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On this edition of Wild Insights, Mark takes us along to answer the question, “Where do the Heller bees go in the winter?”

By Liz Vogel

Of all the disciplines and practices that I like to claim—artist, designer, gardener—I think most of all I am an observer within the small parcels that I tend. On a late fall day, when the temps have settled in the lower portion of the thermometer and mornings bring a stunning display of frost lined leaves and stems, I think about all of the usual garden suspects and wonder where they are now. Gone are some birds, butterflies, and dragonflies who follow the Lake Michigan flight path south and mingle over-head come late fall. Those still in the garden though, in some form or stage, are the caterpillars of the endangered pearl crescent butterfly who overwinter under the basal leaves of some asters such as the big-leaved and sky-blue.

Frost-lined leaves of Zizia aptera (heart-leaf golden Alexanders). Photo by Liz Vogel.

The black swallowtail butterfly overwinters as a chrysalis, delicately tethered to the side of a dried branch or stem. The Queen bumblebee is tucked away in the soil or under dried leaves, having produced an anti-freeze-like substance to withstand the coming cold. She will emerge early in spring to search for a new nesting location. Who else is still in the garden? The Carolina mantis, in its smallest form wrapped up in a flat sandy brown case among hundreds of other fertilized eggs. You may see these structures in the garden, attached to a vertical surface, and witness as the nymphs hatch mid-spring. They look like a band of tiny aliens patrolling the area.

Among those that find shelter within craggy bark or small holes in a tree? The mourning cloak and comma butterflies, along with a variety of beetles and small native bees.

My point in all of this is: though it is cold and quiet, and possibly covered in snow, many of our summer favorites are still in the garden—as egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult—waiting for warmer temperatures to return before they once again buzz and weave among our flowers. We can all help them out by being a bit less tidy and allowing fallen branches, dried leaves and old plant stems to remain. If cutting back (no matter what time of year) clip dried stems into smaller pieces and tuck them between upright branches to help hold them during windy days.

A more vibrant garden (if we begin to better understand it) can not only come from the brightly colored flowers that we adore, but from the complexity that grows with each new season—if we evolve the way we garden to allow for the queen bumblebee, swallowtail, mantis and more.

Liz is a professional horticulturist, observer, artist and writer, and co-owner of North Branch Natives, an education-focused native plant nursery.

For many gardeners, the first signs of fall in the garden bring a mix of emotions—a look forward to the marvelous array of colors and textures that will soon be on full display, and the signal that another gardening season is coming to a close. If you look closely at the goldenrods in the next few weeks you will see an insect bonanza—all shapes and sizes coming together to feast on the last flowers of the season with their abundant pollen and nectar. Asters serve a similar purpose, drawing late season butterflies and many bee species to buzz pollinate their way around the disc florets at the center of each flower. It’s really fun to watch!

This is a perfect time to begin collecting seeds from Baptisia, Penstemon, Echinacea, Eurybia and others that can be cleaned, stored, and stratified (a pre-treatment using cold moist conditions) to be ready for germinating late winter and early spring, or sowing late fall—there will be many more to gather before the heavy rain and winds of fall do their thing. It is also the perfect time to stand back and assess your garden for form, function and to make some choices on any adjustments needed now or for the coming year.

Seeds and bracts of Eurybia macrophylla (big-leaved aster). Photo by Liz Vogel.

First up, we must decide what to do with the current fading flowers, stems and leaves. My advice is to be selective. While even I cannot help myself from cutting back the gnarly remains of some species, plants like Echinacea have parts that provide great function if left in place (or partially in place) over winter and into the following year. Two common species of Echinacea, E. purpurea (purple coneflower) and E. pallida (pale purple coneflower), both appear to provide just as much function after flower as they do while in full bloom. They have large hollow stems that if cut to a height of 18” or more become potential nesting for native bees, and the flowers mature into dark orbs packed full of large seeds that will attract a chattery bunch of goldfinches.

Grasses such as Sprobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed) or Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) develop beautiful golden tones with seed heads that sway in the late season winds. These grasses (among others) provide food and nesting for small birds and other animals. So, if you are ok with hosting this bit of wildlife, leave the grasses in place until late winter, at which time you can steady the hedge trimmer, shears or pruners and chop them back to about 6”.

If you are looking to up your late-season spectacle, think asters! Symphyotrichum leaeve (smooth aster) and Symphyotrichum oolentangiense (sky blue aster) are two garden favorites and are beautiful planted in with warm-toned fall grasses. Consider species with structural seed heads such as Monarda fistulosa (bee balm), Dalea purpurea (purple prairie clover), and Parthenium integrifolium (wild quinine) among others. And of course, if you are planning to add something to your garden this season or next, it really should be native—for the bees, for the butterflies, for ourselves and our kids.

Bonus tip:

Leave the leaves! 

There is so much happening in the fallen leaves that collect in the garden: Beneficial insects overwinter in this debris, and many organisms feed on this matter as they help to build heathy garden soil. Make sure your garden looks good to you—and your neighbors—and squeeze in some added environmental benefits whenever possible.

Liz is a professional horticulturist, observer, artist and writer, and co-owner of North Branch Natives, an education-focused native plant nursery.

The fall sweet treat is on sale now at Heller Nature Center, the Recreation Center of Highland Park, and Madame Zuzu’s. After a slim honey harvest last year, the Heller staff made some adjustments to help our bees yield a more fruitful—or, rather, flowerful honey yield this season.

“Last year, our concern was with how hot things were, how dry things ended up being, that the flowers came in a bit later in the early summer,” Mark Bryant, Naturalist at Heller Nature Center, said. “So even though the weather this summer was like last summer, we helped our bees along with a sugar syrup to get them through that dry period. We took the sugar syrup away once the flowers came in, and we saw lots of nectar flowing in.”

This early feeding, along with a bit more rain resulting in more flowers for the bees to forage, allowed Heller Nature Center to harvest around 350 lbs. of honey, compared to last year’s meager 75 lbs.

What is it about Heller Honey?

They say variety is the spice of life—in this case, it’s the sweetness, too! But not overly sweet, like most store-bought honey can be. That’s because most mass-produced honey comes from bees that forage from a single flower variety, usually white clover. This produces an overly sweet, sugary honey. Contrarily, Heller bees gather nectar from a variety of local plants including bee balm, linden, acacia, honeysuckle, and other fragrant blossoms, resulting in a more flavorful, balanced honey.

“Our honey has a bit more of an herbal sort of flavor to it. It’s more of a mix,” Bryant said. “It’s because it’s a mix of different wild prairie flowers; the amount and the types of flowers that the bees are harvesting from does affect the flavor and the color of your honey.”

And local honey that comes from a variety of wildflowers has more benefits than just a unique flavor. According to Bryant, there’s evidence to support that if you eat native honey to your local area, it can assist with some allergies.

“Let’s say you’re allergic to some of the flowers that grow on our prairie—because you’re eating honey that has been made by bees from those flowers, it does sort of set your system up to handle those allergies a little bit better,” Bryant said. Additionally, local honey contains various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can contribute to a healthy diet and overall wellness.

The Harvesting Process

While the bees have done much of the work by the time the annual harvest rolls around, the honey harvest process involves careful steps to gather the delicious product. The first step is getting it in the building while avoiding bringing any of the bees in with it. An almond-based solution is wafted into the beehive, repelling the bees and pushing them into the lower sections of the hive.

After gently clearing the frames of bees, the beekeepers use heated tools to unseal the honeycomb cells, exposing the honey. The uncapped frames are then placed in a honey extractor, which uses centrifugal force to extract honey without damaging the comb. The extracted honey is strained to remove impurities before being bottled for storage and consumption. The empty frames are returned to the hive for the bees to reuse. This process not only provides delicious Heller Honey, but also supports the bees’ natural behaviors and contributes to the overall health of the hive.

Now What?

Now that this year’s honey has been harvested, what happens to the bees? Post-harvest, it’s all about getting them ready for winter.

Controlling pests before winter is vital; some quick mite treatments are performed to make sure that while the bees are trying to hibernate, they’re not also trying to fight off other creatures. It’s also time to start feeding them again; a two-to-one sugar syrup will ensure that they have the nutrients to make lots of food before it’s time to start hibernating.

Once it is time to start hibernating, it’s essential to ensure that the hive is well-insulated to prevent heat loss. This is achieved by reducing the hive’s entrance size and wrapping it in special quilts that help keep all that warm air trapped inside. Once these preparations are complete, there’s nothing left to do but let the bees hibernate.

“Once you start to get below 60, 55 degrees, it’s critical that they not be disturbed, or they’ll lose all that heat. They spend a lot of time trying to maintain that temperature keeping mostly the Queen and the rest of the hive warm. So we get them set to go, and we wait for the temperature to come back up before we start looking back and seeing how they did.”

Make sure to pick up your jar of Heller Honey before it’s all gone! On sale now at Heller Nature Center (Tue 11:30am-5pm, Wed-Fri 10:30am-5pm, Sat 9am-3pm), the Recreation Center of Highland Park (Mon-Thu 5:30am-9pm, Fri 5:30am-8pm, Sat and Sun 7am-5pm), and Madame Zuzu’s (Mon-Wed 8:30am-5pm, Thu-Sat 8:30am-8pm, Sun 8:30am-4pm). To learn more about Heller Nature Center, visit

Need some snack inspiration?

 Try out these 5 Kid-Friendly Heller Honey Snack Recipes.

Introducing our newest video series, Wild Insights with Mark Bryant! Join Heller Nature Center’s super-knowledgeable naturalist as he takes on all of nature’s curiosities—from the smallest critter to the tallest tree, no topic is too big or too small!

This week, Mark explores one of nature’s most intriguing and notorious creations–Poison Ivy. What does it look like? How can you avoid it, and what should you do if you come in contact with it?

Tick season is upon us, and with the warmer weather, outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers are eager to spend more time exploring the great outdoors. However, it is crucial to understand how to protect yourself and your pets from tick bites and minimize the risk of tick-borne illnesses. Follow these tips to ensure your safety and make your outdoor experiences more enjoyable.

  1. Dress Appropriately: Ticks often reside in tall grass, bushes, and wooded areas. When venturing into such environments, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and closed-toe shoes to minimize exposed skin. Tucking your pant legs into your socks can be one of the most effective and easiest ways to prevent transmission.
  2. Use Tick Repellents: Apply Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents that specifically target ticks. These repellents usually contain ingredients such as DEET, picaridin, or permethrin. Follow the instructions on the product label for proper application.
  3. Stay on Trails: When hiking or walking in wooded areas, try to stay on designated trails and avoid wandering into tall grass or densely vegetated areas. Ticks often reside in these areas, waiting to attach themselves to passersby. By sticking to trails, you can significantly reduce your exposure to ticks.
  4. Perform Regular Tick Checks: After spending time outdoors in a tick-prone area, thoroughly check your body and clothing for ticks. Pay close attention to the scalp, behind the ears, under the arms, inside the belly button, around the waist, and between the legs. Ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, so carefully inspect every part of your body.
  5. Shower and Wash Clothing: Take a shower as soon as possible after returning from an area with ticks. Additionally, toss your clothes into a dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill any ticks that may be clinging to the fabric.
  6. Protect Your Pets: Consult with your veterinarian about tick prevention products for your pets, such as topical treatments, collars, or oral medications. Regularly inspect and groom your pets after they have been outdoors.

By following these tick safety tips, you can significantly reduce the risk of tick bites and tick-borne illnesses. Enjoy your time outdoors while keeping yourself and your loved ones safe from ticks!

By Liz Vogel

I read an article the other day on being OK with gardening failure—as in shrugging it off when your garden doesn’t respond the way you would like. When the balance you have worked to secure in place goes awry, and your new plant seizes on the opportunity of open soil or becomes overwhelmed by aphids. To this I say: There may be a better way.

A simple shift in how we plant and tend our gardens can allow for less fretting. After all, a garden is intended to make us happy. You may need to take a more spontaneous approach. One where you allow your plants to move and shift. One that is just as much about process as it is about flower color and form, counting all the garden visitors as part of that composition as they introduce an eye-popping bit of nature and spectacle. When was the last time you saw hummingbirds in your garden?

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (aromatic aster) with Carex brevior (plains oval sedge). Photo by Liz Vogel.

Consider some of these guidelines that are sure to bring you joy when planning a new garden or reworking an existing one:

Liz is a professional horticulturist, observer, artist and writer, and co-owner of North Branch Natives, an education-focused native plant nursery.