Last Gasp of Summer

Below are photos taken a week or so ago from a prairie here in Aurora, Nebraska.  It’s the time of year when everything is preparing for winter.  Most plants are done blooming and entering dormancy.  A few are squeezing a couple last flowers out while they still can.  Meanwhile, insects are scrambling around trying to find something to eat before they either die or find a way to survive the winter.  Any still-blooming flower is literally crawling with insects trying to eat the pollen, nectar, seeds, and any other part of the flower that’s available.  Makes you wonder if it’s really worth it to the plant to make the effort…

A false milkweed bug on a false sunflower. (The photo, however, is real)

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Butterfly milkweed seeds ready to fly.

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Crab spider (Tibellus sp) on grass.

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The same crab spider as above. If I nudged the grass stem it was sitting on, the spider would quickly jump to nearby stem or leaf, crawl to the top of it, turn around, and freeze in this tight position - often making it nearly impossible to see.

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I actually saw this cottonwood leaf fall and lodge in the grass. I took the photo about 10 seconds later.

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Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) was one of the plant species that still had a few flowers.

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This tiny crab spider is dwarfed by a pitcher sage bloom. I'm not sure if the spider was waiting for prey or just resting.

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We haven’t had a hard freeze here yet, but it probably won’t be long.  That first freeze brings the end of life for many living things, but just signals the beginning of a long wait till spring for many others.  In the meantime, it’s work work work, tying up loose ends before the winter comes.  That applies to prairie species and prairie ecologists alike!

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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.
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14 Responses to Last Gasp of Summer

  1. James C. Trager says:

    Howdy Chris – The bug is Lygaeus turcicus. See http://bugguide.net/node/view/102855/bgpage. It is called the false milkweed bug, but might-ought to be called the Heliopsis bug, as that is the plant with which they are nearly always associated, both as young and when mature, as in your image.

    Not sure if you have calico aster (S. lateriflorum) up there, but though among the least showy of the ones around here to our eye, on sunny fall days, it fairly swarms with late pollinators, while prettier-to-humans species right next to it are nearly devoid of them.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Excellent – thanks for the ID James. I looked and looked at photos of boxelder bugs and finally decided this must be one, though it didn’t look quite right. I’d convinced myself that it was just a case of variation… Good to know the right name. I’ll change it in the post.

  2. Ted Harris says:

    Thanks, Chris. Your photos and words are poignant, beautiful and thought-provoking, just like the season itself.

  3. Barb Mikulicz says:

    I would appreciate seeing a picture of the boxelder bug compared to the milkweed bug, hard to tell them apart. Thanks!

  4. Teresa says:

    Ahhhh …. luscious photos. Especially the false sunflower, milkweed seed and cottonwood leaf. Fall is always my favorite time of year – but it’s always so fleeting I never feel like I get more than just a tantalizing taste of it before it’s over. There’s something about the texture of things in autumn. Everything is kind of dry and crispy – and you can almost smell the cold coming … is that silly?

  5. Barb, a boxelder bug and milkweed bug, side by side:

    They belong to different families (Coreidae vs. Lygaeidae) of bugs.

    • Barb Mikulicz says:

      James & Chris, thanks for the picture & info.

    • Savannagal says:

      Thanks for posting that photo. I thought the milkweed buy looked just like the millions of box elder bugs I get most years. After all, common names can be very misleading. But seeing them next to each other … well, a picture says a thousand words. Thanks again.

  6. Great photos! Enjoyed reading your blog.

  7. James McGee says:

    Pitcher Sage is such a beautiful plant. I’m glad I was able to see it when I took a trip through Nebraska to the Black Hills five years ago. I wish it was native to my area. It seems to be a rare introduction that does not persist.

    James

  8. Rifqi says:

    Nice colours and composition in the first one.

  9. Gary Shackelford says:

    Chris,
    I believe the spider on the grass is a long-jawed orbweaver (probably Tetragnatha sp.) rather than a crab spider. The posture that you show in your two photos is typical of long-jawed orbweavers, in which they stretch out their thin bodies on the stalk of a plant.

    • Chris has this one right, Gary. Note the forward orientation of the third pair of legs that clues us in to its crabbiness.

      • Chris Helzer says:

        Thanks to both of you for responding. Gary, I checked with a spider expert friend before posting to make sure – because I’m certainly not expert enough to be confident.. (Which doesn’t mean it’s right!) I’m glad to get James’ second opinion, and also glad you were willing to correct me had I been wrong. Thanks again.

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