Our adventure to traverse the entire length of the Des Plaines River Trail continued with our trek from Kilbourne Road to Independence Grove Forest Preserve under the shining sun and heavy air of late summer. The air was heavy not only with humidity, but with the calls of cicadas, tree crickets, and katydids melding into a three-part harmony that signaled the end of summer. The air was also pregnant with the perfume of flowering plants. It was clear that this hike belonged to the bugs and blooms.
Only a few steps into our hike, we spied the architectural mastery of the bald-faced hornet high in a tree. These nests are constructed with paper-like material made from chewed wood fibers mixed with the hornets’ saliva. Bald-faced hornets build the inner nest with layers of paper cells that look like a honeybee’s comb. Those layers are then encased with a thick, layered outer shell. An opening at the bottom of the nest allows hornets to come and go easily. While a nest like this can house about 500 hornets during the spring and summer, it is abandoned come fall and is often destroyed by birds searching for food.
Shortly down the trail we came across a relative of the bald-faced hornet: a bumblebee, diving head first into a jewelweed bloom. We joked that it looked like she was likely to get stuck in there all day. Both hornet and bee are important pollinators. They have to keep moving, though, so that they don’t become someone else’s lunch while gorging at the wildflower buffet.
We almost overlooked this ambush bug, hiding on a flowering wild cucumber vine. It was poised to pounce on the unsuspecting pollinators and squeeze them with his “Popeye” biceps. After a successful capture, ambush bugs jab their prey with a sucking mouthpart and inject an enzyme that digests the body contents of the prey.
As it turns out, it’s not just bees that dip into the nectar reserves of lavender-hued wild bergamont (a.k.a bee balm). This eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly’s long proboscis is a perfect fit for the slim, tubular flowers of this plant. While insects love it, mammals tend to avoid this plant due to its strong oregano-mint aroma.
Mammalian herbivores also avoid common milkweed, which are no longer in bloom by the end of the summer but still draw an arthropod crowd. We witnessed all sorts of milkweed critters–from milkweed beetles to milkweed bugs to monarch butterfly caterpillars–using the sturdy plant’s large leaves and conspicuous seed pods as home and pantry.
And it’s not just the nectar-eaters getting in on the action. Mosquito-nabbing ruby- and sapphire-colored dragonflies and damselflies hovered around the flowers like tiny, bejeweled helicopters.
The vibrant red of the meadowhawk dragonfly was echoed in the blooming cardinal flowers along the sluggish river of late summer, as well as in the first crimson leaves we saw, signaling autumn is right around the corner. Fall is a perfect time to get out onto the Des Plaines River Trail or find a new favorite trail through our annual Hike Lake County challenge. We hope to see you out there!
Notes from our hike: