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.
Happy Friday, everyone! I wanted to start with another thank you to everyone who took the reader survey. As expected, the results were really helpful. I also really appreciate everyone who took the time to write additional comments – many were really touching and humbling.
Feel free to scroll quickly through these first few paragraphs, but I thought I’d quickly share a few high-level results, for anyone interested. First, 738 people responded – from 10 countries and 39 U.S. states. Unsurprisingly, Nebraska had the highest percentage of respondents (just under 20%) but Minnesota and Illinois were also high, followed by Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado. About half of you have been following the blog for at least 4 years, and more than 10% have been here longer than 7 years (Hi old friends!).
About 64% of respondents identified as either a landowner, land manager, or conservation professional. In addition, there were a lot of photographers, educators, and conservation volunteers, and ‘nature enthusiast’ was selected by over 85% of people (you could choose as many options as applied). When asked what you’d like to see more of, the top answers included stories about the natural history and ecology of prairies and species, as well as management and restoration information. That, in particular, was helpful to hear.
I gleaned much more from the results, but those are some of the highlights. Now, let’s get to photos…
This week has brought some of the best weather of the year for my particular brand of prairie photography. Sunrise has come with calm winds and lots of dew, which means lots of stationary, sparkly insects, combined with the golden colors of autumn prairie. I got up for sunrise several times this week and was very glad I did. Today’s photos are all from Wednesday morning at the Platte River Prairies. Click on any photo to see a bigger version of it.
Right before the sun rose on Wednesday, I was scanning one of our restored prairies for anything that would look good backlit against the sun when it popped up. I was hoping for dragonflies and managed to find one just in time. It was a variegated meadowhawk – probably a migrant roosting overnight on its southward journey. I circled it several times as the light hit it, changing lenses and perspectives as I went. These are just a few of the resulting images.
After I ran out of ideas for photographing that dragonfly, I moved on, looking for more. Along the way, since I had still had my wide-angle lens on, I tried to capture the autumn prairie itself. At least I did until I started finding more insects…
Eventually, I found six more dragonflies, and stopped to photograph three of them. In addition to variegated meadowhawks, I found what I’m pretty sure are autumn meadowhawks. They are late season dragonflies and suspected of being migrants, but I don’t think that’s been confirmed yet. They sure are gorgeous.
It’s getting to be the time of year when hard freezes are a possibility, so I feel a kind of low-level desperation to get out as much as I can before the dormant season starts. We’re trying to rake in as many seeds as we can too, so there are multiple reasons for me to be in the field a lot. I hope you’re all finding some time to enjoy the autumn wherever you are too (in at least 10 countries and 39 states, apparently!).
I spend a lot of my time introducing people to insect species – showing them a bug or caterpillar they’ve never seen before and/or revealing fascinating tidbits about that animal’s life. Many times, after I share my story I’m met with the question, “So, is it a beneficial insect then?”
The term ‘beneficial insect’ has always bothered me. The implication, of course, is that an insect either plays a role that directly helps us or it is a pest. If it helps us, great! If not, we squish it. (Even if it helps us, we still might squish it, but we’ll feel a little bad about it.)
The truth, of course, is that every insect species (along with other invertebrates, plants, microorganisms, and even vertebrates like birds, reptiles and mammals) is part of a complex web of interacting communities and ecosystems. Every (native) species plays an integral role that would be missed if it were gone.
Pollinators are getting a lot of deserved respect and attention these days, but that’s just one of many important roles played by insects. For example, herbivores eat the leaves and stems of plants, granivores feed on seeds, and predators, parasites, and parasitoids feed on those herbivores and granivores. Each helps keep populations of other species in check, and many rely upon each other for food or have otherwise developed complementary relationships that are mutually beneficial. In years when some insect populations are down, other species can fill in for them, keeping important roles filled. The whole system relies upon a broad diversity of species and a redundancy of contributions that ensures all necessary jobs are always filled.
Because a diversity of insects is so integral to the resilience and function of ecosystems, it seems obvious that we should do everything we can to support all those species, right? So why are we so picky about which insects we celebrate? More importantly, within our yards and gardens, why are we so insistent upon categorizing insects as either beneficial or pests?
Trying to keep insects away is backward thinking. We should be designing our private spaces in ways that provide food and habitat for the species that keep the earth humming along. The recent focus on pollinators has led to an increase in the use of native wildflowers and an attempt to make sure there are always a few flower species blooming across the seasons. That’s terrific, and people are right to revel in the sight of bees, butterflies, and other insects harvesting pollen and nectar from those plants. Many people have also planted milkweed in their yards to give monarchs a place to lay eggs so their caterpillars can have something to eat. Again, excellent.
So, why are we ok with insects eating pollen from flowers, but not chewing on leaves? Or why do we celebrate monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed plants but reach for soapy water sprays (or worse) when other insects dare to make holes in the leaves, stems, or petals of plants? What are those plants for anyway? Are they really just for decoration? If so, there are much less time intensive ways to decorate around your house. Garden gnomes, for example. There’s very little maintenance involved in statuary.
Those of us who are lucky enough to influence plant and animal communities on small parcels of land should feel an obligation to use those parcels for good. Plantings for pollinators is a good first step, but why can’t we apply that intent more broadly? The presence and diversity of insects should be a measure of success, not a cause for concern.
Now, because you’re already thinking it, I agree that food production is a special case. If you’re trying to grow your own food, I understand the frustration of losing a crop to insects. However, there’s a big difference between ‘cosmetic damage’ and total destruction. Kale leaves with holes in them are still perfectly edible, and losing a few zucchini plants to vine borers – let’s be honest – often turns out to be a blessing later in the summer when we’re buried by the mountains of zucchini produced by the surviving plants.
As Kim, the gardener in our household, says, “If you think you’re going to have complete control of everything in a garden, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.” A big part of gardening is watching and learning from what happens in a dynamic environment. That process can be just as important and enjoyable as harvesting and eating tomatoes or green beans.
Every gardener has to make their own decisions about when/if to control insects on their crops, but some degree of tolerance should be part of that process. Few of us rely on the food from our gardens for our survival, after all. Viewing gardens as part of an ecosystem, rather than as a machine for creating perfect food, makes gardening a much more pleasant experience.
Now, having said that, there are some truly invasive insects that we should be treating as such. Japanese beetles have recently entered our area of the country, and they’re no joke. Other non-native insects like gypsy moth, spotted lantern fly, and emerald ash borer cause lots of damage too. These insects are largely problematic because they haven’t been part of the ecosystem very long and aren’t part of the checks and balances. Most native insects have predators, parasites and parasitoids, as well as disease organisms, that target them and suppress their populations. Invaders work outside that system of control.
Some of those invasive species came to the U.S. accidentally, but we’ve been our own worst enemy in other cases. Asian ladybugs and Chinese praying mantises, for example, were both introduced as ‘beneficial insects’ before becoming established as invasive species. Not only do we insist upon categorizing our insects as either ‘beneficial’ or ‘pests’, we go looking abroad for new species to tip the scales against those pesky insects that dare eat our plants.
The vast majority of insects in our yards, though, are native species with important contributions to the world around us. If you’re fortunate enough to have a house with yard and/or garden, please consider your options carefully. Why do you enjoy having that yard? If the answer is that you just want it to look good for the neighbors, you’re missing out on a tremendous source of potential joy.
Watching and admiring the intricate relationships between insects, plants, and other animals is endlessly fascinating. In addition, you can make significant contributions to conservation in your yard, simply by aiming your efforts toward providing resources for nature. Seeing birds at feeders or bees on flowers are only two examples of ways in which you can feel good about your yard’s impact. In addition, while your plot of land might be small, collections of yards quickly add up to areas of habitat that matter in a very reason sense.
If you lean into the idea that you’re creating habitat for as many species as you can, success comes easily. Instead of worrying about what’s eating your plants, you’ll start to notice which plants attract the most caterpillars or grasshoppers. Then, you’ll notice where the crab spiders or assassin bugs like to hang out, trying to take advantage of that abundance of prey. Birds will appear too, catching those insects to feed their families or fuel their migration flights. A complex mass of dynamic interactions will be taking place literally in your back yard – and you’ll have a front row seat.
Can we please stop trying to categorize insects as either beneficial or pests? Let’s set ourselves up as providers instead of protectors. A yard can be a place to relax and enjoy your own piece of the world, so why not make that piece as interesting as possible – and help out the world at the same time?