WARRENTON, VA (Sept. 23, 2022) — The Clifton Institute is pleased to announce it has received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to fund a new program called The Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project. This project will launch the native seed industry in Virginia, which will make it possible to plant ecologically appropriate wildflower meadows.

There is substantial demand for seeds of native wildflowers and grasses for pollinator friendly solar installations, meadow plantings, and roadside revegetation in Virginia. But seeds of several species of plants that are common in native grasslands in the state, and beneficial for pollinators, are unavailable from seed companies. Furthermore, seeds of most species that are available have out-of-state genetics, which limits their utility to restore plant communities and provide pollinator habitat. These plants often bloom at the wrong time for our local insects or they’re too tall or too short.

“Native plants, especially native plants with local genetics, are crucial for supporting native insects, birds, and other wildlife,” says Clifton Institute Executive Director Bert Harris. “Not being able to buy the seeds of plant species native to Virginia, let alone from Virginian populations, is a critical obstacle to creating pollinator habitat statewide.”


Co-Director Bert Harris collects seeds.

The grant will fund a new Native Seed Coordinator position at The Clifton Institute. The Native Seed Coordinator with work with partners and volunteers to collect seeds of 15 species of wildflowers and grasses across the state. A new greenhouse at the Clifton Institute will also be partly funded by the grant and seedlings will be grown to then be transplanted in farmers’ fields. Virginia State University and Clifton Institute staff will work to establish a network of local producers who can serve as a commercial source of native seeds. In particular, the project will focus on equipping underserved farmers with the tools and skills they need to grow and sell this new high value crop. Other key partners in the project are the Virginia Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Dept. of Wildlife Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Ernst Conservation Seeds, and the Capital Region Land Conservancy.

(This story originally ran in our email newsletter. Keep up to date with wildlife sightings, programs, news, events, and more by signing up at the bottom of this page!)


Like most things worth doing, land management is tricky. Strategies often have to take into account the fact that invasive species and valuable native species are growing in close-quarters. Budget (both time and money), aesthetics, and wildlife can also be complicating factors, so improving habitat on your property can seem daunting. That’s where the Clifton Institute’s Land Management Outreach Associate Marie Norwood comes in!

In addition to helping manage habitat on the Clifton property, Marie travels to visit private landowners and managers of public land to advise about land management for the benefit of native plants and animals. She helps landowners identify native and non-native plants and declining animals, and she helps people prioritize management actions.

Marie joined the staff in March, 2021. She has a B.Sc. and B.A. from McGill University, where she majored in Organismal Biology and International Development. After graduating, she worked in Colorado conducting terrestrial ecosystem monitoring for the Bureau of Land Management, and in Georgia as a prescribed fire crew supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“My favorite parts of my first two jobs out of college were the plant science and ecological restoration themes, so this job seemed perfect,” Marie said. “I also liked the idea of communicating ideas which are normally confined to academia and public land managers to private landowners.”

Marie Norwood surveys a meadow during a site visit.

The Clifton Institute’s specialty is meadows, but Marie also advises on shrublands, forests, and anything related to native species and habitat. She spends a few hours on site with an interested landowner, helps them identify the changes they want to make to their property, and then works with them to come up with a plan to make those changes happen. She includes a written report summarizing the visit, and can help connect landowners to a network of resources and partners.

“These things take a long time and a fair amount of effort,” Marie said. “But in a positive light, any little change is the right direction. There will be little victories, and the sooner you start the sooner you will start to see progress.”

Since the program is still in its early stages, Marie generally travels to properties within an hour of Warrenton, Va., but there’s no charge for her assistance, and she’s happy to be a continuous resource for landowners who have questions after the initial visit.

Marie’s favorite part of her job is meeting landowners (and their pets!). “It’s a major source of hope to me that so many people care deeply about these issues and are willing to take time out of their days to talk about habitats and biodiversity,” she said.

If you’d like to request a free property visit from Marie, please contact her at: mnorwood@cliftoninstitute.org

(This story originally ran in our email newsletter. Keep up to date with more wildlife sightings, programs, news, events, and more by signing up at the bottom of this page!)


On June 17, Education Associate Bridget Bradshaw spotted an odd insect. It had an oblong black body, long antennae, and clear wings. It looked like a wasp-moth hybrid, which turned out not to be far off! The insect Bridget saw was a Synanthedon richardsi, which is a rare member of the clearwing moth family Sesiidae.

We wanted to learn more about this beautiful and apparently rare moth so we contacted THE expert on these insects. William Taft is an aquatic entomologist who is one of few people studying the Sesiidae family in depth, and he was kind enough to speak with us more about these mysterious insects.

Synanthedon richardsi was first described in 1946. In 1988, more details were published on clearwing moths in a volume of the Moths of America North of Mexico. According to this publication, Synanthedon richardsi ranges from Maryland to Georgia and west to Ohio and Kansas, but it is rare and “nothing definite is known about its life history.”

A photo of Synanthedon richardsi with field marks for identification. Photo courtesy of William Taft.

Since 1988, not much more has been learned about this elusive insect, but Taft is determined to change that.

“People are interested in the family, but not that interested,” Taft said. “People are generally more interested in silk moths and hawk moths. But I collected those as a kid, so there weren’t any more mountains to climb there for me. As far as I know, I am the only person in the U.S. actively seeking these things by driving across the U.S. and trying to figure out when and where they emerge.”

Clearwing moths range from just five millimeters up to a wing length of 28 millimeters. They are accomplished mimics of wasps and bees mainly due to their clear wings, but some clearwing moths in the western U.S. have been observed mimicking wasp behavior to complete the illusion. Their caterpillars feed on herbaceous plants, including the trunk, crown, root, stems, seed pods, and even galls. They’re generally short-lived as adults, likely only surviving for a week after emerging. Many clearwings can pose a threat to agricultural plants (an infamous relative of Synanthedon richardsi is the Squash Vine Borer (Melittia cucurbitae)) but they also provide food for anything that includes insects in their diet.

Synanthedon richardsi seem to prefer viburnums as food plants. Our sighting was near a Blackhaw Viburnum, but Taft also described a sighting in South Carolina that was near Walter’s Viburnum.

Taft’s main focus is trying to locate and collect clearwing moths so he can sample their DNA and develop better genetic markers for distinguishing between species.

“If you have multiple species feeding on oak, which a lot of them do, and you want to know if they’re actually distinct species, well, a lot of them look very similar so the only way you can tell the difference is color, flight period, or which synthetic pheromones they come to,” Taft said.

Taft relies on help from users on websites like iNaturalist and Bug Guide to help him with his search. When someone posts a photo of a clearwing moth, Taft notes the date of the photo and the location it was taken, which will help him narrow down the best times and places to look for the insects he wants to collect.

“If no one looks, no one finds,” Taft said. “That’s always been an issue. There aren’t as many people these days, except hunters and fishermen, who are really out in the woods. If it doesn’t happen in their backyard or along a hiking trail, it gets missed. But that’s where people out taking pictures really come into their own.”

We think this is a great example of how much there is still to learn about the natural world, and how close to home these discoveries can happen! If you’re on iNaturalist, we encourage you to join our biodiversity inventory project and submit observations from the property. We have contributed four records of these rare moths so far!