Photo of the Week – July 20, 2017

Wow, this was a hot week.  About the time I stopped hiking hills and collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve yesterday, my truck’s thermometer said it was 111 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sure, it was really hot, but I figured the truck was probably estimating a little high until Kim said she looked at the official weather report from Valentine (nearby town) and it said the high recorded temperature there was 112 degrees.  That’s pretty hot for northern Nebraska.

One of the reasons I was trudging through the hills in the heat was to look for lizards, but I’m pretty sure they were smarter than I was and were hanging out in cool shady places, because I didn’t see any after about 11 am.  The insects in the prairie seemed less affected by the heat, however, and I saw lots of them, including quite a few gorgeous red assassin bugs.

These assassin bugs didn’t seem to be affected by the extreme heat. I spotted them near where I parked my truck on a hill and they were still there over an hour later when I finished walking my transects.

Wasps also seemed to be particularly abundant this week, especially on the blossoms of sand milkweed and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed looking at the diversity of wasp species, but my enthusiasm diminished very suddenly when one of them (I’m pretty sure) stung me in the back.  I think it must have gotten itself wedged between my pack and my back.  It wasn’t MY fault it got stuck there, but I now have a large ugly welt anyway.  Man, that hurt!  A lot.

The day before I got stung, I spotted a wasp (probably not the same one) in a patch of bare sand, and thought about photographing it.  I glanced down at my bag just long enough to extract my camera, but when I looked back the wasp had moved a few feet and was now grappling with one of those red assassin bugs.

Just because the wasp is on top of the assassin bug doesn’t mean it was getting the upper hand, as you’ll soon see.

Actually, grappling is probably a misleading term because it looked like a pretty one-sided battle.  After a half minute or so, the assassin bug flipped the wasp over and it was clear who was winning.

Getting stung by a wasp on a super hot day wasn’t fun, but this wasp was having a worse day than I was having.  You can see the assassin bug’s proboscis inserted into the abdomen of the wasp, and the bug’s toxin is apparently pretty fast-acting because the wasp was done twitching by this point.

I photographed the scene quickly and then got up to leave.  I must have moved too suddenly for the assassin bug’s liking, though, because it took off and flew a few yards away, leaving the wasp behind.  Even after I kept moving away and left the area alone for a few minutes, the assassin bug didn’t return, so I came back and took one final photo of the dead wasp.  I’m hoping maybe the bug returned to finish its meal later.  I feel bad…

The dead wasp.

I think the wasp pictured above is a male, though I’m not confident of that.  I don’t see a stinger, anyway.  While I was driving home yesterday (with the air conditioner blasting pleasantly), I wondered to myself whether or not assassin bugs can tell male wasps from female wasps.  Apparently wasps can tell the difference, so it doesn’t seem completely crazy that other insects could as well.  It would sure be handy to know whether you’re about to attack a stinger-wielding female or an unarmed male…

Everyone thinks about this kind of thing while they drive, right?

This wasp hung out on a yucca pod just long enough for me to photograph it.

I’m definitely a generalist, rather than a specialist, when it comes to ecology and natural history.  I know a little bit about a lot of species rather than a lot about a selected group.  If I had to narrow myself down, though, wasps would be a group of organisms I’d like to study.  I mean look how cool the blue one above is!  Or maybe I could study assassin bugs.  They’re pretty amazing too.  Or moths…  Or grasshoppers…  Or flea beetles?

Maybe I’d better stick to being a generalist.

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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.

8 Responses to Photo of the Week – July 20, 2017

  1. shoreacres says:

    Your photos are great, and it really was interesting to follow the course of events for the wasp and the bug. Stories like this always remind me of the first time I read Annie Dillard’s story about the giant water bug that ate the frog, down at Tinker Creek. That image haunted me for a good while.

    I can be so slow sometimes. I’ve been working on a blog post about a visit last fall to Monument Rocks in Kansas, and I’ve been reading about the geology there: specifically, the Niobrara chalk. When I read Niobrara Valley Preserve, it suddenly clicked. Rivers and rocks don’t stop at state lines!

    It took me a long time to sort it out, but the first person to give a good description of the Smoky Hill member of the Niobrara chalk was Henry Englemann — the youngest sibling of the esteemed George Englemann!

  2. Linda says:

    Not crab spiders? I thought they’d be the first on the list!
    (The blue wasp is absolutely gorgeous!)

  3. steve clubine says:

    Having been stung by many wasps and some assassin bugs, I definitely prefer neither but the assassin bug was more painful and memorable. (Don’t put a bare hand around a post or tree without checking the backside first!)

  4. Terry Cox says:

    You can be a generalist naturalist and still specialize in something. I specialize mostly in herpetology; but I like insects, especially butterflies. We have a wasp in s. Arizona called a tarantula hawk. Don’t ever want to get stung by one of those. They say it’s worse than getting bit by a rattler.

  5. Karen H says:

    Oh the hazards of being a nosey Prairie Ecologists!

  6. Patrick says:

    Is there a rating scale for wasp stings? Those big cicada killers look like they could deliver a powerful sting, but I wonder whether that would be any worse than a sting from an ordinary yellow jacket.

    • Those danged yellow jackets! What about a velvet ant with a second name of “cow-killer ant?” They are parasitoid wasps. I think I read that it can’t actually kill a cow, but the sting is so bad, you’d think it might! I saw one in KY a few years ago. Super excellent! Unfortunately it was pre-iPhone and I could not get a good picture.

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