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Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids

I have talked about gardening for wildlife in the past, especially the idea of gardening for insects other than butterflies. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a recently published book about wildlife gardening with children, Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids–Simple Ways to Attract Birds, Butterflies, Toads, and More to Your Garden by April Pulley Sayre.


Who is the author?

April Pulley Sayre is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for a range of ages, but she specializes in natural history for children. She says she has been growing a wildlife garden for over 20 years and that through her husband’s work, ended up with over 300 species of native plants in her 1.5 acre yard. Now that sounds like fun!

Summary of the book:

Part one discusses looking at the potential of your space, and advises how and why to make observations about nature to determine what might needed to improve it. She suggests recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. I might add keeping a blog or Flickr stream to share your experiences.

Part two involves planning your garden, preparing your soil, and planting and maintaining your plants. Realistically, Sayre includes a section on how to keep you neighbors happy, too. This is important. Every year our family receives our annual notice from the homeowners’ association to remove the “weeds” from our yard. Once we explain the weeds are actually wildflowers, we are let off the hook. Well, that is, until the next year when we have to call and write again.

Part three discusses some of the wildlife to expect, particularly insects and toads. The insects she briefly highlights are butterflies, dragonflies, and bees. Part four concentrates on attracting birds and their various needs. Finally, part five discusses some of the human aspects, such as reaching out to your community and getting your wildlife garden certified. She also briefly discusses some things that may happen that will cause you to leave or lose your wildlife garden, preparing readers for the realities of life.


Given the title, I was hoping for more information about butterfly/insect gardening, which was limited to four short pages and didn’t give many specific details. I understand one handicap about writing this kind of book is that it is impossible to list native plants to use because those will vary so much from place to place and also depend on what wildlife occur in the immediate area. However, some generalizations are possible, such as monarch butterflies use plants of the milkweed family as hosts. To compensate for being general, Sayre lists an extensive number of resources in the back, many of which will have more specific advice.

Touch a Butterfly is a good introduction to wildlife gardening, especially for people who know little about it. The book’s real strength is that Sayre opens the door to the natural world through many excellent suggestions for making careful observations of wildlife all around us. Hopefully you will be inspired to share these insights with children.

Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Roost Books (April 23, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1590309170
ISBN-13: 978-1590309179

Disclosure: I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Taking the Sting Out of Ants

A year or so ago one of our local newspaper columnists, Clay Thompson, wrote that ants don’t have stingers (“If nothing else, I know I’m not Montini and ants can bite.” Arizona Republic, Jul. 4, 2012).

That got me to thinking that why there might be so much confusion about whether ants (and other arthropods) bite, sting, both or neither. Take for example Dr. Seuss, who was so confused that he drew bees with stingers on their head.

Let’s first take a look at what a stinger is.

A stinger is a part of the body in certain arthropods that is used to deliver venom into another organism. It is found at the end of the abdomen or metasoma. The stinger may be used for subduing prey and/or for defense. This type of stinger is found in only two groups of arthropods: insects of the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) and arachnids of the order Scorpiones (scorpions). In the Hymenoptera, the stinger is a modified egg-laying tube, so only the females can have one. In scorpions, both sexes have stingers.



(Photograph of Dinoponera australis by April Nobile / © AntWeb.orgCC-BY-SA-3.0)

Do ants have stingers? Part of the confusion may erupt because some kinds of ants, like the Dinoponera above, do have a stinger (seen protruding at end of metasoma), whereas other species of ants do not. Lacking a stinger does not mean that those ants are not defended. They may still bite (with their mandibles) and also may spray irritating defensive chemicals.

To make things even more confusing, some species of ants, the most infamous being the fire ants, bite and sting in a combined action. The irritated worker ant grabs the skin of the person with its mandibles, draws up a section to be targeted, and then curves its metasoma around and introduces the stinger. It is kind of an insulting double-whammy.

Here in Arizona, we have more that our share of prickly and stinging things, so I’m not sure why Clay Thompson miffed this one. Perhaps many people, including Clay, fail to find the exact method of delivery of pain of any importance and simply swat the offending insect away without identifying what happened to them. To them, bite or sting, the end results are the same.

What do you think?

See what other bloggers have to say:

Biting and Stinging:  The Ants at 6Legs2Many

Why do only some ants sting? by Alex Wild at ScienceBlogs

Alex Wild also brings up the very good question: “Why do so many tropical ants sting, while those in Boreal latitudes never do?” at Myrmecos

Edit: And yet another reference to Alex Wild, Ouch! Insect Bites and Stings Up-Close (PHOTOS) at



Anting by Squirrels and Other Animals

Happy 2014 everyone! With a new year comes a resolution to liven things up here at Wild About Ants.

What about squirrels rolling around on ants?

The video author calls this “anting.” Hum, do you see any evidence of ants?

Anting has long been described in birds. Birds may pick up the ants in their beaks and wipe their body with the ants’ bodies, which is called active anting or “self-anointing.” On the other hand (or wing), they may simply squat or lie on an anthill shaking their wings and tail to stir up the ants, a behavior which is called passive anting.

Why do birds expose themselves to ants? The most common suggestion is that the ants’ defensive chemicals help combat the birds’ parasites. Other possibilities are that the ant chemicals relieve the itch of molting. Some birdwatchers have even suggested anting may be addictive for birds.

Back to squirrels, when I looked into this further I found out Doris C. Hauser wrote an article in the Feb. 1964 Journal of Mammalogy (Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 136-138) called “Anting by Gray Squirrels” where she describes observing several gray squirrels digging around on and laying near ant mounds.

John T. Longino reports a case of “True anting by the capuchin, Cebus capucinus” in the April 1984 (Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 243-245) issue of Primates. In his literature review he also mentions A. H. Chisholm noticing anting in cats (for example, see this newspaper report from The Argus, October 23, 1954.)

Of course, humans are getting into the act, too. The Times of India reports in the December 8, 2013 article “Soap made from an ant hill? Try it out” mud from ant hills is used in rural India as a beauty treatment and now is being marketed as a soap additive. Okay, so it isn’t live ants yet, but are they far behind?

Yes, I doubt it, as well. I know there have definitely been times when I have gone to extremes to avoid being covered by certain kinds of ants.

Have you ever observed animals anting? What do you think of this behavior?

Ant Course 2014: Borneo

Want to learn more about ants? A lot more? Check out Ant Course 2014!

The next ant course is going to be held July 21-31, 2014 in Borneo’s Maliau Basin, which is located on Sabah.

Yes, this would be a tough place to visit. (Cool invertebrate footage starts about 2:23).


What kinds of ants might you encounter? Brian L. Fisher has complied a key entitled The Ants of Borneo, which is available on Blurb. (See the free preview, available full screen).



He covers 96 genera, from Aenictus to Tetraponera. Can you say biodiversity?

Ready to go?

Although the course is open to everyone, priority will be given to students. Check the Ant Course website for details.

Deadline:  April 1, 2014

Be sure to let me know if you take the course.