Miscellaneous Sightings

One of the best perks of my job is simply that I get to be outside enough to see a lot of interesting ecological phenomena.  Today, I thought I’d share a few vignettes from the last couple weeks.

Monarch caterpillar (finally) on common milkweed.

Last year, we set out to count monarch caterpillars on our sites, hoping to compare numbers between various management treatments.  We were stymied by the fact that there were almost no caterpillars to be found anywhere, let alone enough to make comparisons.  This year, I assumed the numbers would be better, but since finding eggs and caterpillars in May from the early migrants from Mexico that arrived this spring, I haven’t seen any caterpillars until this week.  And I only found one this week.  Whoopee.

Dodder flowers on Maximilian sunflower. Platte River Prairies.

Dodder is a fascinating parasitic plant that wraps its plastic twine-looking self around prairie plants like sunflowers and goldenrods and more.  Later in the season, the orange twine dries up and disappears, leaving only the fuzzy spirals of flower/seed heads on the stems of its host plants.  If you didn’t see both of them together, you might never guess the twine and fuzzy spirals were from the same plant.  This week, dodder is in transition, with both flowers and twine at the same time.

A male brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) perches high in the prairie, hoping to find and mate with an emerging queen of its species.

A few years ago, I found out about a fun behavior by male brown-belted bumblebees.  As colonies start producing queens for the next year, males spread out across the prairie and wait for those queens to enter the world.  The males sit on tall perches for hours, scanning for big females.  Once they see one, they (and all the other males who spot her) race to be the first to mate with her.  This week, they were at it again.  I’m really glad to have been clued into this really cool phenomenon.  Otherwise, I’d probably just see the bees and assume they were resting.

Finally, I’d like to thank those who helped with and attended our field day last Saturday.  The forecast didn’t look promising but the rain cleared out right before the event started and we ended up having fantastic weather.  The attendance was lower than hoped because of the forecast, but we still had people from at least 7 states and U.S. territories and we all learned a lot about prairie ecology and invertebrates.  Big thanks to presenters Julie Peterson of University of Nebraska Extension, Rae Powers of Xerces Society, and Sarah Bailey of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, along with Kayla Mollet and Katie Lamke from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Hey Ed, your mom caught a toad.

Julie Peterson (pink shirt, blue hat) shows attendees an insect.


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, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Miscellaneous Sightings

  1. Terry J Miesle says:

    Griseocolis and auricomis males seem to be the most pugnacious, chasing threats and rivals. I’ve even seen male auricomis chase goldfinch away from their Compass Plant perches. Their pose is alert and eager. It’s fun to see people watch them for the first time, because there is no mistaking what’s on their little bee minds.

    Dodder I knew nothing about, I’ll have to pay attention the next time I’m wandering around.

  2. Joanne says:

    Love the pictures and lessons you added. Monarch butterflies here, but no ‘pillars. This is the first year my 2 year old plant has hosted the actual butterfly so perhaps there is hope down the road.

  3. Paul Brewer says:

    Thanks as always Chris. That is the first time I have seen dodder flowers. I never spent enough time looking at dodder to see them. Nice photo!

  4. Ellen Rathbone says:

    I never would’ve thought dodder had a flower! Now I need to learn more about this “plant.”

  5. Hey Chris, how do you set up the blog so you send the post right to our email like this? Thx Suzanne


    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Suzanne, people who get posts via email subscribed by putting their email address into the ‘subscribe to this blog’ window near the top right of the blog site’s page. WordPress then automatically sends each post out to them.

  6. James McGee says:

    We had a long discussion about rope dodder at Stephen Packard’s site (Strategies for Stewards).


  7. Pingback: I see… Black and Yellow – Exploring Colour

  8. Hi Chris! The post on “black and yellow” is now online at https://exploringcolour.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/i-see-black-and-yellow/ Thanks for allowing me to use your photo of the monarch caterpillar and I do hope you will visit.


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