Next Platte River Prairies Field Day – August 21

On Friday August 21, we’ll be hosting our next Field Day on the Platte River Prairies.  The agenda is nearly set – we’re just waiting for final confirmation from a few presenters before putting out the official agenda.  We’ll have sessions on plant identification, prairie restoration and management, birds, ethnobotany, pollinators, dragonflies, invertebrate ecology, and more.

Fish sampling demonstration at Derr Wetland during TNC Platte River Prairies Field Day.

Field Day participants look at stream fish at our June 2015 Platte River Prairies Field Day.

Please plan to join us between 9am and 4pm (come and go as you like.)  There is no cost or registration required, but bring your own lunch.  We’ll have some light snacks and water/lemonade for you.  Directions to the site can be found here.

I’ll post the final agenda when it’s ready to go.

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Photo of the Week – August 6, 2015

There are many benefits of being a morning person.  For example, I see a lot of sunrises – even in the summer when the sun comes up well before most people are awake.

Last weekend, I got up early and drove out to our Platte River Prairies to catch the sunrise.

I’m sure glad I did.

Sunrise in sand prairie.  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Stiff sunflowers (Helianthus pauciflorus) greeting the sunrise in sand prairie. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

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Chuck Norris of the Prairie

A big topic of conversation at this year’s Grassland Restoration Network (GRN) workshop had to do with designing seed mixes to combat potential invasive plant problems.  When converting cropland to prairie vegetation, the first few years of establishment are sometimes a race for dominance between prairie plants and invasives.  Once a strong native plant community becomes established, it is more difficult (but still possible) for invasive plants to become dominant, so those first few seasons are critically important.  Over the years, a number of people have tried using extra high seeding rates of various native plants to see if those natives could help stave off invaders.  In an ideal scenario, a high abundance of some showy wildflower would outcompete invasive plants but allow other native plants to establish.  Nice, right?  Lots of pretty flowers during establishment, no invasive species to worry about, and a nice diverse prairie community in the long run.

Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in restored prairie - TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Black-eyed Susan is a species that has shown some promise as a species that can compete against invasives but still allow the establishment of a diverse plant community around it.   The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I first heard about this idea at the 2004 North American Prairie Conference.  In one of my favorite presentations of all time, Shawn Schottler of the Science Museum of Minnesota compared various plant species to celebrities.  As he described his experiments, he said he was trying to find Chuck Norris plants (tough good guys) that could fight off Mike Tysons (aggressive invasives) while still allowing Patsy Clines (less competitive natives) to establish.  As I recall, he was having some luck with Chuck Norris species such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and others.  At this year’s GRN workshop, Jack Norland of North Dakota State University described recent results of some similar experiments on U.S. Fish and Wildlife restoration projects.  The “spike” treatments they used consisted of ultra high seeding rates of species such as plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), and others.  His data showed Canada thistle to be much less abundant in spike treatments than in the controls.

Interestingly, we’ve had some accidental experience with this topic here in our Nebraska Platte River Prairies.  During the drought years of the early 2000’s, some of our prairie plantings ended up with lots and lots of Canada wild rye.  In some cases, the species was so abundant that our plantings looked like wild rye monocultures.  We weren’t the only ones.  Prairie Plains Resource Institute had plantings that looked much the same during those years.  There was some hand wringing about whether or not the plantings had failed, especially given the drought conditions at the time, but Bill Whitney of Prairie Plains assured us that it wasn’t a big deal.  He was right, as usual.  The plantings eventually emerged from their wild rye phase and turned into very nice prairies.  In fact, our site that had the “worst” wild rye infestation is now the showiest (in terms of big colorful wildflowers) prairie we have.  I’m not sure the wild rye helped suppress any invasive species, but a high density of wild rye plants didn’t seem to keep Patsy Clines from eventually thriving.

This 2004 shows one of our Platte River prairie plantings in its third year of growth.  Canada wildrye is visually dominant, but other species are present as well.

This 2004 photo shows one of our Platte River prairie plantings in its third year of growth. Canada wild rye is visually dominant, but other species are present beneath its canopy.  Many of our young plantings from about that time period looked much like this for several years in a row.

After this prairie was seeded in 2000, it was a near monoculture of Canada wild rye for several years but today is our showiest wildflower patch.

After this prairie was seeded in 2000, it was a near monoculture of Canada wild rye for several years.  Today it is among our most diverse prairies and showcases our showiest wildflower patches.  (July 2015 photo)

Spike treatments/Chuck Norris species/etc., are really just variations on the idea of using a cover crop – planting something intended to establish early and then fade away (mostly or completely) as the desired vegetation takes hold.  In some places, cover crops are very useful in agricultural systems as a way to prevent soil erosion and loss of fertility, suppress weeds, and/or preserve soil moisture.  It seems logical that they would also help with prairie restoration establishment.  In fact, I recently talked to someone with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in north central Nebraska who says their best successes in restoring sandhill prairie come when they use a cover crop of millet.

On the other hand, I remember a GRN workshop about five or six years ago when we had a group discussion about our experiences with various cover crops.  Participants from across the Central U.S. seemed to reach consensus that cover crops were as likely to be counterproductive as helpful to prairie restoration efforts.  This seems to conflict with the successes seen by people like Shawn Schottler, Jack Norland, and others.  Why the differences?

Part of the issue is certainly that we’re still experimenting with different species, and still have a lot to learn.  Beyond that, though, anyone who has spent many years restoring prairie knows that establishment results can be very difficult to predict, even within the same site.  Just when you think you’ve got something figured out, your next planting turns out completely unlike what you’d expected.  Those kinds of inconsistencies, combined with differences in site attributes such as soil texture and fertility, rainfall, and latitude make it almost impossible to come up with restoration recommendations that apply everywhere.  In fact, if we’ve learned anything through the Grassland Restoration Network, it’s that it’s important to start big projects by doing some small experimental plantings to see what works best in that place before investing in larger scale work.

Grassland Restoration Network Meeting.  Hosted by TNC Minnesota.

There is great value in getting a bunch of restoration practitioners together in one place.  We often bring home new ideas to try.  Sometimes they even work.  2015 Grassland Restoration Network workshop – Minnesota.

Clearly, the idea of “spike” treatments and similar strategies hold a great deal of promise if they fulfill their promise of preventing invasives while facilitating establishment of diverse plant communities.  However, since it’s also clear that successful strategies from one site don’t always translate well to others, we may each have to find our own formula for success.  Hearing about Dr. Norland’ experiments in the Dakotas has inspired us to do some more experimentation here.  Maybe we can find a few Chuck Norris species to keep the peace in our Platte River Prairies.

If you’ve had positive or negative experiences with cover crops in prairie restoration, or have found your own Chuck Norris of the prairie, please share what you’ve learned in the comments section below.  Thanks.

P.S.  You may have seen or heard some of the many Chuck Norris jokes out there that play on the idea that he is seemingly invincible.  My 14-year-old son likes to share them with me now and then.  A few of my favorites are:

Chuck Norris doesn’t wear a watch. He decides what time it is.

Chuck Norris makes onions cry.

There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but it was changed because no one crosses Chuck Norris.

When Chuck Norris does a push up, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

A bulletproof vest wears Chuck Norris for protection.

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Photo of the Week – July 30, 2015

During our trip to the Grassland Restoration Network workshop in Minnesota last week, several of us got up early enough to catch sunrise at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie on two beautiful mornings.  I shared a few photos from those outings last week, but thought I’d post a few more today.  I’ve got lots more…it wasn’t hard to find subject matter to photograph!

Leadplant and wildflowers.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and other wildflowers abound on The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie near Glyndon, Minnesota.

Woundwort (Stachys palustris).

Marsh hedge nettle, aka woundwort (Stachys palustris).

The cool dewy morning allowed me to get pretty close to this resting monarch butterfly...

The cool dewy morning allowed me to get pretty close to this roosting monarch butterfly…

Beetle on Flodman's thistle.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

This beetle was feeding its way across the top of this Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) – at least I think that’s what I think the thistle species was… it’s always dangerous to guess when I’m far from home.

Common milkweed.  The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie - Minnesota.

Common milkweed flower buds can be just as attractive as the open flowers…

Bee on milkweed.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

This bee spent the night on a milkweed leaf and wasn’t quite warm and dry enough to fly off when I spotted it.  If you look carefully, you can see pollinia stuck on two (maybe three?) of its feet.  If you’re not familiar with the fascinating (and unlikely) story of how milkweed is pollinated, you can learn more here.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).  The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie - Minnesota.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).  This is a species we don’t find very often in the Platte River Prairies (though it’s fairly common nearby) so I always enjoy seeing and photographing it when I can.  As with other “composite” flowers, coneflowers are actually collections (composites) of two kinds of flowers – the ray flowers that look like petals and the disk flowers in the center.  Occasionally, as in this case, a genetic signal gets crossed and ray flower pops up where a disk flower should be.

If you find yourself traveling to or through northwestern Minnesota (just east of Fargo, ND), I encourage you to make the time to visit Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area.  You can find directions and more information on the site here.  The Nature Conservancy owns about 6,000 acres of prairie there, and their ownership is bolstered by several other tracts of conservation land right next door.  The prairie hosts nesting prairie chickens and beautiful tracts of northern tallgrass prairie.  It’s worth the trip to see it.

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Stewardship Positivity

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and while you’ll get the chance to see some of his work here during the next year, I also encourage you to check out his personal blog.

Although I’ve been participating in land management since high school, I still find myself learning so much from it, although perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Yes, I’ve learned several management techniques and strategies since starting the fellowship, but the lessons I consider most valuable are the ones that teach me how to think about land stewardship. Let me explain.

If you were a Hubbard Fellow during the second week of June, you would probably find yourself riding an ATV back and forward across one of our restored prairies, searching for the fluffy purple flowers of Musk Thistle. Upon spotting a thistle, you would pluck off all the flowers, thrust your spade through the base of the thistle with a satisfying crunch, pull out the plant, and then knock the dirt off of any uprooted roots. Over the next three weeks you would repeat this process thousands of times until you had covered every inch of all 14 of our Platte River properties and their 4,000+ acres. Then you would check them all again.

We celebrated the end of thistle season by burning the flowerheads in a bonfire.

When we finally finished musk thistles we celebrated by burning the seed heads that we had collected in a bonfire.

This may sound like exhausting and repetitive work, and it can be, but that wasn’t the hard part for me. The hard part was staying positive when it felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this way when I returned to a prairie for its second thistle check and found piles of thistle seed below “zombie thistles” (thistles that flowered and produced seed after I chopped them because I left too much dirt on the roots). Or when I walked through a prairie that I had already checked twice and still found thistle stalks that had already released their seed to the prairie. Most of all, deciding to spend July 2nd chopping thistles before they released more seed instead of spending time with my family forced me to think hard about my role as a land steward.

As a land steward you develop a strong connection to the land you are working on. Seeing a healthy community of native species flourish on your property is extremely gratifying, but it also pains you to see invasive species spreading. Land stewards almost always have more tasks than they can complete and it’s very easy to let this make them feel overwhelmed and stressed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. After reflecting upon the first month of my fellowship, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far about being a happy steward:

  1. I cannot control nature. I am a steward, not a god. Expecting myself to control exactly which species grow on a property will only bring me frustration. The role of a land steward is not to dominate the forces of nature, but to regulate its extremes. Translation: my job isn’t to exterminate musk thistles, but to prevent them from outcompeting other species and lowering overall biodiversity.
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A Regal Fritilary (Speyeria idalia) on Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Like it or not, Musk Thistles have become part of the local ecosystem. Being a steward doesn’t mean exterminating thistles, but keeping them under control.

  1. There is no endpoint. A land steward’s work is never “done.” My job isn’t to “fix” a property; it’s to guide the property toward a range of conditions that meet our management goals. Removing thistles from the same property year after year does not mean that we are failing at our job of “restoring” the prairie. On the contrary, it means we are doing our job of actively fostering biodiversity.
06042015_nebraska_0322

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is non-native, but also non-invasive. We don’t remove it because it doesn’t lower plant diversity.

  1. Stewardship should be viewed as a positive action, not negative. There are two very different ways to look at land management. From one angle, a day spent chopping thistles could be considered a violent battle against an evil enemy; a task to evict an unworthy invader. From another angle, it could be considered a process of creating beautiful and biodiverse prairies. In my experience, viewing invasives as enemies just leads to exhaustion and bitterness. Only by viewing stewardship as a process of care and creation, in my opinion, can one generate the tremendous amount of energy needed to take on its many tasks.
07112015_nebraska_caveny_0353

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Land stewardship is an essential component of conservation and it’s imperative that we do it well. Unfortunately, it also is a very demanding job that can burn you out if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say that the first month of this fellowship taught me some very important lessons about setting realistic expectations and viewing my work as a positive contribution to prairie biodiversity. It’s important to be a happy steward!

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Photo of the Week – July 23, 2015

As I mentioned in my last post, we spent much of this week up in beautiful northwestern Minnesota, at the annual Grassland Restoration Network workshop.  In fact, I’m writing this as we travel back home to Nebraska (no, I’m not driving as I write).

This morning, a small group of us got up early to take photographs at sunrise.  It was a beautiful morning, but there was enough breeze to make insect and flower photography pretty tricky.  Did we give up?  No!  We are Prairie Ecologists!  (Plus, we had dared each other to meet in the hotel lobby at 5:15 am and no one wanted to back down from that).

Despite the wind, we managed to enjoy the morning,  and even got a few nice photographs out of it.  Here are two of mine:

Spider on web before sunrise.  The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie - Minnesota.

I took approximately 500,0o0 shots of this spider as it and its web bounced around in the pre-sunrise breeze.  Two of them came out relatively sharp.  This is one of those two.  The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie – Minnesota.

Stiff sunflower (Helanthus pauciflorus) at sunrise.  The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie - Minnesota.

The peaceful appearance of this stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) silhouetted against the rising sun is merely an illusion.  In reality, the sunflower was waving back and forth like a maniacal metronome while I tried desperately to push the shutter release just at the moment it came into focus.  I actually managed to catch it several times, and this was my favorite of the batch.

P.S. For you kids out there, a metronome is an old fashioned device that had a kind of upside down clock pendulum that rocked back and forth while it ticked.  Music teachers used to use them in vain attempts to get their students to keep a steady rhythm while playing “The Entertainer” on the piano.  Now there are smartphone apps that do the same thing.  …I hope kids still have to learn that song – they deserve it.

P.P.S. A clock pendulum is what used to help clocks keep time before…oh, nevermind, go ask your grandmother.  

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Grassland Restoration Network – Minnesota Style

I am writing this from Moorhead, Minnesota, where our crew is attending the annual Grassland Restoration Network workshop.  This year’s workshop is being hosted by The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie office and others working on prairie restoration in northwestern Minnesota.  We spent most of the first day touring Bluestem Prairie, roughly 6,000 acres owned and managed by the Conservancy.  There are some gorgeous prairies here, and they have been doing a lot of restoration work to convert cropland back to prairie in and amongst the remnant prairies.  Much of that restoration has been accomplished through contracts with Prairie Restorations Inc. (PRI), a private company that has been doing prairie restoration since the 1970’s.  Yesterday evening, we toured the local facilities of PRI and saw their impressive array of equipment and seed production plots.

Leadplant and wildflowers.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

Sunrise light at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie near Glyndon, Minnesota.

I’ll write more in the next week or two about what we’re learning here, but for today I’ll just mention one big theme that continues to dominate much of the discussion at these workshops: It’s not the seed harvest or planting that limits our capacity to do good restoration work, it’s the management of invasives after planting.   As we’ve visited site after site over the years, that topic has remained at the top of everyone’s concerns.

There are basically two ways the issue manifests itself.  First, we tend to rush the restoration process and not prepare the site in a way that will help prevent future weed issues.  The worst issues usually occur when we are trying to eliminate existing vegetation other than annual crops.  Too often, we don’t spend enough time eliminating the grasses or other invasives – and their seed bank – before planting our prairie vegetation.  As a result, new plantings have an abundance of weeds that are difficult to control, especially because they’re now mixed in with the new plants we are trying to establish.  Investing in several years of herbicide, disking, fire, and/or other combinations of treatments before planting can help eliminate most of the pre-existing vegetation and greatly improve the quality of new restoration sites.

Grassland Restoration Network tour.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

Surrounded by leadplant in a restored prairie, workshop participants listened to Brian Winter of The Nature Conservancy describe how the site was prepared and planted.

When converting cropland to prairie, many of weed issues have already been dealt with by years of cultivation and weed control, but there are still steps we can take to help deal with potential future invasive species problems.  The biggest of those is the elimination of as many invasive species populations around the borders of the restoration site as possible.  Investing in the removal of Siberian elm trees, smooth brome, or other nasty plants from field edges can make future weed control efforts much more manageable.

The second major way we get into trouble with invasive species in restoration efforts is that we plant more acres than we can manage weeds on.  This often happens because of funding – we get grant money to help pay for restoration work, but that funding usually comes with an aggressive timeline.  We commit ourselves to planting a lot of acres quickly and then later realize we’ve just created a massive amount of land that requires invasive species control – which our grant funding doesn’t cover.  In some cases we also get into trouble when we start feeling good about our ability to harvest large amounts of seed and figure we should plant as many acres as we can.  …and then the weeds show up.

Not all restoration plantings have major invasive species issues, but it’s not always possible to know up front what species are going to be a problem.  If bird’s foot trefoil, Siberian elm, or Canada thistle do show up, the best strategy is to get them taken care of when the patches are still small and easy to eliminate.  If we’re just dealing with small restored sites, that’s usually feasible.  However, when we’re trying to deal with many acres of young restoration plantings and there are small patches of weeds throughout each of them, the problem can become quickly insurmountable.

Grassland Restoration Network tour.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

One of the major management issues at Bluestem prairie is shrub encroachment – especially by willows.  They are experimenting with a combination of fire, mowing, and wick application of herbicides.  The biggest issue, however, is the number of acres that need treatment.  Even if a successful formula for control is developed, it still has to be applied across a very large area.

Invasive species will always be a problem for prairie managers, on both restored and remnant grasslands.  However, there are some steps we can take to make our job easier in restored prairies.  First, it’s important to take the time to prepare the site ahead of time by eliminating potential invasive problems before planting.  Second, regardless of the pressure to move quickly, we have to set the number of acres we restore each year based on our ability to deal with invasive species, not the amount of money or seed we have to do the work.

Ok, time to get back to the workshop.  I learned a lot yesterday and hope to learn even more today.  Most of all, it’s always inspiring to see how other people are tackling many of the same issues we’re dealing with at home.  Even if we can’t provide each other with answers to our thorniest problems, we can at least commiserate about them!

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Photo of the Week – July 16, 2015

Scaly blazingstar (Liatris squarrosa) is just starting to bloom in the Platte River Prairies.  It has beautiful and intricate flowers with very long anthers protruding from its tiny blossoms.  At least it usually does…

Blazing star (Liatris squarrosa)  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Scaly blazingstar (Liatris squarrosa). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I was photographing some blazingstar flowers earlier this week when I saw one with a grasshopper sitting on it.  It sat still long enough for me to get a few photos of it.

Grasshopper on blazing star (Liatris squarrosa)  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A grasshopper standing innocently(?) on top of scaly blazingstar.

Only when I looked the above photo on my computer screen did I notice the absence of most of the long white anthers I’d seen on other flowers.  Surely, I thought, it’s not a coincidence that the grasshopper is present but the anthers are not…?

Grasshopper on blazing star (Liatris squarrosa)  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The grasshopper eating one of the long anthers.

Sure enough, looking back through my other images, I found one of the grasshopper eating an anther.  Caught red-handed!  (So to speak.)

Just because they are called “grass”hoppers doesn’t mean that’s all they eat.  In fact, many grasshoppers eat pollen and other parts of wildflowers.  Some are fairly specialized, while others are generalists in terms of the plant species they feed on.  Even among the grass-feeding grasshoppers, there is great variety in which grass species and which parts of those grasses each species eats.

For the sake of the scaly blazing star (and our seed harvest efforts this year), I hope at least some of the anthers survive uneaten so the plants can make seed.  As more flowers open, maybe their abundance will be more than the grasshoppers can keep up with.  At least in past years, we’ve usually gotten pretty good seed harvests from blazingstar, so I’m not too worried.

Just interested…

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If You Were a Bee…

During the past two Mondays, I had the opportunity to help out with Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Summer Orientation About Rivers (SOAR) program.  It’s the best summer day camp I’ve ever been involved with, and my kids, my wife, and I have all enjoyed being part of it over many years.  This year, I was tasked with talking to kids (about 8 kids at a time) about the value of biological diversity in ecosystems.

Dip netting for aquatic animals at SOAR 2010.  Daycamp for kids put on by Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Day 1 at Lake Mary, near Hordville, Nebraska.

Dip netting for aquatic animals at SOAR back in 2010.

I needed an activity that would keep the kids engaged for about 15 minutes and send them away with an appreciation of why prairies need to have so many species in order to function well.  With the help of my wife, I came up with a pretty good plan.  Then I refined it a little each time I presented it to a new group of kids.  It turned out well enough that I decided I’d share it here as well – I hope it helps you think about the same concepts I was trying to pass on to the kids.

I started off by talking about ordering food at a fast food restaurant.  When you walk in, you go up to the counter and order food from the cashier.  What happens if that cashier is sick that day?  Do you just go home hungry?  No, of course not – the restaurant has more than one person who can do that job, so someone else fills in and you still get to eat.  Well, the same kind of thing happens in nature.  Each organism in a prairie plays a certain role – it has a job to do – but if one species is unavailable (because of a disease outbreak, bad weather, etc.) other species can usually fill in and cover for it.

Next, I asked the kids for an example of a prairie species that plays an important role.  Most of the time, someone said “bees”, which was perfect.  If not, I provided that answer after discussing the ones they came up with.  We talked briefly about the importance of pollination, the number of bee species found in many prairies (often 50-100 species), and that most of those bee species are “solitary bees”, meaning a single female trying to build and care for a nest of eggs.  That female digs a tunnel in the ground (usually), lays an egg and then collects enough pollen and nectar to feed the larva until it becomes an adult.  She seals the egg and food into a cell and then starts another cell on top of it.

This

This tiny bee was visiting purple prairie clover outside our field headquarters yesterday.  Its nest must have been fairly close by because an insect that size can’t travel very far.

I then showed them a couple sweat bees, and we talked about how bees that small couldn’t fly very far from their nest.  Then I had them look at a circle of flags I’d put up around us (a circle with about a 50 meter radius) and told them that for some very small bees, a circle that size was basically their entire universe with their nest in the center.  Within that circle, a female bee would have to go out every day and find enough food to both stay alive and provision her eggs.

Next I split the kids into groups of two or three and handed them a little bag with a wildflower in it.  All of the flowers in the bags could be found within our circle of flags, but some were much more abundant than others.  I told the kids they were solitary bees and their job was to spend the next five minutes counting the number of flowers (blossoms, not plants) within the circle that matched the one in their bag.  Off they went!

After five minutes, I called them back in so we could talk about their search.  Some of the kids struggled to find any flowers that matched their sample, while others came back with counts of between 100 and 200 blossoms.  This led to a great discussion about the importance of plant diversity to bees.  If a bee relied on only one plant species and it wasn’t very common within the “universe” around its nest, it would probably starve – especially because it would be competing with other pollinators for the pollen and nectar from those few flowers.  Even if the bee’s flower species was really abundant, it might only bloom for a few weeks, so once it was gone, the bee wouldn’t have anything left to eat.  However, if the bee’s universe contained lots of flower species it could feed from, the bee was likely to find enough food for itself and its eggs throughout its entire life.

What would this prairie look like through the eyes of a tiny bee trying to find food for itself and its eggs?

What would this prairie look like through the eyes of a tiny bee trying to find food for itself and its eggs?

To wrap up, I reinforced the point that bees rely on having lots of choices of plant species to feed on.  If one plant species is unavailable, there are others that can provide the food the insects need.  At the same time, most flowers also do best when there are lots of pollinator species available to visit them.  In a prairie with a diverse community of bees, it’s less of a big deal when a few of those bee species are low in abundance because of weather or disease.  Other bee species can cover for them and flowers still get pollinated.

Finally, I said that while we’d been talking about bees and flowers, biological diversity was important in many other ways as well.  Many herbivores need lots of different kinds of plants so they can find high quality food all year round.  A wide range of available prey species is important to predators.  And so on.  When a prairie, or other ecosystem, loses too many species, it’s just like a restaurant losing too many employees.  At some point, there’s no one left to cover for someone who gets sick, and the system breaks down.

Two quick asides:

1. The fast food restaurant example I used with the kids was not my first idea.  I actually started talking about bank tellers, and asked the kids what would happen if the bank teller was sick when you went to get money out of your account.  However, my wife helpfully pointed out that most kids have probably never met a bank teller since so many people do their banking electronically or through ATM machines…

2. The circular “universe” around a solitary bee nest has been a really useful idea for me over the last several years.  While the size of that circle varies quite a bit by bee species, the concept has changed the way I evaluate our prairie restoration and management.  When I walk around our prairies, I often stop and think about what a solitary bee would experience if it were nesting there.  If you’re in charge of a prairie, I’d encourage you to try it sometime – maybe it’ll be helpful to you as well.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo of the Week – July 9, 2015

Upright yellow coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), aka Mexican hat, is blooming all over the Platte River Prairies right now.  As with most showy flowers, the coneflowers are crawling with insects of many kinds.  I spent a fun half hour (31 minutes, to be exact) last week, trying to photograph as many of those insects as I could before I had to pop into our field headquarters for a meeting.

Bee on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Sweat bee (Halictus ligatus, I think) on upright prairie coneflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Bee and beetle on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The same sweat bee species on a different flower, this time joined by a small brown beetle.

Bee on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A different bee with the antennae of another insect beneath it.

Hover fly (Syrphid) on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

It took me a while to finally capture an image of one of these syrphid flies (hover flies).  They were a lot more skittish than the bees.

Long-horned beetle on upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera).  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Long-horned beetle feeding on pollen.

I wrote about long-horned beetles last summer after photographing them on the same flower species.  I think this one is Typocerus confluens, but I’m just guessing based on photos from last year.  You might remember from last year that adult long-horned beetles feed on flowers, but larvae are wood borers or subterranean root feeders.

Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A tiny katydid nymph.

Tree cricket nymph on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A tree cricket nymph.

As is always the case in prairies (and nature in general), the closer you look, the more you see.  The number of insect species feeding on this one flower (and, in some cases, pollinating it) is a great example of the complexity of life found in prairies.  Complexity leads to resilience because there are multiple species that can play fill similar roles.  If one species has a bad year, others will fill in for it.  That redundancy helps keep all systems functioning all the time.

Hurray for complexity!

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments