Well, Of Course There Are Multiple Species!

Ok, look. I frequently explain to people that I’m not an entomologist. I’m an ecologist and an insect enthusiast. Most of what I know about insects and other invertebrates comes through my photography. My eye is drawn to small creatures and once I’ve photographed one I try to learn what I can about it. Please remember this context as you read on.

One of the great things about prairies, and all of nature, is that the more you learn, the more there is to know. As a kid, you become aware of the existence of such wonders as butterflies, birds, and bees. Later, you realize there are lots of different kinds of butterflies and birds, each with its own color patterns and life strategies. If you’re lucky and hang out with the right people, you might even learn that there are many different species of bees in the world, most of which don’t make honey, serve a queen, or do a funny little dance to communicate to their sisters.

I am both lucky and hang out with the right people. As such, I’m not only aware of the diversity among bees, I also know how rich in species other insect groups are – especially groups like flies and beetles. When I see a robber fly, I don’t immediately assume it’s a species I’ve seen before, even if it looks similar, because I know there are lots of options that can look alike.

As a result of all that, I am at a complete loss to explain why, until 5 months ago, I didn’t ever consider the possibility that milkweed longhorn beetles might come in different flavors. I photograph these gorgeous red-with-black-spots creatures frequently because they are easy to spot on milkweed plants and fairly tolerant of a camera. Their long antennae make for some fun photo compositions, especially when I look at them face-to-face.

A face-to-face look at a milkweed longhorn beetle and its fantastic antennae.

Back in late June of this year, I was enjoying some early morning light at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. As per usual, I was searching through the prairie for flowers and insects to photograph and having a great time. While exploring, I came across a sand milkweed plant (Asclepias arenaria) with a milkweed longhorn beetle feeding on it. There was something weird about the beetle, though. Instead of being the bright red color I was used to, it was covered in dense pale hairs. Whoa…

A pale-haired milkweed longhorn milkweed on sand milkweed at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

It was at that moment – more than thirty years after I started studying and photographing prairies – that I first realized there might be more than one species of milkweed longhorn beetles. I nearly slapped myself. If there were two milkweed longhorn beetle species, there had to be more. Sure enough, when I checked out Bugguide.net, there were 14 species listed. After some more reading, I learned that there are about 24 species found across North and Central America.

Well, of course there are.

Later, I pulled up all my milkweed longhorn beetle photos and scanned through them. I nearly slapped myself again. In many cases, the only photo I took of an individual beetle was from the front (because those antennae are so danged attractive from that angle). As a result, most of my photos didn’t show the spots on the thorax and wing coverings that help distinguish one species from another. Normally, when I photograph insects, I go for the ‘artsy’ shot, but also try to get a photo that shows the full body so I can try to identify the species later. Since my feeble brain hadn’t considered the possibility of multiple species of milkweed longhorns, I’d failed to capture diagnostic features in many cases.

Based on the photos I’ve taken that actually show enough to be useful for identification, I can only identify two species. The first is Tetraopes tetrophthalmus, the red milkweed beetle. It’s definitely the most common species in eastern Nebraska, where its favorite plant (common milkweed – Asclepias syriaca) lives. While there are several other species with a similar appearance, the red milkweed beetle has two more spots than those other species. That makes it easy to identify. Assuming you have photos that show the spots.

Left: Tetraopes tetrophthalmus in Aurora, Nebraska. Right: Tetraopes annulatus at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

The second species is the pale-haired one I photographed at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, which appears to be either Tetraopes annulatus or T. pilosus (my money is on T. annulatus, but remember what I said about enthusiast versus entomologist).

Now, here’s what’s really frustrating. As I looked through my old photos, I found another shot I’d taken of that same pale fuzzy species. SEVEN YEARS EARLIER. Did I not notice the color?? I could have been spending the last seven years paying closer attention to milkweed longhorn beetles and appreciating their diversity. I could also have made sure to photograph them from useful angles to see how many species are hanging out in the prairies I love.

Oh well. I know now, and I’ll be looking much more closely at the spots on milkweed longhorn beetles next year. I’m excited to see if I can find some of the other species that are possible in this area. I know at least one other species occurs nearby because when I was poking around online, I checked out the iNaturalist records for this area and saw that my friend Sarah Bailey (with Prairie Plains Resource Institute) had submitted a photo of Tetraopes quinquemaculatus she’d taken at Gjerloff Prairie – just a few miles north of my house. It doesn’t bother me at all that Sarah has known about these other species while I was blindly ignorant. Not at all.

But you’d better believe I’ll be trying to find T. quinquemaculatus next year.

You know, for science.

Why does all this matter? In some ways, it doesn’t. You and I can both enjoy the charming face and long antennae of a milkweed longhorn beetle without knowing its official name. Similarly, we can admire the hunting prowess of a robber fly or the gorgeous colors of a butterfly without identifying them to species. However, being able to recognize that one robber fly or butterfly is different from another can make a prairie dramatically more interesting. When admiring clothing, food, or just about anything else, we tend to appreciate diversity, even if we don’t know the name of a particular color tone or spice.

Beyond aesthetics, recognizing differences between species has practical value too. It’s important for me to be able to distinguish between various plant species so I can see how a prairie plant community is responding to management or other factors. When all plants look the same, you can’t tell if one is thriving and another suffering and you can’t gauge how many species are present. The same is true for insects. Whether it’s a butterfly, robber fly, or milkweed longhorn beetle, distinguishing one species from another makes it possible to quantify diversity and the responses of species and communities to stresses. Sometimes those responses are too subtle or variable to catch, but drastic changes in population sizes or the disappearance of a once common species can be vital clues to land managers. The more species we recognize, the more we can pay attention to, and the better we’ll be able to understand and monitor our sites.

I don’t lose sleep over what I don’t know. Instead, I try to sustain my curiosity so I keep learning. I also try to compare notes with others (like Sarah Bailey) who pay attention to different species or interactions than I do. Talking to them broadens my perspective and makes me a more effective land manager and naturalist.

I can joke about wanting to slap myself when I realize I’ve been missing something right in front of my face, but that kind of thing happens all the time. It’s impossible to become familiar with all the species in a prairie, let alone an entire region. We’re all missing lots of things right in front of us. The key is to keep looking for them.

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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.

11 thoughts on “Well, Of Course There Are Multiple Species!

  1. This is one of the best things I’ve read in recent months! Thank you so much for your honesty (boy could I relate). And for your clear explication of why properly identifying similar species matters. One of the reasons I started my own website profiling the living organisms of the Pacific Northwest was to force myself to look more closely at each one, rather than just going for the interesting photo. Thank you!

  2. True enough! When I was in my doctoral program a couple of my better instructors often said that the times that you know you are really learning is when you realize how much more you don’t know. It is a great motivating thought.

  3. I love this post Chris – and can relate to both the shock and joy of discovering new species in photos that are years old. I’m curious how you tag/organize your photos to even give yourself the option of finding a photo of a longhorn milkeed beetle from years ago? I use Adobe Bridge and have basically recreated a taxonomic tree of species names that I tag individual photos with. It works for most purposes but I’ve always wondered if alternative systems might exist. Cheers!

    • Hey Jacob! Great to hear from you again. I’m not always a strictly organized person but I’m forced to be with photos.

      I have two methods of organization that are both helpful. The first is that I enter metadata into every photo, which makes it searchable. Adobe Bridge is ok, but I highly recommend Photo Mechanic. It’s a little pricey ($230) but I can’t imagine life without it. It’s the best browser I’ve found (quickly sorting and marking photos that are good – sharp and well-composed – vs. not good and then re-sorting them to just look at the good ones and cull again, etc.). But more importantly, it makes adding metadata really easy because you can enter all the data for one image and then copy and paste that to the next image and the next, just changing the little things that might be different (changing the species name but keeping all the site data, etc.) for each image.

      Anyway, once I have metadata for each image, it’s searchable. The way I do that is just using Microsoft Windows. I put a low resolution jpg version of every image I have (any image good enough to enter metadata and do minor photo correcting work on) into a single folder. I can then search for key words by just typing something like ‘prairie clover’ or ‘beetle’ into the search tab on the folder. It works wonderfully and it’s easy. I did reach a point at which there were too many individual images in one folder and the search took way too long. What I did then was to put the older images in subfolder (called ‘older images’ because I’m super creative). For whatever reason, that fixed the problem. I can still search through all the images simultaneously because the search includes subfolders but the computer doesn’t feel as overwhelmed by the number of images.

      The second organizational system I use is a series of folders by topic. When I save photos after working on them, I give them a filename that includes that day’s date and then save a high resolution TIFF in a folder from that day’s shoot. But then I save a low res JPG of that image in two places. One is the massive folder I mentioned earlier that I use for key word searches. The other is a folder that fits the topic of that photo. I have folders for topics like prairie, research, restoration, wildflowers, invertebrates, birds, etc. And some of those folders have subfolders (invertebrates/grasshoppers, spiders, dragonflies, etc.). When I’m working on a presentation or blog post and want to find a photo of a dragonfly, it’s usually quick and easy to just go to my dragonfly folder and browse for one that fits the story. But if I want to see a photo of a bee on purple prairie clover, I’ll use the key word search method. If I need a high resolution version of that image, I can look at the file name and know which folder will have the TIFF version because it will be the folder with the same date as the filename.

      In the case of the milkweed longhorn, I went to my invertebrates folder and searched for ‘milkweed beetle’ and found all my images that matched that very quickly.

      I hope that helps! It’s a system that works for me but everyone obviously has to come up with whatever fits their particular needs.

      • Thanks for the insight Chris – this is super useful! I’ll have to check out Photo Mechanic: that is new to me. I didn’t realize you could search by keyword in Windows either – I’ve done that exclusively in Bridge.

        I also do a fair bit of organization in Windows folders, though I have few enough photos that I can get away with folders per season as opposed to per day. Nonetheless, I still get quite the backlog of untagged photos by the end of each year. It makes photo tagging the perfect activity for long winter nights!

  4. Thank you for your insights, AND the humor that accompanies them!

    I am involved in teaching the basics of botany. I tell the students that part of what inspired me to learn more about plants is that — The more I Learn, the more I See. The more I See, the more I Learn. This posting is a great example of that philosophy!

  5. So true. You can only really SEE what you pay attention to. That’s a point I like to bring home when teaching classes in field journaling/sketching. Gary

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