Sunflowers are seen by some people as big beautiful flowers, and by others as big ugly weeds. Regardless of aesthetic opinions, however, sunflowers appear to be pulling their weight, and more, in the ecology of the Nebraska sandhills prairies this year. After a long dry year, there’s not much green, let alone blooming, in the sandhills right now. The biggest and most obvious exception is the plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).
While most other plants have given up on this year’s growth because of the very low soil moisture, these annual sunflowers are acting like it’s party time. I imagine the long taproot helps the plant get deep moisture, but its root system isn’t any bigger or deeper than many other sand prairie plants, which sit brown and withered in the surrounding landscape. Of course, being annual plants, plains sunflowers don’t really have the option that perennials do to just shut down for the remainder of the season during stressful years. Once a plains sunflower seed germinates, it’s got exactly one growing season to flower and make seeds before it dies. If it had a motto, it would be something like “Live like there’s no next year!”
There are a lot of insect and other species that should be awfully thankful for the ostentatious blooming of the sunflowers this year. Sunflowers are probably the only thing keeping most pollinators alive at the moment, for example. That’s great for those pollinator species, of course, but also for the predators and parasitoids that live of those insects.
Ants have their own reasons for appreciating sunflowers – largely independent of the big showy flowers. Sunflowers produce and excrete sweet sticky sap (known as extra-floral nectar) that attracts hungry ants. It’s thought that attracting ants in this way might help repel herbivorous insects that might otherwise feed on the sunflower’s leaves and stems. Ants are not predators to mess with if you’re a hungry caterpillar or other plant-eating insect…
You can read more about prairie ants here.
While sunflowers are filling an important role this time of year, that importance might actually increase this fall and winter. The seed crop for birds and other wildlife is going to be pretty paltry this year. Sunflower seeds are always a favorite of migrating and wintering animals, but this year, they will be especially critical. So – party like there’s no tomorrow, sunflowers. And, on behalf of the inhabitants of the sandhills prairies… thank you!
Great photos and post. Enjoyed it a lot.
Sunflowers are a favorite of mine but the information you shared just makes me love them even more. Thank you for this!
That’s a lot of sunflower pictures.
Do cuckoo wasps sting people, and if they do, does it hurt very much?
John, that’s a good question – they have stingers, so I assume they can sting people, but I don’t know how much it hurts. Give it a try, and let me know! : )
Do you find ants enjoying one species of sunflower over another?
Ants, in order of appearance;
cornfield ant – Lasius sp.
black mound-building ant – Formica subsericea
red prairie ant – Myrmica americana
black mound-building ant – Formica subsericea
MrILTA – I’ve noticed definite preferences by ants for annual Helianthus & H. maximilianii. Of course, any species with aphids or membracids on it will do.
Ooops, missed the one in the first picture, also a cornfield ant – Lasius sp., most likely L. neoniger.
Oh yeah, and … It looks to me like that cockoo wasp is also enjoying a bit of extrafloral nectar. Its mouthparts and antennae are directed to the surface of the bract, and its legs are more in walking positions than one of repose.
There was recently (Aug 11) a nationwide citizen science event related to a project on insects that visit sunflowers: http://www.greatsunflower.org/
And a table of insects that feed on sunflowers, i.e., actually damage them and may be pests of commercial sunflowers, derived from the annual wild species:
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B.t.w., I think the posture of the cuckoo wasp indicates it is lapping up extra-floral nectar, like its relatives, the ants.
The pic w all the ants on it are because there are some mealybugs on the flower buds and the ants are farming them for the honeydew they secrete.Awesome photography!
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That is interesting to me because I have a school project due this wendsday and we arnt fineshed so this is good !!!!!! It’s on the grass land!!! Yay!!!! 🤗☹️ BOO TO PROJECTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Here is beautiful and awesome sunflower images and pictures. Nice platform which realize, we are in a valley of sunflowers.