Photo of the Week – September 2, 2011

I photographed this bee in late August of 2009 in a restored (reconstructed) prairie.  At the time, I naively assumed it was a honey bee – not knowing much about bee identification.  I stuck to that assumption a year later when a version of the photo was used on the cover of NEBRASKAland magazine.

Native bee on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in restored prairie at the Deep Well Wildlife Management Area near Phillips, Nebraska.

Then, in August of this year, I was giving a presentation to staff of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) about prairie ecology, and I used my “honey bee” photo as part of a slide on the decline of honey bees and the need for a strong community of native bees to pick up the slack.  As I was talking, I glanced over at Mike Arduser, a natural heritage biologist – and bee expert - with MDC and noticed that he had a pained expression on his face.  Knowing I was in trouble, I stopped and asked him what I’d said.

Mike explained that the bee in the photo is actually the native bee, Tetraloniella cressoniana, that feeds only on the pollen of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) – the plant I photographed it on.  So - far from being a social generalist feeder like a honey bee, this bee is an example of the other extreme.  A specialist bee that relies on pollen from only a single plant species.  How great is that!

Apart from my chagrin about calling it a honey bee, knowing the real story about this bee makes me like the photo even more.  The fact that the photo was taken in a location where cropland had been converted to high-diversity prairie – and there is no other prairie nearby – makes it even more interesting.  I’d love to know how this bee managed to find and nest in/near a prairie that contains pitcher sage.  Where did the bee come from?  Did it search randomly, or does it have a way to “smell” or otherwise sense this plant species?  What a fun thing to think about!

The above photo wasn’t taken in one of our Platte River Prairies, but I’m sure hoping to find Tetraloniella there this fall.  Pitcher sage just started blooming a week or so ago and I’ve been out looking a couple times.  So far, no luck.  I did find a bee with a similar color and striping pattern, but it turned out to be the other species of bee Mike said I’d likely find using pitcher sage (don’t you love experts!).  So I’m still looking… 

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
This entry was posted in General, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Photo of the Week – September 2, 2011

  1. Carol Rice says:

    You pose such a great question. I hope you are able to find out how specialist insects find their food sources.

  2. We have Salvia azurea in central Texas, but unfortunately the two largest stands of it that I was aware of have both been lost to development. Last week I came across a single plant of it in a location where I’d never seen it before; the plant was small but was flowering, and it took me a little while to realize what it was.

    I sympathize with you about misidentifying the bee. One of my big challenges is determining what’s truly a bee and what’s a fly that mimics a bee, of which there are disconcertingly many.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Boy – I agree with you on the bees/flies issue. If I have time to see them up close, I can usually tell the difference, but they’re awfully good at confusion, aren’t they??

  3. Tracy Tucker says:

    I have trouble with bees as well… but this is interesting, b/c I do a lot of macro photography, and I SWEAR I have this bee photographed on a sunflower from earlier this summer. Digging through the archives tonight :D

  4. (tauntingly) You call that a honeybee?!
    Seriously though, great story, about the bee, and about your growing knowledge of prairie entomofauna.

    To Tracy – There are other, closely related bees that look quite a bit like this one, i.e., much mroe difficult to separate from this one than a honeybee would be.

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