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.

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.

The 2022 FORBY Awards – Part 2

Welcome back to the annual FORBY awards! In this punchy Part 2, we’ll recognize another series of very special prairie animals for their contributions during the year 2022. If you missed Part 1, you can still go back and vote for your favorites in a couple audience-selected categories. (Only animals photographed for The Prairie Ecologist blog during 2022 can be nominated for 2022 FORBY awards.)

How to vote: If you receive this blog via email, click on the title at the top to open the blog on the web page and enable the poll features. (Clicking on that title will always give you a better reading experience anyway, since the formatting is a little weird in email.)

Let’s start with a couple awards in categories that have already been decided by our judges. These were easy decisions with very little opportunity for controversy.

The first category is ‘Best Eyebrows’. This year’s winner is a sharp-tailed grouse photographed on a lek at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in April. Look at that expression! Of course, the downside of the grouse winning this category is that it becomes ineligible for another category featured below. That’s a shame.

Sharp-tailed grouse. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

If we had a FORBY category for ‘Best Tail’, this grouse would have been competitive for that one too. Unfortunately, we can only have so many categories, so we have to stick to the basics and not get too wacky about it. Anyway, let’s move on and admire the winner of this year’s ‘Best Impaled Fly’ award!

This fantastic assassin bug managed to capture and then impale this tiny fly immaculately, hitting the sweet spot between head and thorax with precision. It then injected a paralyzing venom that also “pre-digested” the fly’s insides, allowing the bug to just slurp its meal out of the remaining fly husk. You might say the assassin bug got its award and the fly went to its reward. Or you might not.

Assassin bug with fly. Helzer Family Prairie.

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We now come to the first of today’s audience-selected awards. The category is entitled ‘Best Tough-Looking Bird’. You can now see why the sharp-tailed grouse would have qualified for this category if it hadn’t already won for ‘Best Eyebrows’. It seems unfair, doesn’t it, that nominees are only allowed to win one category per year? It’s almost as if the rules are spurious and haphazard.

Anyway, we move forward with the two remaining nominees, both of which seem worthy of consideration. The first is a very stern-looking western meadowlark defending its territory back in April. The meadowlark would like you to know that the melodic sounds of its territorial song do not represent any leniency in terms of boundary enforcement. The second nominee is an American robin that just finished slamming a garter snake to death on a concrete sidewalk. The robin says it doesn’t feel it needs to make any additional statements.

You can vote for your favorite below. (Again, if you’re not seeing a poll show up with options to click on, click on the title of this blog post to open up a better version that will let you interact with it.)

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WAIT, WAIT!! HOLD EVERYTHING.

This is wholly unprecedented. I’ve just been informed that the judges have made a last minute decision to allow a sharp-tailed grouse to be considered for the ‘Best Tough-Looking Bird’ after all. Apparently, eligibility is tied to an individual animal rather than an entire species, providing a loophole. Since the below grouse is not the same individual as the one who won ‘Best Eyebrows’ it is eligible for consideration in this category. The judges want to assure you that they made this decision impartially and not at all as a result of any intimidation by a grouse that looks like it might pop off at any moment.

Wow, what a turn of events!

A (different) sharp-tailed grouse.

So, I’m very sorry for the hassle, but let’s vote again – this time, with all three candidates included.

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We return, briefly, to another category decided by our judges – the always popular ‘Best Silhouette’. There were several candidates for this award this year, but after much deliberation, this striped lynx spider came out on top. To clarify, the judges deliberated, not the spider. I mean, I guess the spider might have deliberated as well, but in this case, I was deliberately referring to the judges’ deliberations.

‘Deliberate’ is a funny word, huh? The term ‘liberate’ means ‘to set free’. You’d think, then, that ‘deliberate’ would mean ‘to capture’. Nope. It means ‘to consider’. Or, sometimes, it means ‘on purpose’. I guess you’re free to consider how purposefully this word’s definitions were designed to confuse us.

Striped lynx spider on ironweed (Vernonia sp)

As a special bonus, here is another photo of the same striped lynx spider, but from the other side of the leaf. Isn’t she a beaut?

The same female lynx spider, viewed from the other side of the leaf.

You may know that lynx spiders, like jumping spiders, hunt prey without a web. They use a combination of stealth and speed to sneak up on and capture food. Alternatively, you might say they sneak up on and deliberate food. But that would be wrong, apparently.

Anyway, another fascinating fact about lynx spiders is that their diet preferences are apparently determined by whatever prey species are most abundant when they’re very young. They may then continue to pursue those same species throughout their lives. In fact, there is evidence that individual lynx spiders choose to live and hunt where the smell of their favorite prey is strongest.

This particular lynx spider was sitting in the sunshine on a June morning, getting warmed and dried by the sun. Surely you agree she is a deserving FORBY award winner?

We’ll end today’s edition of the 2022 FORBY award celebration with two final categories whose winners will be decided by you. The first of those is ‘Best Face – Anuran Division’. Anuran, of course, refers to members of the tail-less (as adults) amphibians in the taxonomic order Anura. In Part 1, we got to meet the nominees for the equally-popular ‘Best Face – Insect Division’. This week, you get to vote for frogs and/or toads.

Select your favorite in the poll below the photo.

The last category for this edition of the FORBYs is ‘Best Milkweed Seed(s)’. As you know, milkweed seeds are massively popular among our judges, so this category always receives numerous nominees and is one of our highest profile awards. You can choose from the following eight nominees as you pick your favorite.

Well, that was eventful.

Thank you all again for your participation in Part 2 of the 2022 FORBY awards. We’ll be back with Part 3 very soon.