Photo of the Week – July 1, 2016

I often tell people, “I’m not an insect expert, I’m an insect enthusiast.”  I don’t spend nearly enough time immersed in the vagaries of invertebrate taxonomy and biology to know much more than some interesting trivia about most species.  This week provided a couple great examples of my lack of expertise.

Early in the week, I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  While walking one morning, I noticed a longhorn beetle on a white prairie clover flower.  I felt pretty good about recognizing it as a longhorn beetle, and was even able to remember part of the genus (“Typo something, I think”).  I also noticed a small weevil on the same flower.   “Cool!”

Long

Longhorn beetle (Typocerus confluens or Typocerus octonotatus) and a weevil on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A few steps away, I saw another white prairie clover flower, and sure enough, there was a longhorn beetle on that one too.  And another weevil.  This second longhorn beetle had a different pattern on its back from the first one, so I assumed it was a second species.  “Nice,” I thought, there’s a good example of insect diversity – two different beetle species feeding on the same flower.

long

Another longhorn beetle on another white prairie clover flower.

A few steps away from that second flower was a third one, and it had a longhorn beetle on it as well.  The third beetle looked different than both the first and the second ones.  (Oh, and there was a weevil on the third flower too.)

beetle

A third longhorn beetle.

As I walked away from the white prairie clover patch, I started composing a blog post in my head about insect diversity.  Something about how important it is to have lots of different species within each group of animals so that if one species suffers from a disease or some other malady, there are others that can cover the role it plays in the natural world.  Blah blah blah.

When I got back to WiFi, I emailed my longhorn beetle photos to Ted MacRae (an ACTUAL insect expert) who is generous enough to help me with identification of beetle photos.  (Check out his fantastic blog here.)  I asked him what species these three beetles were so I could name them in my upcoming blog post.  When I got his reply, my blog post idea went out the window.  They weren’t three different species at all – they were all the same one!  (By the way, Ted couldn’t tell for sure from my photos which of two possible species they were.  He said he’d need to see the “last ventral abdominal segment” of each to be sure.)

Now, how is an insect enthusiast supposed to keep up when three beetles of the same species don’t even have the common courtesy to look like each other??   I’m ok with the occasional oddball.  With flowers, for example, it’s not uncommon to see one white flower out of a big patch of purple spiderwort or vervain flowers.  Fine.  Genetics provides a few quirks now and then.  But I only saw three longhorn beetles, and none of them had the same color pattern on their back??  I give up.

Oh, and the weevils?  Don’t even ask.  I don’t know.  They all look the same to my eye, but what does that mean?  They’re probably three different species that just happen to be feeding on the same flower.  That would be about right.  Geesh.

So then yesterday, I was in our Platte River Prairies and noticed a crab spider on a black-eyed Susan flower.  It was a pretty spider (you have to admit that) so I stopped and photographed it.

crab spider

Crab spider on black-eyed Susan flower.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

After I photographed the spider, I gave the other flowers nearby a quick look, and sure enough – there were crab spiders on several of those too.  Now, here’s the thing: the other crab spiders might have been different species, or they might not.  I’m not even going to guess.  They had different patterns on their abdomens but were generally the same color.  The first one was much broader, but that’s likely because she’s a female, and that’s how it works with spiders.  The other two might be different species or they could be from different growth stages and the patterns might be different for that reason.  Or, apparently, THEY COULD JUST LOOK DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON OTHER THAN TO BE CONFUSING.

crab spider

Another crab spider.  

spider

One more crab spider

I could email photos of the crab spiders to a friend who occasionally identifies them for me, but I’m not going to.  I’m choosing instead to simply admire the aesthetics of these fascinating little creatures, and appreciate some general trivia about crab spiders (for example, their front two sets of legs are extra long for capturing ambushed prey, and some species of crab spiders can change color to match the flower they sit on).  After all, I’m an insect enthusiast, not an insect expert (or a spider expert).  So there.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Photo of the Week – July 1, 2016

  1. Jacob says:

    Chris,

    I enjoyed your photos this week. What camera and lense do you use.

    Jamie Jacob

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Jamie. I use a Nikon D300s and 105mm macro lens. The lens is much more important than the camera…

      • DL says:

        @Jamie If you are on a budget, I wouldn’t rule out a high end point and shoot, though. They keep getting better and better, and although I haven’t used one in a while, even many years ago you could get pretty nice quality macro images from them. Macro lenses for SLRs are so expensive!

  2. Pat says:

    Love the spider’s face in the last photo. I think he’s as interested in you as you are in him.

  3. Jean Smith says:

    Your last paragraph says it all :-) Here’s to enthusiasts who enjoy the world of insects and encourage them – say with wildlife friendly gardens – to go about their important business of the day (or night).

  4. Jim Pyrzynski says:

    Chris.
    Here is a site (maybe you know of it) that I used when I took a entomology course at the community college last summer.
    http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740

  5. Not the blog post you had in mind, but an interesting story nonetheless!

  6. Very instructive, thanks! Every once in a while it is good to have a colleague pull oneself out of the Species Obsession Syndrome (SOS) nosedive. Taxonomy is undoubtedly important, but having the “right” identification (as far as the prevailing knowledge allows) ain’t always the point.

  7. Paul says:

    Almost makes you wonder if their might be some mutual or commensal relationship between the weevil and the beetle. It would be interesting to sit and watch them for a few days and observe how they are using the parts of the clover.

  8. I’m with you here, Chris. And God bless the experts who put up with our emailed photos!

  9. Ann R says:

    “. . . Or, apparently, THEY COULD JUST LOOK DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON OTHER THAN TO BE CONFUSING . . .” Kind of like the human race? ;)

  10. Rex Peterson says:

    It occurs to me that you might have a problem with blondes, brunettes and redheads all being human.

  11. Terrence Cox says:

    Hi, Chris. I enjoy your posts even though I don’t live in prairie-land. I’m an insect enthusiast also, no pro. The insects are generally associated with certain plants, and we can learn from their habits and needs, etc. We have several longhorn beetles, including the cactus longhorn beetle, here in s. AZ. They can be very destructive and larvae eat the cactus from inside out. It’s good to know about their life cycles, etc, and if they have any benefits associated with.

  12. DL says:

    Wow! Did not know there were beetles called longhorns. Very cool, and great capture.

  13. DL says:

    “He said he’d need to see the “last ventral abdominal segment” of each to be sure.” lol. I don’t know how entomologists do it. But yeah, sometimes it’s nice not to know everything about something. It gives you a different perspective from which to appreciate it that you can’t really ever get back once knowledge starts coming in.

  14. Nate Walker says:

    “I could email photos of the crab spiders to a friend who occasionally identifies them for me, but I’m not going to. I’m choosing instead to simply admire the aesthetics of these fascinating little creatures, and appreciate some general trivia about crab spiders…”

    I think so often we get obsessed about what a critter or plant is called that we fail to simply admire its beauty and place in the landscape. It’s good once in a while to just sit back and enjoy the sense of wonder that comes with the incredible complexity and variety in the parts that make up the land.

    Your pictures are so detailed and generally wonderful that I can enjoy the sense of wonder that comes with them, so, thank you for sharing.

  15. Robert Cox says:

    Fantastic. *Luv* your crab spider.

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