Below is an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune this morning. Jim Steffen, years ago offered an expert’s set of eyes sorting my slides (yes, before digital photography), identifying native versus “weeds” in the Chicago Botanic Garden prairie restoration project. David Sollenberger was my primary contact that worked with me each month on this project. Jim Steffen also graciously joined my adult wildflower photography at the garden on their first class session. We would walk the McDonald woods at the Garden and he would quickly move thier observation skills from only seeing decaying leaf litter on the woodland floor toward seeing the multitude of emerging native spring wildflowers. He helped my students learn to appreciate wildlife while also honing photography skills. So it was a pleasure to read of his current care of the Garden.
Nuisance or savior?
To Jim ‘Mothman’ Steffen, moths are the key to restoring a small woodlands near Botanic Garden to something like pre-settlement Illinois
Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist Jim Steffen inspects moths caught in his traps in McDonald Woods on the edge of the garden. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune ) Delicate Cycnia moth.
By Christopher Borrelli
Ji m Steffen, the Mothman of Glencoe, the champion of McDonald Woods, a Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist for the past 30 years, as well as the co-author of such must-reads as “Interactions of an Introduced Shrub and Introduced Earthworms in an Illinois Urban Woodland,” brushes the drizzle from his face and crams an umbrella handle into the ground.
Beside it, on a milk carton, rests a device that Steffen constructed not long ago. It resembles a tiny lighthouse, and should you happen to be a moth, that’s exactly what it is. It’s intended as a beacon, to guide you through the surrounding McDonald Woods , luring you closer to its glow in an otherwise dark forest, at which point, should you turn to escape and bonk your bug noggin on its plexiglass frame, you will tumble into the maw beneath the lamplight.
You will find yourself trapped, then counted.
Steffen is conducting a census.
He’s studying the moths of McDonald Woods. He believes that he can help restore these small woodlands alongside the Botanic Garden to something like pre-settlement Illinois. And he believes that its moths, one of nature’s least appreciated pollinators, could be the key.
So, for the past few years, he’s been gathering as much information as he can on what species exist in these compact 100 acres of Glencoe (not to be confused with another, larger McDonald Woods that’s part of Lake County Forest Preserves). He takes his traps out every week or so, from about the first thaw of spring to the first snow of winter. He would do it more often but he’s coming across new species every two weeks, and he doesn’t want to stress out the moths or do any more damage to the population than his intrusions have already done.
That said, if you are a moth, and live in McDonald Woods, Jim Steffen has your number.
He’s currently at No. 596.
Meaning, he’s identified 596 species of moth here, with at least 50 more waiting to be ID’d and cataloged. He’s caught large moths and micro moths. He’s caught black moths and white moths, moths that look copper and moths that look paper. He’s caught moths resembling bees and moths he describes as “mountain ranges with six legs.” He’s caught moths from elsewhere — Central America, Florida — though the majority are native to right here. He’s caught the Toothed Brown Carpet and Splendid Palpita, the Coffee-Loving Pyrausta and Morbid Owlet, the Black Duckweed and Pale Beauty, the Large Mossy Glyph and Common Pug. He’s caught moths as orange as NCAA mascots and moths that look like hairy tongues. He’s caught moths with 1950s TV antennas for antennas and moths with wingspans that zip up as quick and tight as window shades.
Just after Labor Day, Steffen, 68, moves quickly across McDonald Woods, stalking through its thigh-high grasses, stepping over its thin creeks. He carries 40 pounds of batteries on his back. He’s trailed by two younger Botanic Garden employees. He plants a trap, connects the UV light to a battery, tests sensors for brightness, then rushes silently to a new spot.
Midsummer is peak moth season here, but moths are present year-round, however dormant and Steffen doesn’t expect his weekly catch to plummet for another few weeks. A week earlier Steffen brought back a sizable 400-moth catch. He plants a Botanic Garden umbrella (spray painted gray, to provide camouflage) into the dirt then considers the forecasted direction of the wind and adjusts the canopy (to keep the collection bin from swamping). He says, “It’s sticky and humid right now. It should be a good night.”
People don’t get moths,
people don’t like moths.
Steffen leads walking tours of the woods. When he points out the moths, he gets blank stares. “To people, they’re a nuisance,” he says. “They’re pests, people don’t want them around. Because people don’t know about them.” Bees may be pollinators, but so are moths (as are, surprisingly enough, lemurs and flies). “In terms of pollination, moths have never been the industry that bees are known for,” said Mark Metz, an entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture who studies moths. “Moths are hard to identify, and many moths only fly at night. They’re not well understood. But they play a bigger role (in pollination) than we give them credit. Some new thinking even suggests butterflies are just highly evolved moths — which a lot of butterfly fans don’t like to hear.”
The moth is such a reliable pollinator that Steffen is not even studying the moth to save the moth. For decades, quietly, dutifully, he’s set his sights on McDonald Woods itself.
“My goal is to increase its native diversity as much as possible — plants, animals, insects — and have it all function at a high level,” he said. “So, more predators and more pollinators. The moth survey tells us if that diversity has been increasing or decreasing.” Because many moths (as caterpillars) feed on one or two native plants, they’re telling indicators of woodland diversity. (Basically, the more species of moths present, the more diverse the woods.)
He lays his last trap and stands.
The health of McDonald Woods curls at his feet.
For starters, plant-wise, rare sits beside ordinary now, Tinker’s weed, raspberry bushes, elm-leaved golden rod, Pennsylvania sedge, dog violet, northern cranesbill. There’s a lush array of color, and sunlight where darkness ruled. But when Steffen started the restoration in 1989, more than a century of invasive buckthorn and garlic mustard had grown into a thicket so impenetrable here that he couldn’t see the base of some trees. Other spots were only reachable on your hands and knees. “The area was so dense there wasn’t enough sunlight for some plants to survive,” Steffen said, “and leaf litter (from the invasive plants) was so high in nitrogen it stimulated the earthworm population, which consumed root hairs of other plants and changed the pH of the soil. Basically, plants couldn’t survive, soil was essentially bare — seemed pretty hopeless.”
And McDonald Woods is healthier now?
“Yeah,” Steffen said plainly.
He wears a white mustache, a disintegrating ballcap and maintains long silences. He does not sell or even make any note at all of his achievements; he never even mentions them. Still, he’s been the “driving force” behind the health of these woods for three decades, said Gregory Mueller, the chief scientist at the Botanic Garden. “Wooded areas in suburban-urban areas are no longer independently self-supporting. There are too many stresses, they need to be managed (to stay healthy). Jim is getting this one as self-sufficient as possible, to bring back as many of the benefits as the woods brings. He’s a mix of curiosity and practicality, with an ability to just do it — we joke he’s ‘the machine.’ ”
Ask Steffen what these woods were like, before invasive species, he says, “I don’t exactly know.” He drives his golf cart across the Botanic Garden grounds in silence.
Then he unloads: “There isn’t a lot of historical information on the conditions. There was a guy who traveled on horseback through here and wrote down observations, so a lot of what we have is anecdotal. It was logged and grazed. It was Turnbull Woods originally, the Turnbull family lived on the other side of Green Bay Road. They were the original settlers, in the 1830s. They grazed cattle and harvested hay out of Skokie Marsh, which is now the Botanic Garden. They were dairy farmers. Cattle ate the plants, so it never got too dense here. But when invasive species showed up and filled in the gaps, it got dark. It became McDonald Woods in the 1990s, renamed after (the late) Mary Mix McDonald, who sat on the county board and helped us get the rights to the 100 acres.”
We rode on.
“I was hired originally to develop a specific 11 acres of garden that they didn’t really know what to do with, but I said it didn’t make sense to manage that 11 acres when they had all this woodland behind it full of invasive species.” So, for decades, he surveyed trees in McDonald Woods, studied fungai, counted spiders and small mammals. He erected fencing to slow a deer population that was strip-mining its plants (“but give most animals time and they figure you out”). He pulled clumps of invasive grasses out of the earth with his hands, and for a few years, he oversaw the removal of nearly 1,000 ash trees that had been infested with the invasive emerald ash borer insect, climbing into and (to avoid the infected trees from crushing healthy trees) detaching many tree tops himself.
The point is, he says, gesturing at the forest, is it’s all connected. “Restoring it doesn’t mean just restoring plants but all the individual things that live here. Lose one native plant and you might lose three other things that depended on that plant — like insects.”
We arrive at a forest shelter, open to the woods and constructed around an old stone fireplace, built by the Civil Conservation Corps decades ago, as part of the New Deal.
“Oh,” Steffen says.
A small 10-point buck watches, almost an arm’s-length away. Steffen stares back a moment, then the deer abruptly leaps off and Steffen returns to his office and his moths.
The next morning is cold . Steffen navigates his golf cart along Lake Cook Road, the sky dark at 6 a.m. The only sound is a buzz of insects murmuring at various pitches and volumes, like different models of cars revving in the distance. He steers the cart up a grassy incline then quickly and efficiently collects the traps, each of the devices obvious before dawn: Scattered throughout the forest is the soft purple glow from their UV lights.
He bends alongside one.
“It was a good night,” he says.
He straps the traps to the flatbed of the cart and drives back to a small parking lot behind the Botanic Garden’s science offices. There, he disappears inside then comes out with something unexpected: A large white cube, essentially a wooden frame with mosquito netting stretched across and sewn in place. He climbs inside the cube, sits on a footstool at its center, then grabs the first of four traps and opens the plexiglass lid. At the bottom of the basin are egg cartons covered in what looks like stray pencil marks — hundreds, actually.
These are small moths, but also beetles, spiders, wasps — whatever wanders in. Some moths flutter upward to the net, some crawl along the cartons; Steffen sorts slowly, placing moths he doesn’t recognize in tubes, releasing moths he’s familiar with, about 99% of his catches. He works in silence, stopping to note a new species or unusual find. “Underwing,” he says, raising the camouflage dress of a moth and revealing orange knickers.
There are 1,850 known species of moths in Illinois, so identifying 600 species within a modest 100 acres is “a wonderful effort,” said Terry Harrison, a retired entomologist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign known for his own deep local dives into the insect. He said the study of moths in the Upper Midwest remains “a blank slate.” There are amateur insect collectors known for taking vacations, often in the Southwest, where they set up powerful mercury vapor lamps and draw in every moth within a quarter mile. But they often hunt the spectacular and colorful. “In a region where there is minimum study of moths,” said Mueller of the Botanic Garden, “Jim has painted our whole picture, of micro moths and everything else, with a remarkable rigor.”
Steffen lives near Zion, on the Wisconsin line.
He grew up in Manitowoc, banding birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 15; he studied biology and environmental sciences at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, he spent years creating cross-country ski trails for the state. His knowledge is broad — spiders, birds, invasive plants, restoration — but he’s no moth expert, he says. And when he retires (“shortly”) he’ll donate his specimens to the Field Museum (“if they want ‘em,” he says).
Driving in his golf cart in early morning, he mentions “the goal of all this” was never to return a single patch of Glencoe back to the 1800s. That’s never going to happen. “It’s not the same world anymore.” The goal was to improve the health and increase the biodiversity of native species in McDonald Woods. “But I wonder sometimes, with some moths, I wonder if I am looking at the last of a species, right in my hand.”
We sit in silence, the sky lightens.
“It’s so depressing, I hear. But it’s better than it was. It’s the best I could do.”