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.

I Don't Know What Kind of Beetle This Is

I have no idea what kind of beetle this is.  It looks like a pretty nondescript black beetle, doesn’t it?  I bet it’s not.  I bet it has a life strategy that would knock your socks off if you knew about it. 

When I say that, I’m not even talking about its incredible transmogrification ability.  I mean, we already know this adult beetle was once a larva that looked COMPLETELY different than it does in the picture.  It was a wingless, and probably long and skinny creature that bore little resemblance to its adult form and might have been herbivorous or carnivorous – it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that at some point, a very different-looking larva entered a pupal stage, and when it emerged from that pupa, it had totally transformed into what it looks like today.  That’s CRAZY.  Nobody reading this has ever gone through any body transformation remotely comparable to that.  And yet, that’s not even what I’m talking about when I’m betting you it has a fascinating life strategy.

You’re probably thinking,  “I bet he’s going to tell me what that amazing story is now.”  Don’t get your hopes up.  I’m not.  I don’t know what it is.  I’m just promising you that it’s a good one. 

I have a second photo of a beetle that looks a lot like the first one.  It might be the same species – it’s hard to tell.  The angle of the photo is different and the way the light is reflecting makes it difficult to say whether it’s the same color or not. Regardless, I’ll further guarantee you that THIS beetle also has facets of its life that would make you sit up and say ‘Wow’.  I just have no idea what those facets are.

I can’t promise you that the beetles shown here have a story that’s as good as the oil beetle.  That’s a pretty tough act to top.  Not every beetle produces larvae that cluster together and produce a chemical that smells like a female bee. Those larvae hop on the male bee that comes to investigate, transfer themselves to a female when the frustrated male actually finds a real one, and then ride the female back to her nest where they attack and eat her babies.  Not many species, let alone the beetle(s) featured here, are going to match that story.  Still, I’d wager real money that the life history of the nondescript-looking beetle(s) is a really good one.

Assuming for the moment that the two beetles I’ve photographed are the same species, I wonder what it eats?  Both individuals were photographed on sunflowers, so it’s possible the species feeds on sunflower pollen, like many other insects.  Alternatively, maybe it’s a predator that feeds on the insects that feed on the pollen.  Or, maybe it feeds on both the pollen AND insects that feed on pollen.  So many intriguing possibilities.  It might even lay its eggs on the sunflower so its larvae will hatch and consume the seeds. 

That last possibility reminds me of the silphium weevil, another beetle that lays its eggs on sunflower blossoms.  However, I doubt the beetle from these photos follows the silphium weevil’s example of girdling the stem beneath the flower before laying eggs on it.  You have to admire that strategy, though, because when the flower eventually falls to the ground, the larvae can hatch and burrow directly and safely into the ground where they overwinter.  The girdling might also make that flower less attractive to other invertebrate species (like our beetle?) who might be considering laying eggs on it.  That helps ensure more food for the weevil babies.  It would be really neat to know that our beetle has that kind of strategy, but it probably doesn’t.  It has its own unique and mesmerizing approach to life.

This would be a great time to tell you that I’ve been leading you on this whole time, and I’m now going to reveal both the identity of this post’s featured beetle and its captivating life story.  Unfortunately, I’ve been completely honest with you and I don’t know that story.  Maybe someone reading this will recognize the beetle and share what they know with us in the comment section below.  That would be awesome, and we could all revel in yet another example of the incredible diversity found within the life strategies of earth’s creatures. 

Alternatively, maybe no one will know much about this beetle, and we’ll all be left wondering what it is we’re missing out on.  There are so many insect species in the world, we have yet to discover many of their identities, let alone their life histories – which can take a lot of research to glean.  We just don’t have enough scientists studying invertebrates…  

…which is really odd, given the remarkable and appealing attributes of creatures like this beetle!

Prairie Management Jobs in Nebraska!

For those of you not looking for employment, please excuse this post (but consider forwarding it to others it might apply to). I don’t use this platform very often as a way to advertise job opportunities – other than the Hubbard Fellowship, of course – but this is an exceptional situation. The Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy rarely has open positions, especially within its land management team, but right now we have two!

One of those jobs is the Preserve Manager Position in the Platte River Prairies and the other is a Land Steward who will assist the Preserve Manager at our Niobrara Valley Preserve. In addition, we will soon be posting some seasonal positions (mid-April through mid-October) that will be helping with fire operations and monitoring in the Sandhills.

The Platte River Prairies is a place familiar to anyone who has followed this blog for very long. Our current land manager, Nelson Winkel, is sliding into more of a rowcrop agriculture role with us, where he will be helping farmers adopt practices to increase soil health on their land. We are looking for someone to take his place as an innovative and energetic steward of the 3,300 acres we own along the Central Platte River, as well as a couple other tracts of land. The ideal candidate will have several years of prior land management experience and the ability to think creatively and share experiences and ideas with a wide audience. Within the next year, we plan to hire an assistant for this position, providing even more capacity to do great things.

The Platte River Prairies is a special place to me – it’s where I became a land steward in 1997, before eventually moving into more of a science and outreach role. It is located in the stretch of the Platte River that hosts more than half a million sandhill cranes each spring, along with uncountable hordes of geese, ducks, shorebirds, and other migratory birds that visit the river and the nearby Rainwater Basin wetlands during migration. However, the birding and avian conservation opportunities, at least to me, are just icing on the cake.

Sandhill cranes (and occasional whooping cranes) use the Platte as a staging area during spring migration. The month of March is always filled with the sounds and sites of cranes and other waterbirds as we do our work along the river.
We’ve worked hard to build high-diversity prairie restorations along the Platte and are now refining various stewardship approaches to maintain that diversity – and to help others do the same.

More importantly, the Platte River Prairies is an active site for the development and testing of prairie restoration and management strategies. We’ve restored over 1,500 acres of crop land to high-diversity prairie, and are now evaluating how well those restored acres act to functionally enlarge and reconnect the formerly isolated fragments of remnant prairie adjacent to them. We have a little more crop land to convert in the coming years, but have largely shifted our restoration attention to some of the remnant prairies. Many of those remnants are missing important wildflower species because of years of broadcast herbicide use and overgrazing prior to our ownership. The progress made so far on those sites has been very encouraging.

While we’ve been spending less time on seed harvest in recent years, we’ve spent more time devising and evaluating techniques for increasing the diversity and ecological resilience of prairies. That effort involves combinations of prescribed fire and grazing, along with the control of invasive plants. Patch-burn grazing and open gate rotational grazing are two approaches we are currently playing with, but our overall goal is to find the key principles that any rancher or land manager can apply to their own sites to optimize ecological resilience. We frequently host workshops and field days, at which we share what we’re learning with a wide variety of audiences. You can read more about what we do on the Platte River Prairies here.

The second position we’re hiring will be assisting our Preserve Manager at the Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska. This is one of the most staggeringly beautiful places in the world, with 56,000 acres of Sandhills prairie, ponderosa pine and oak savanna/woodland, deciduous forest, and crystal clear streams cascading into the Niobrara River. If you’re new to the blog, you can search through old posts (use key words like “niobrara, bison, etc.) to see and learn more. Regular blog readers will be very familiar with the site because I can’t help but take countless photos every time I visit.

We’ve just recently improved our facilities at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, allowing us to more effectively host groups of landowners, land managers, students, and others at our site.
At the peak of each season, we have about 1,000 bison on 22,000 acres of prairie at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

The thousands of people per year that float down the section of the Niobrara that has been designated as a National Scenic River spend most of that time enjoying the scenery on our property as they pass slowly by. About half of the roughly 45,000 acres of prairie are grazed by two herds of bison, numbering about 500 animals each. The other half is leased to neighboring ranchers for cattle grazing, and we are working to develop grazing approaches on our land that can be applied elsewhere across the 12 million acres of the Nebraska Sandhills.

The position we’re currently hiring at the Niobrara Valley Preserve will be focused heavily on the maintenance aspects of land management, building and repairing fences, ensuring the bison and cattle have water, operating and maintaining vehicles and equipment, and fighting invasive plants. The person will also likely help with prescribed fire operations and some of our science and outreach work at the Preserve.

It takes a certain kind of person to live and work in the landscape along the Middle Niobrara River. The nearby towns are small, the grasslands are vast, and the combination of the two is bliss for some, but lonely and isolating for others. We’ll be looking for someone who is comfortable living and working hard in a very rural part of Nebraska. Our staff at the Preserve is very dedicated to conservation and our land, but also to the surrounding landscape and the communities of people living there.

The job description for the Platte River position can be found here and the Niobrara Valley Preserve position is here. Just search for ‘Nebraska’ if the link doesn’t get you directly to them.

Alternatively, you can visit nature.org/careers, click on current job opportunities, and search for Nebraska.