Photo of the Week – May 19, 2017

Over the last five years or so, I’ve been learning a lot more about pollinators, and that has changed the way I look at prairies.  As I walk around our prairies, I often think about how I would see the site if I was a bee trying to find enough nectar and pollen to both survive and provision my eggs.  Often, our prairies are full of flowers, but April and May can be pretty tough months.  The flowers that are blooming tend to be small and scattered, and I can walk a lot of steps without finding anything.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) was a welcome sight for this orange sulphur butterfly after its northward migration this spring.

The lack of available flowers in the spring is not necessarily a new thing.  Spring weather is unpredictable, and investing resources in blooming early means risking a late freeze or (in some cases) flooding rains that can scuttle the whole process.  However, many prairies today have fewer spring flowers than they used to, and restored prairies (crop fields converted back to prairie vegetation) are often low on spring flowers because finding seed for those species is difficult.  Flowering shrubs can help make up for a scarcity of spring wildflowers, but they are also less common these days than they used to be.

Shrubs like this wild plum (Prunus americana) can provide critically important pollinator resources when few wildflowers are blooming. This photo was taken back in mid-April.

Prairie managers and gardeners can both play important roles in helping to provide spring flowers for pollinators.  In prairies, allowing shrubs to grow in some areas of the landscape can benefit pollinators in the spring, but also help out increasingly rare shrub-nesting birds during the summer.  Thinking about spring flower availability might also help inform prairie management plans, and enhancing restored, or even remnant prairies, to add missing spring wildflowers might be beneficial as well.  For gardeners, adding native spring wildflowers can be both aesthetically pleasing and extremely important for the bees and other pollinators in your neighborhood.

By the time this monarch emerges as an adult in a few weeks, there should be plenty of wildflowers available for it. Hopefully, it will be competing for nectar against a number of bees and other pollinators that made it through a tough spring season.

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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.
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7 Responses to Photo of the Week – May 19, 2017

  1. Terry Miesle says:

    This year I tried to get out earlier, to see the woodland flowers like Spring Beauty, Bloodroot, Toothwort etc. The early bees were all over those. Here in Northern IL there were some maples blooming in February, I’m not sure whether any bees were active quite yet. Willows and maples were full of insects, I’m learning how important all these plants are, and how they stagger blooming cycles to get the attention of insects. In our yard the early ground ivy, dandelions and violets were consistent draws as well.
    Thanks for focusing on these early flowers. What kind of early-blooming plants would you like to get established? I think it might be easier for savanna terrain, with the protected woodland flowers.

    • Patrick says:

      Garden and native pasque flowers attract many pollinators. If you live in the northern tier states in the Midwest (upper half of Iowa, NE and Illinois), you should be able to grow them. Chris, USDA has Butler county listed as having native pasque flowers. Ever tried growing them on your restoration sites?

  2. Linda Grieve says:

    Do you plant Camassia bulbs for early spring? Would they survive a burn? What are tough early wildflowers?

  3. I was thinking about early spring flowers from an aesthetic perspective as I add diversity to my prairie at home and help in an effort to landscape a cemetery with native flowers. From the bees point of view is a great way to think about it. Thanks. But what is the short list of beautiful early bloomers you would recommend?

  4. Willows are an excellent source of early flowers for bees. Our shelterbelts hum with activity each spring. Wild bees and honey bees, and warblers looking for aphids/insects.

  5. James McGee says:

    The picture of Senecio (Packera) plattensis in this post has cauline leaves like I expect from this species. I wonder why the picture labelled as this species in your last post has such different cauline leaves. Are they different species? Does anyone know?

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