Connecting with nature is important at any age! Heller Nature Center’s programs are designed to inspire a lifelong appreciation for nature, foster environmental stewardship, and promote a healthier, more connected community. Whether you are an avid nature enthusiast or simply looking to explore new outdoor activities, Heller Nature Center offers something for everyone.

Check out our upcoming Adult/Adult-Friendly Programs:

Friday, July 13 • 10am-noon

Summer Wild Edibles Walk

Eat the forest! Join The Wild Dryad on a foraging tour of Heller’s woods; learn how to spot wild edibles and how best to cook them. Sample some of the plants we find on our hike.

Friday, July 19 • 7-8:30pm

Nature Trivia

Join us for an evening of nature-themed trivia. Enter in teams of up to 6, or join a team of new friends on arrival. Then, compete with fellow residents to see who knows more about the ecology in our local area and beyond.

This is a BYOB event. Light snacks will be provided.

Ages 21+

Sunday, August 8 • 9:30-11:30am

Honey Harvest Demo

Our honey bees have been working all summer making our famous Heller Honey. Come and experience how to harvest our honey with one of our naturalists and take home a small jar you harvested from the hives.

Nature Nurturers Needed!

From natural areas restoration to beekeeping, outdoor volunteer opportunities are aplenty!

The periodic cicadas have arrived! On this episode of Wild Insights, Mark describes the difference between periodic and annual cicadas, their molting process, and where you can see them in Highland Park!

You may see a new face leading your next program at Heller Nature Center!

We’re excited to welcome a new Naturalist Teacher, Kerrick Goodman-Lucker, to our team. Kerrick has a passion for teaching about the outdoors and is excited to work with the local community. Get to know Kerrick with a quick Q&A––and be sure to say hello if you see him on the trails or teaching a program at Heller and Rosewood Beach!

Where are you from?

I was born in Florida, moved to California to get a graduate degree in Museum Education, lived there for 13 years, and then moved to Illinois in 2019. Yes, I am liking the snow quite well, thank you.

What brought you to the Park District of Highland Park?

I was a classroom teacher until 2021, when I switched to curriculum development. I came to miss being outside in nature, talking to humans not on a screen, and leaving my house ever. Heller Nature Center is a beautiful, peaceful outdoor setting, and my work encourages me to get out and walk and talk to more nature lovers. What’s not to love?

What is something few people know about you?

Three truths and no lies: I used to ride horses when I was a kid (English pleasure and beginning hunter-jumper). I spent a year interning on a farm where I learned to build stuff out of mud and straw and took care of goats and chickens. I love almost all animals, but I am deeply afraid of leeches. Bonus: I used to teach tai chi and pentjak silat.

What is your dream trip?

I have visited Ireland and Scotland, and also New Zealand and Australia. I would love to go back to any of those beautiful places. One day I want to visit the cloud forests of Costa Rica.

What’s your favorite season?

My favorite season is fall. When I was a kid in Florida, I used to think snow was imaginary. I sort of had the sense that somewhere fall happened and it must be really pretty, so I would collect dead leaves and acorns from under the live oaks in our 85 degree September days and make little “fall” displays. 

What is your favorite thing about Heller so far?

I wish more people knew about some of our really quirky, creative programs at HNC! Spread the word! We’re not all teams courses and sedate nature walks over here!

Kerrick Goodman-Lucker, Naturalist Teacher
Learning the Ropes: Kerrick leading his first of many crate climbing programs.

THE CICADAS ARE COMING! Join Mark on this edition of Wild Insights where he shares what’s in store for this rare “double brood emergence!”

What’s all this buzz about cicadas?

Here’s what to know about this once-in-a-lifetime event!

Why is 2024 a special year for cicadas?

For the first time since 1803, two broods belonging to two different species of periodical cicadas will emerge at the same time—an occurrence that happens only once every 221 years! One brood has been underground for 13 years, and the other for 17 years. What’s more, this year’s cicada groups, known as Brood XIII and Brood XIX, happened to make their homes adjacent to one another, with a narrow overlap in central Illinois.

When will we see them?

Cicadas typically emerge once the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit. We would expect the larger majority to emerge from mid-May to early June, but this year, we may see them earlier due to the early warm temperatures.

Where will they be?

The insects are expected to merge all over the Midwest. However, here in Illinois, we may be primed to see more than our neighbors. Brood XIX (the 17-year brood) has a wide range across the Midwest and into Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Brood XIII’s (the 13-year brood) population is mostly centered around Illinois but stretches into Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa.

What should we expect?

Noise, and lots of it! Cicadas are emerging primarily to mate, and their calls are loud. Their calls can reach 100 decibels, comparable to a motorcycle or a jackhammer! You will also probably see large gatherings of the young nymphs, and their old shells around the base and on the trunks of trees.

Should I be worried?

Not at all! While they may be big and loud, cicadas are harmless to humans and pets. And while they may do some damage to trees and large plants as they lay their eggs, they are not harmful to household gardens and crops like locusts are. This year, cicadas will be a valuable food source for birds and other predators.

Every so often the sun, moon, and Earth align just right to put on a spectacular show! On Monday, April 8, a total solar eclipse will take place, meaning that the moon will pass in front of the sun, creating a shadow over the sun. Chicago and its surrounding suburbs will experience an estimated 94% totality—higher than the 2017 eclipse and higher than any future eclipses in Chicagoland.

What time is the big show?

At 12:50pm, the moon will start to pass in front of the sun, moving slowly at first and then picking up speed. The peak time to see it in Chicagoland will be around 2:07pm. By 3:22pm, it will move out of the area and the whole show will be over!

Do you have your solar eclipse glasses?

Because we live outside the path of totality (the stretch of land in which the moon will completely cover the sun, resulting in a total eclipse), it is extremely important to wear eclipse glasses while viewing the solar eclipse to avoid eye damage. Regular sunglasses are NOT safe for viewing.

Don’t have eclipse glasses? There’s another way to safely view the solar eclipse! Check out this how-to from NASA on making your own box pinhole projector: https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/14391/

You don’t want to miss this! The next total solar eclipse in the United States is set to take place on August 12, 2045. The next total solar eclipse with Chicago in a path of totality isn’t until August 4, 2111!

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 pdhp.org.

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?