the butterflies patiently wait in their tiny container for at least 24 hours before feeding on honey water and taking flight. I had never handled butterflies before and was pretty nervous. Elizabeth Louie, TCB inmate technician, proudly demonstrated how to handle and process the delicate insects. After she showed me exactly what to do from start to finish, I went on to process the second TCB on my own.

Name?, TCB technician, shows Christina how to "process" an eclosed butterfly. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton,

Elizabeth Louie, TCB inmate technician, shows Christina Stalnaker how to “process” an eclosed butterfly. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton.

First, we recorded the ID number and color code. Next, we removed the mesh caging and the TCB from its insect cup, gently pinch its wings, and closely examined the butterfly to determine if it is a male or female. Mine was female; I could tell by looking at the tip of the abdomen. Females have a pointed tip at the end of their abdomen, whereas males’ are more rounded. After placing her on the balance, we recorded her weight. Swirling the end of a q-tip in the honey water and teasing her proboscis with a paperclip, I set her down and watched as she tasted her first drops of honey as a butterfly.

A Taylor's Checkerspot Butterfly enjoys her first taste of honey water. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton.

A Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly enjoys her first taste of honey water. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton.

Once captive rearing is complete and the females finish laying their eggs, the butterflies are released to various South Sound Prairies, like the Glacial Heritage Preserve (photographed below). Here they will live the remainder of their lives, and we hope that they continue to mate and lay eggs in their native habitat to bolster populations directly.

Home of the mysterious Mima Mounds and a critical habitat for Taylor's Checkerspot Butterflies, Glacial Heritage Preserve is managed by many of our partners to ensure they continued survival of these beautiful butterflies. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Home of the mysterious Mima Mounds and a critical habitat for Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterflies, Glacial Heritage Preserve is intensively managed by our partners to ensure the continued survival of these beautiful butterflies. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Yellow and red flags mark areas of Glacial Heritage Preserve with prairie plants cultivated to enhance TCB habitat. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Yellow and red flags mark areas of Glacial Heritage Preserve with prairie plants cultivated to enhance TCB habitat. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

SPP Plant Profile: Early-Blue Violet (Viola adunca)

By Graduate Research Associate Evan Hayduk

Early-Blue Violet (Viola adunca) Photo: Rod Gilbert

Basic information:

Viola adunca, or early-blue violet, is a short perennial with short slender rhizomes. Leaves are alternate, heart shaped to ovate. The flowers of this viola are blue to deep violet, but can often be whitish at the base. Flowers have 5 petals, and bloom from April to August. Fruit are born in capsules with three valves, and the explosiveness of the splitting of the capsules often makes seed collection tricky.

Ecological Importance:

The Mardon skipper (Polites mardon) butterfly depends on Viola adunca as a spring-flowering nectar source. The small orange butterfly is found on two South Sound prairies, and is listed as a State Endangered Species and is a Federal Candidate Species. Zerene fritillaries (Speyeria zerene) also use Viola adunca, but as a larval host. Three subspecies of the Zerene Fritillary are listed on the U.S. Endangered Species List, including the Oregon Silverspot which is classified as threatened in California, Oregon and Washington.

Studies have found that Viola adunca are poor competitors, and are easily displaced by invasive species. Non-native grasses increase thatch density and vegetation height, compete for resources and reduce open space for germination and thus reduce Viola adunca populations. Experiments also show that fire stimulates germination in Viola adunca, and fire could be used to increase Viola adunca populations and provide more area for nectar and larval hosting for butterflies.

Early-Blue Violet (Viola adunca) Photo: Rod Gilbert

Fun facts:

Violet leaves contain more vitamin A than spinach, and a half-cup of leaves has more vitamin C than four oranges! Now, don’t go out and start eating, Viola adunca is a very important larval host and nectar source for threatened butterflies. Another reason to limit consumption: its rhizomes, fruits and seeds are poisonous. Adunca means hooked, and other common names include the hooked-spur violet and the western dog violet.

Butterfly Rearing Commences at Mission Creek

Butterfly Rearing Commences at Mission Creek

By Graduate Research Associate Dennis Aubrey

The first painted lady butterfly to eclose in the SPP lab at Evergreen.

At long last, the wait is over. After almost a year of preparation, the butterflies have finally arrived! Inmate technicians at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) have been caring for painted lady larva for almost three weeks now, and over the weekend they got to watch their first butterflies emerge from their chrysalid.

The painted ladies are being reared as a training surrogate for the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot, which inmates will begin to work with next February. These training butterflies were chosen for their relative hardiness and fast life cycle, which will allow the inmates to go through several complete revolutions before graduating to the much more delicate Taylor’s checkerspot. So far the inmates involved have surpassed expectations in every way.

As the final phases of greenhouse construction were being completed, the student intern on the project, Dennis Aubrey, began rearing painted ladies at the Sustainable Prisons Project (SPP) lab on The Evergreen State College (TESC) campus. This was done to work out the fine details of adapting the Taylor’s checkerspot rearing protocol for use with the painted ladies, and to prepare for training the inmates at the facility. Following this, 200 painted lady eggs were ordered and delivered to MCCCW, where eager inmate technicians began learning how to care for these delicate insects.  Working with butterflies in the SPP lab approximately two weeks ahead of the ones at MCCCW was incomparably helpful in training the inmates effectively.

Inmate butterfly technicians at MCCCW caring for painted lady caterpillars and recording observations

From the time they began, the inmates have been taking very detailed carefully drawn notes, and have been tending to their charges with the patient meticulous care that makes all the difference in rearing projects such as this. At SPP’s frog project at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, the large amount of time inmates dedicate to caring for the endangered Oregon spotted frogs has led to the largest specimens raised at any institution. Last week, when Dennis visited Mission Creek to check on the inmates’ progress, he couldn’t help but notice that the painted lady chrysalids were significantly larger than he was able to produce in the SPP lab. Whether that’s a factor of the light and beneficial conditions in the greenhouse, or is directly attributable to the increased daily care, it’s hard to say. Either way, it’s a great sign of things to come for the future success of the project.

SPP Launches New Conservation Program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women

Taylor's checkerspot

Adult female Taylor's chekerspot

SPP Launches New Conservation Program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women

By Graduate Research Associate Dennis Aubrey

The Sustainable Prisons Project (SPP) and the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) are preparing to launch a brand new conservation program.  In addition to prairie plants and Oregon spotted frogs, we will be partnering on a new captive rearing program to raise Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas editha taylori) for release on South Sound prairies.  The Taylor’s checkerspot is listed as a state-endangered species in Washington and is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.  These butterflies once flourished on glacial outwash prairies, low elevation grassy balds and coastal grassland sites from southern British Columbia to central Oregon, but in recent decades habitat loss and degradation have reduced it to a few small, isolated populations.

Staff at MCCCW are currently hard at work constructing a custom greenhouse at the prison which will house the program, The UV light transmission of the glass structure will provide the checkerspots with ideal growing conditions, and its interior partition will create two separate climate controlled rooms.  The building is expected to be complete by the end of the month, and the first release of larva onto South Sound prairies will occur in April 2012.  Currently the Oregon Zoo is the only facility rearing Taylor’s checkerspots.  The new structure at the prison will provide a second rearing program to assist with butterfly recovery efforts.   The project is generously funded by the Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy.  Other collaborating partners include Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Corrections, the Evergreen State College, the Oregon Zoo, and Joint Base Lewis McChord.  Even though the new rearing facility is not yet complete, SPP graduate student intern Dennis Aubrey has been busy preparing for the new program.  Dennis is receiving training from staff at the Oregon Zoo as they raise checkerspots, as well as assisting with field activities. He recently helped release 1036 prediapause checkerspot larva at the Scatter Creek Prairie restoration plots.  Along with staff at MCCCW, he also helped conduct interviews and hire inmates for the rearing technician position.  Dennis will continue to play an active role in training incarcerated women to become butterfly rearing technicians.

checkerspot release

Graduate student intern Dennis Aubrey helping release checkerspot larva at Scatter Creek

Our partners at MCCCW have been enthusiastic participants in all phases of the planning and implementation of this project.  All involved are optimistic that this is the beginning of a successful long-term undertaking to recover endangered butterflies and bring science education to incarcerated women.  This program promises to be an integral part of a growing culture of sustainability and conservation at the facility.

To donate to the SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Program and help conserve biodiversity in Washington, click here.

Women offenders gather for health conference inside prison

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

In September more than 100 offenders, correctional staff and guest scientists participated in the annual health conference at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Titled “The Mind, the Spirit, the Environment Maintained Equals a Healthy Body Sustained,” the two-day gathering featured a fitness instructor, inspirational speaker, poet, chaplain and two faculty members from The Evergreen State College. Imagine the scene as we all committed to healthier lives through laughter, tears and even aerobics!

Toxicologist and Evergreen faculty member Dr. Frances Solomon teaches inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women during the prison's annual health conference. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Dr. Frances Solomon, a toxicologist and visiting professor at The Evergreen State College, teaches inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women during the prison's annual health conference. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Led by Evergreen professor and forest ecologist Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, the second day kicked off with a multimedia presentation on the role of science in our lives, the importance of trees and emerging green-collar jobs. Dr. Nadkarni also announced our hope to initiate a butterfly-rearing project with the prison’s horticultural program and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Next up, toxicologist and watershed specialist Dr. Frances Solomon discussed the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment and human health, including illnesses such as breast cancer. Afterward, offenders were given the microphone to ask questions and express thanks during an insightful and heart-warming feedback session.

Offender feedback through surveys and interviews is essential to the Sustainable Prisons Project. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Offender feedback through surveys and interviews is essential to the Sustainable Prisons Project. Photo: Jeff Muse.

In my experience, WCCW is quite different from the men’s prisons in which most of our work takes place. Though it’s heavily secured, a gentler, family-like atmosphere pervades the facility. We hope that we honored that character and linked inmates to the world outside the fence where many have parents, siblings and children rooting for them to succeed.

Interacting with inmates and correctional staff as well as extensive survey feedback gave us a good direction for future activities. Our next presentation, led by yours truly, will be “Sustainability 101” in early December. Afterward, we’ll help the prison adopt goals and strategies for lessening its impact on the environment while improving the health of everyone who lives and works there.