Photo of the Week – December 1, 2011

The diversity of insect species in prairies – and other ecosystems – is simply mind boggling.  One of my favorite activities with kids is to hand them an insect sweep net and let them find out for themselves just how many different kinds of “bugs” there are in a prairie.  There’s a lot more than just grasshoppers out there…

I also like to quote impressive insect statistics when I give presentations, and one of my favorites comes from a 2000 report by Richard Redak.  Do you know which group of insects has the most species in North America? (The group includes 37% of all insect species on the continent.)  I’ll make it multiple choice, and you can choose from the following:

a) beetles

b) flies

c) wasps/bees/ants

d) butterflies/moths

e) true bugs

Made your guess?  Ok, scroll down to see if you’re right.

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A flower fly (Syrphidae) on yellow/hairy stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta) along the Platte River in Nebraska.

Surprisingly – to me, anyway – the answer is Flies (the order Diptera).  Would you have guessed that there are more than 36,000 species of flies in North America?  That means that one in three insect species in North America is a fly.  How many species of fly can you name??  Three? (house fly, horse fly, …uh….)  No, butterfly and dragonfly don’t count.

I think it’s fantastic that there are 36,000 variations on those noisy flies that buzz around my head.  Because I’ve been paying attention to pollinators recently, I know that there are many kinds of flies that are valuable pollinators – in fact, flies are second only to bees in terms of effectiveness and importance.  As a photographer, I see a lot of flies hanging around flowers and elsewhere, and I’ve got quite a few fly photos that do look fairly different from each other.  But I still wouldn’t have guessed there were that many kinds.

A robber fly photographed along the Platte River in Nebraska. I love the eyes and claws, especially. ...Just another one of the 36,000 species out there.

Why is it important to have 36,000 kinds of flies?  I’m not sure, but isn’t it great to know they’re out there?  We could discuss the diversity of the ecological roles that flies fill – and they ARE important in many ways – but for me, those things are secondary to the simple fact that they exist.  We live in a great world.

By the way, if you guessed beetles on the quiz above, it’s a great guess – and you’d have been right if the question was about the entire earth.  The tropics have astounding numbers of beetle species, and that pushes them above flies.  But in North America it really is flies.

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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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11 Responses to Photo of the Week – December 1, 2011

  1. melissakoski says:

    Amazing photos. Love the eyes and being able to check out those claws on the legs!

  2. Laura W. says:

    Not only are the flies super important to the biodiversity of grasslands but all the insects that thrive and depend on these unique habitats. There is so much to learn and we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to the function and diversity of insects. Thank you for showcasing these flies! They are amazing creatures! I encourage all to go out and take a moment to observe these wonderful animals, we have so much to learn from them.

  3. David McIntyre says:

    I have needed photos to illustrate competition (for ecology textbooks), and I’ve thought a good example would be competition for nectar and pollen from flowers. I decided to try to get some photos of this sort recently, and I sat down by some late-blooming chrysanthemums to see who’d show up for this diminishing resource. I didn’t expect (or see) any beetles or true bugs (not really fair–it’s not the most likely setting for them), but I was surprised that absolutely no butterflies or moths showed up. I saw only one species of bee (honeybees, probably from my own hive), one wasp (a late-season yellowjacket), and at least five species of flies (one crane fly, one tiny housefly-ish thing I didn’t even try to identify, and at least three species of syrphids). In spite of all this evidence, though, I still guessed beetles as the answer to your question.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      David- good for you for doing some research!

      One thing to keep in mind is that chrysanthemums aren’t very good sources of nectar and pollen, so they might not be a good example to look at.

      Sorry you didn’t get it right. No penalty for being wrong, though!

  4. Savannagal says:

    You take the coolest photos. Thanks!

  5. Reba Epler says:

    Insect diversity is beautiful!

  6. Mel says:

    I think one each of all those species of flies was chasing me last year while photographing around the Platte!

  7. James C. Trager says:

    “I think it’s fantastic that there are 36,000 variations on those noisy flies that buzz around my head.”
    Well, not exactly. It’s because 99% of the species never do buzz around our heads that they go unnoticed. Same with all insect groups – A few in each group that like our habitat and our resources give the whole lot a bad name, while the huge majority of them are out there performing valuable ecosytem services and don’t want to have anything to do with the ecosystem disservices that our species causes.
    I have to admit that I, an entomologist, answered beetles, not having those published statistics on hand, but also because probably no one is truly an entomologist. There are just too many osorts of insects for the human mind to grasp, and those of us with the title all specialize on some tiny fraction of the millions of them out there.

  8. Ronnie says:

    “Well, Ive seen a horse fly. And I’ve seen a dragon fly. I’ve even seen a house fly. But did you ever see an elephant fly?” Sorry could not help to quote a line from a Disney Movie. Comes with having young kids and watching lots of animated movies. I agree with your comment on not knowing why that many species are out there but it is cool just knowing that they are. Thanks Chris.

  9. Pingback: Why I Care About Prairies and You Should Too | The Prairie Ecologist

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