A Bubble-Blowing, Rotten Plant-Eating, Gas Mask-Faced Picture-Winged Fly

Please join me for a moment to appreciate a fly that eats rotting vegetation and looks like it is wearing a gas mask while doing it.  Oh, it also has gorgeous decorative wings and likes to blow bubbles.  Yep, you read that correctly.

Delphinia pictaon a sunflower at Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Delphinia picta, a picture-winged fly, comes across as eccentric, to say the least.  Its appearance, alone, is remarkable.  The wings are distinctively shaped and patterned, and its long face really does look like it’s wearing a gas mask.  Though small (about 7mm in length), it’s a species that will catch your eye if you glance its way.

Both the adults and larvae of D. picta feed on rotting vegetation.  Mama flies lay their eggs in rotting vegetation, the larvae hatch out and feed on the same rotting vegetation, and after they pupate and become adults, they keep feeding on that same rotting vegetation – or a suitable subsitute.  It must taste good.  Oh, adults have also been documented eating the fermenting poop left behind by tree-boring long-horned beetles.  You know, for a change of pace.  

Delphinia picta can be distinguished from other similar species by the pattern on its wings, the dark-colored top of its abdomen, and its long gas-mask-looking face.  

The aforementioned bubble blowing behavior appears to be a result of the fly regurgitating a little of its most recent meal (likely rotting vegetation) and holding it as a bubble protruding from its mouth.  This might be used as part of a mating ritual (hubba hubba) or as a way to evaporate some of the liquid from its food for easier digestion.  Or maybe both.  

I looked all over online for a common name for this terrific species, but I couldn’t find anything besides Latin.  That seems unconscionable to me.  If there ever was a fly that deserved a nickname, this is it.  Let’s see if we can come up with one, shall we? 

Since picta means painted, that seems like an obvious component of any name we choose.  Since it prefers (did I mention this already?) to eat rotting vegetation, we could potentially call it the “Painted Compost Fly”, but I don’t love that.

Any fly with a face like this deserves a good nickname.

I guess we could just go with “painted fly”, but that’s too plain for such an interesting species.  I think we’ve got to include something about its diet.  I have a suggestion, but I don’t know if it’ll catch on.  I looked up synonyms for rotting and decaying and one of the more fun options is putrefying.  That’s a word we can work with.  See what you think of this option:

The Painted Putrefly.  

Yes?  No?  Can you do better?

Choosing Your Destination Before You Choose Your Mode of Transport

Last week, I attended a science and stewardship conference of The Nature Conservancy in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was an inspiring and thought-provoking week.  There were a lot of topics that will provide fodder for future blog posts, but I wanted to start with an issue that came up in several sessions.  The topic had to do with setting appropriate objectives for conservation strategies, and for land management in particular.  In short, it’s really important to make sure we’re not setting objectives that are focused on strategies rather than outcomes.

This mixed-grass prairie is managed with both prescribed fire and grazing.  However,  neither fire nor grazing is the objective, they are tools that are strategically employed to create desired outcomes.  Gjerloff Prairie – Prairie Plains Resource Institute

Here’s an illustration of what I mean.  If I was planning a vacation for next summer, I probably wouldn’t start with the following question: “What mode of transportation should I take on my vacation next year?”

Clearly, it’s tough to answer that question without knowing more about the ultimate objectives of the vacation.  Where do I want to go?  What time of year am I going?  How many people are going with me?  If I’m planning to travel from Nebraska to Ireland, I probably won’t be able to do that by bus.  I could conceivably travel by motorcycle (if I had one) to the Rocky Mountains, but probably not if I was going during the winter or planning to take little kids with me.

It seems silly to start by thinking about how to get somewhere before deciding where to go, but as land managers, it’s easy to fall into exactly that mindset.  We sometimes set objectives about using fire or grazing, for example, instead of first defining the outcome we want and then thinking about what tools and strategies might get us there (which may or may not include fire or grazing).  In this post, I’ve provided examples of how this trap can present itself, both to managers of conservation land and private landowners, and some thoughts about how to avoid the trap.

Significant research has helped us understand the kinds of fire and grazing patterns under which North American prairies developed.  For example, in many places, we have a pretty good idea how often a particular site burned, on average, before European settlement.  We also have reasonably good information on the presence, abundance, and behavior of historic grazers.  Based on that information, a land manager could decide that the best management for their prairie would be to reinstate, as closely as possible, the timing and intensity of historic fire and grazing that site likely evolved under. 

Historically, prairies in this region probably burned on an average of every 4-5 years.  However, within that average range, there would have been wide variation.  More importantly, this prairie sits within a very different landscape today, with challenges not faced by those historic prairies.

Patch-burn grazing is often described, for example, as “mimicking historic fire and grazing patterns.”  Mob grazing advocates trumpet (though I’m skeptical) that their system replicates the way bison moved across a landscape.  Some in the Upper Midwest region of North America point to research showing high populations of indigenous people and scarce evidence of abundant bison and argue that their prairies should be managed only with fire.  We can argue about all three of those examples – and many more – but the bigger point is that none of those arguments should determine our management strategies.  Again, we shouldn’t be setting objectives about the strategy we want to use without first identifying the outcome we want.

To make a clunky return to my vacation travel analogy, it would be silly of me to choose horseback as my preferred mode of transportation across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains just because it’s what worked several hundred years ago.  Today’s landscape is broken up into countless fenced off private land parcels, which would make cross-country horse travel difficult, to say the least.  In addition, there is a pretty nice set of modern opportunities (roads and vehicles) I can take advantage of nowadays.

Likewise, our prairies exist within a different world today, with a new set of challenges and opportunities.  Mimicking historic disturbance regimes won’t necessarily keep prairies in good shape in a world with habitat fragmentation, massive invasive species pressure, climate change, nitrogen deposition, and other factors.  And speaking of good shape, our first and primary concern should really be to define what “good shape” is, right?  Are we managing for plant diversity or a few rare plants?  Are we trying to sustain diverse bird populations?  Habitat heterogeneity? Is ecological resilience the goal?  If so, what are the factors driving resilience, and how to we sustain those?  There are countless reasonable goals for land managers to choose from, many dependent upon scale, but those goals should be based on the outcome we want.

This annually-hayed prairie maintains high plant diversity but provides only one type of habitat structure for nesting birds and other wildlife species.  Depending upon the objectives for the site, that could be fine, but it very much depends upon what the manager wants to accomplish.

I feel it’s important to say this here:  I am a big proponent of both fire and grazing as management tools – you can find myriad examples of that by searching through my previous blog posts.  However, while I think combining fire and grazing can create some fantastic results, those strategies/results don’t fit all objectives.  More importantly, your particular site may or may not respond well to those kinds of fire and grazing combinations.

Let’s say your primary objective is to provide habitat for as many species of grassland birds as possible.  First, you’ll need a pretty big swath of land – many bird species have minimum habitat size requirements.  Assuming you’ve got sufficient land, the major factor grassland nesting birds respond to is habitat structure.  Some birds prefer tall thatchy structure, others like short/sparse vegetation, and others want something in-between.  A reasonable outcome-based objective might be that you want to provide all three of those habitat types across your prairie each year (and you’ll want to make sure the habitat are being successfully used by a diverse bird community).  Perfect.  Now, how will you create those habitat types?

 Grasshopper sparrows tend to nest in prairies with relatively short structure, but with some thatch (which they use to build nests) along the ground.  Some of the highest abundances of grasshopper sparrows around here are found in relatively heavily-grazed prairie.

Fall or spring fires can create short habitat structure that some birds really like to nest in.  However, some bird species (e.g., grasshopper sparrows) usually like short habitat with a little more thatch in the ground layer than is usually found in recently burned prairies.  Also, while burned areas are short and unburned areas are tall, it’s difficult to create in-between height/density habitats using only fire.  This is where other tools such as mowing and grazing might be helpful.  Mowing can reduce the height of tall vegetation and create short or mid-height structure that grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and other species prefer.  Grazing can do the same and can have the advantage that cattle or bison are selective grazers, eating some plants and leaving others.  This can create structure with both tall and short vegetation mixed together and can also help suppress grasses and allow for greater expression of forbs (broadleaf plants) – something birds such as dickcissels often prefer.

Upland sandpipers prefer to nest where vegetation structure is short, but often move to sites with strong forb cover and a little patchier structure when their chicks become active.

If we’re trying to create optimal bird habitat, then, fire, mowing and grazing might all be useful tools to consider.  It’s important to understand how each tool can be used to affect habitat structure, as well as the potential risks of using each (fire can sometimes kill aboveground animals and stimulate invasive plants, grazers can sometimes target vulnerable plants and create issues via trampling).  With all of that information, you can start putting together strategies that employ the right tools, and then test those strategies against the OUTCOMES you desire.  Notice that the process I’ve just described is independent of the kinds of historic fire returns for your area or whether or not you think grazing was a significant factor in the evolution of regional plant communities.  Define your objective by the outcomes you want and test/adapt strategies based on that objective.

Other examples: At my family prairie, we aren’t using prescribed fire because we’ve been able to use grazing to meet our objectives of habitat heterogeneity and increasing plant diversity, and we use loppers/herbicide to successfully control woody invasion.  In small prairies where preserving particular plant species is the objective, a strategy using only fire or mowing could be most appropriate.  If that small prairie has rare insects or reptiles that are especially vulnerable to fire, maybe mowing is the best tool.  Regardless, the right tools and strategies depend upon the outcome-based objective.

This photo was taken in the burned patch of a patch-burn grazed prairie at Konza prairie, near Manhattan, Kansas.  The grazing created varied habitat structure because of the selective grazing by cattle.  Leadplant and other ungrazed forbs contrast with surrounding short grasses.

For ranchers and farmers who manage prairies, this same objective setting process should apply, but of course those prairies also have to help provide sufficient income to keep a family or business thriving.  Even in those cases, however, it’s still important to start with outcome-based objectives.  Those objectives can include a certain amount of needed income but should also include specific habitat or other ecological objectives.  Once you’ve decided, for example, that you really want to manage in a way that provides a certain amount of quail habitat or provides consistent pollinator resources through the season, you can look for ways to accomplish that while still providing the needed income.  When a conflict between income and habitat objectives arises, you can make the decisions that make sense to you, but at least you’re making those decisions with all the information needed to fully consider the options.

Prescribed fire can be a great tool for accomplishing some objectives, but it can also be difficult to implement for some managers.  While it is an important ecological process in prairies, employing prescribed fire should still be seen as a tool/strategy, rather than as an objective in and of itself.

There are plenty of reasonable prairie management objectives to choose from, but they should be based on outcomes rather than on tools and strategies.  Employing more frequent prescribed fire is not a good objective.  However, using more frequent prescribed fire might be a great strategy to reach a particular outcome.  (It could also be a terrible strategy, depending upon your objective.)  Don’t fall into the trap of choosing your transportation method before you know where you want to go. 

P.S. I’m sure some of you are thinking it, so let me address what might appear to be a weakness of my vacation transportation analogy.  Yes, it’s perfectly fine to start vacation planning by deciding that you want to take a cruise ship or motorcycle if the OUTCOME you really want is to ride on a ship or motorcycle.  If you don’t care where you go, the destination isn’t the outcome, it’s just a by-product of your mode of travel.  Fine.  But I think you understand what I was trying to say, right?  Sure, you could argue that conducting prescribed fires could be your objective if all you want is a legal way to light things on fire and watch them burn.  If that’s your objective, though, you’re not managing prairies, you’re lighting things on fire – and there’s a big difference.  Ok?  Ok.

Photo of the Week – September 13, 2018

Hello from Wisconsin!  I’m spending this week in Madison, Wisconsin with about 250 colleagues at a conference for scientists, land managers, and other conservation staff of The Nature Conservancy.  It’s been a fantastic conference, but also an awful lot of time spent with crowds of people – something that drains me after a while.  As I write this, I’m holed up in my hotel room, grabbing a little peace and quiet before heading to supper.

On Tuesday, I went on a great tour of prairies in the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area.  It’s a great site with a lot of 

Because I’ve been busy with the conference all week, I haven’t done much photography (and I really miss my square meter plot!) but I did manage a few photos during our Tuesday field trip west of Madison.  We had a few minutes to wander after arriving at our first stop, and I stopped to admire numerous Argiope spiders on their webs.  Even after our tour leader started talking, I wandered around the edge of the group – staying within earshot – and looked at some more spiders.  I hope I didn’t come off as rude, but the spiders were really pretty, and a few let me get within photo range.

This big female banded argiope (Argiope trifasciata) spider was feeding on an undetermined insect.
This little male Argiope spider was lurking at the edge of a female’s web, hoping to entice her to mate with him, rather than to kill and eat him.  I wish him luck.
I don’t know what species this is, but this small orb weaver spider was working to wrap and eat a leaf hopper.
After I took the previous photo, the spider suddenly noticed me and scurried up to the top corner of its web and hid itself beneath a little canopy.

Not long after I took these photos, the sunlight became too intense for good close up photos so I rejoined the tour group and behaved myself.  There is great conservation work going on in the Military Ridge area, with a great set of partners working together.  It is one of the best remaining landscapes in Wisconsin for grassland birds, and still has fairly stable populations of regal fritillary butterflies and other species.  Eric Mark with The Nature Conservancy is doing some grazing work to manage bird and butterfly habitat, and is working hard to build ties with the local community.  The local chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts is doing some tremendous prairie restoration work, converting brome fields to diverse prairies.  Those and other partners, including state, federal, and non-profit organizations, seem to have a strong and positive working relationship.

Oh, and there are some pretty cool spiders too.

Photo of the Week – August 24, 2018

Former Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos came back for a visit last week and the two of us wandered around with our cameras for a couple hours on a wet foggy Saturday morning. (Quick reminder – applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellows are being accepted NOW – click here for more information.)

It was a beautiful morning, and we spent the bulk of our time in a prairie Evan had helped create while he was working for us.  Despite its young age (3rd growing season), the prairie already has a lot going on.  Plant diversity is looking good and invertebrates seem to be colonizing nicely.  Among those colonizers are a lot of spiders, and a foggy morning is a great time to see and photograph spider webs.  I spotted webs of several different species, but ended up photographing mostly webs created by a couple different species of (I think) longjawed orb weavers (Tetragnatha sp.).  I photographed much more than just spiders during those couple hours, but some of the longjawed orbweaver shots ended up being my favorite images of the day.

A longjawed orb weaver sits poised on its dew drop covered web, warming itself in the sun.
Early morning diffused light beautifully accented both spiders and their webs.
This is the same individual as in the first photo above, but from the other side of its web.  The spider was being very patient with me – and I was being very slow and deliberate in my approach to it.

The following three photos were taken within a minute or so of each other.  I couldn’t decide between them, so have included all of them.  I’m curious to know if any of you have strong preferences between them.  I think I like the first and third best, though the second is really nice too.  See what I mean?

Spider 1

The pose of this spider is common among many skinny long-legged spiders.  When inactive, or in the presence of a potential threat, they cozy up to a grass leaf or plant stem and almost seem to melt into it.  This one was in its hiding pose when I first spotted it. Judging by the dew droplets still affixed to its legs, I’m guessing it spent the night in that pose, but I’m not sure.

Between the first and second photo, I carefully held out my hand near the web and the spider shifted slightly away from it, moving a little more toward my camera, and into the light.  This is a really handy trick for slightly repositioning insects and other invertebrates for photos.  It always works spectacularly, except when it fails even more spectacularly and the subject hops, drops, or otherwise flees.

Spider 2

As I was photographing the spider in its new, more illuminated position, it suddenly stretched out its legs – as if it was yawning.  I squeezed off a couple quick shots before it returned to its original position.

Spider 3

The chance to photograph spiders on dew-covered webs always feels like a gift.  The conditions have to be just right – including near-zero wind velocity.  Late summer seems to be the time when an abundance of spider webs corresponds with an abundance of calm foggy/dewy mornings.  On those mornings, I tread carefully through prairies, trying hard not to blunder through webs, but knowing I will anyway.  I find most webs by looking toward the sunlight so that the glowing backlit dew-covered orbs stand out against a darker background.

Most webs are close to the ground, surrounded by tall vegetation, making them nearly impossible to approach without jiggling the web, and either breaking it or scaring the spider away – or both.  To add to the difficulty, most spiders sit on the downward slanting side of their web, with their eyes facing down and away from the sun. I always like to feature the faces of invertebrates when I can, but it’s not always possible to find a camera angle that works with web-weaving spiders.

The first three photos above were taken of webs that were along a restored wetland swale, where vegetation was relatively thin and I could fairly easily slide my tripod close to the spiders.  The last three were of a web that was placed at nearly head height – something I don’t see very often.

Oh, I did take photos of Evan too, but he wasn’t covered in dew and sitting on a glistening orb-shaped web, so he didn’t make the cut for this blog post.

Japanese Beetles in Prairies – How Much Should We Worry?

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) first appeared in the U.S. back in 1916 (in New Jersey) and have been spreading west since then.  They’ve only started to be abundant in our part of Nebraska during the last several years.  As a result, I’m not really sure what to expect in terms of potential impacts to our prairies.  I’m largely writing this post to hear what my friends to the east have been seeing, since the little buggers have been around there longer.

Japanese beetles are known pests of gardens and crops, but what are their impacts in prairies?  This one was eating the flowers from leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

While I’m not sure what to expect in prairies, our family has had plenty of experience with their ability to damage our garden crops.  Japanese beetles wiped out our raspberry crop last year and were trying really hard to kill our little apple tree this year.  I’m not a fan.

For those of you not familiar with Japanese beetles, they are about 1/2 inch long beetles that are metallic green with brown wing covers.  The series of white spots around the edge of their abdomen are actually little patches of white hairs, and those help distinguish them from lots of other metallic green beetles.  The larvae feed mostly on the roots of grasses, and they are a big pest in lawns and other turfgrass situations.  As adults they’re known to attack over 300 different plant species, with corn, soybeans, maples, elms, plums, roses, raspberries and grapes among their favorites.  Hence, they are pretty unpopular with gardeners and farmers alike.

Adults emerge in the early summer and seem to spend the vast majority of their time eating and mating – often at the same time.  Females take breaks from feeding/mating to burrow a few inches into the soil in grassy areas and deposit a few eggs.  Then they come back out and join the crowd again for a while.  They can repeat their burrowing/egg laying up to 16 times a season.  Most adults live for about a month or month-and-a-half, but some can live up to 100 days or more.  They are skeletonizers of plants, meaning that they feed on the portions of leaves between the veins, leaving behind only the skeletons of those leaves.

Japanese beetles skeletonizing leaves of Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense)

I’ve been trying to pay attention to Japanese beetles in prairies, but I don’t feel like I’m learning very much yet.  The biggest infestations I’ve seen have been in the small prairies here in Aurora (Lincoln Creek Prairie).  In bigger prairies outside of town, I don’t see nearly as many.  At Lincoln Creek, the beetles feed on a lot of different plants, but seem to have special attraction to tick clovers (Desmodium) and the flowers of roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata).  However, while I’ve seen many plants nearly covered with beetles, many others manage to successfully bloom and make seed, so I don’t yet see the beetles having any major impacts.

Japanese beetles  feeding and mating on roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata)
Despite a heavy presence on Illinois tickclover flowers and leaves, many plants still produced seed this season, at least at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska

Help?  What are those of you in the Midwest and further east seeing in prairies that have had decades or more of Japanese beetle infestations?  Any evidence that they might wipe out particular plant species?  Should we be concerned about them in our Nebraska prairies or just focus on protecting our gardens and crop fields?

Any advice is welcome – thank you.

Photo of the Week – August 16, 2018

I’ve been spending a lot of this summer at Lincoln Creek Prairie, right across town from my house.  Much of my time there has been spent working on my square meter photography project, but I’ve wandered a lot through the rest of the prairie as well.  Visiting the same site frequently always helps me appreciate the dynamic nature of prairies.  I get to track individual flower blossoms as they transform from buds to blossoms to seed heads, and watch insects move from larva/nymph stage to adult.

Last weekend,  for example, I visited the prairie two days in a row and spotted four different Chinese mantises  that had just emerged from their last molt, leaving their exoskeletons behind.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those exoskeletons before, let alone four over a two day period.  I’m guessing the skeletons don’t usually hang around long before they fall, dry up, and shrivel into obscurity – not necessarily in that order.

A Chinese mantid peers at me as I eased my camera toward it.  This one was photographed a few days before I found the exoskeletons and recently-molted adults.  
This is one of four shed mantis exoskeletons I found over a two day period.

One of my most exciting finds at Lincoln Creek this month was a small bee with gorgeous blue eyes.  It was a male Tetraloniella cressoniana – something I know only because I sent the photo to  Mike Arduser for identification.  I’ve photographed this species once before, back in 2009, and I wrote about it in a 2011 blog post.  The bee is noteworthy because it is very specialized in diet – feeding only on pitcher sage, aka blue sage (Salvia azurea).  Not coincidentally, that is the flower species in both pictures I have of this species.

Ever since learning about the species from Mike, I’d been hoping to see and photograph it again.  I finally got my wish last week, on a dewy morning at Lincoln Creek.  The bee was poised on a blue sage flower, probably waiting for the prairie to warm up and dry out enough that females would emerge from their nests.  I took quite a few shots of it as I gradually edged closer and closer, until it nearly filled the frame.  As soon as I got home, I fired off one of the photos to Mike, who enthusiastically identified it for me.

A male blue sage bee, which tolerantly allowed me to photograph it – only, I assume, because no females were available to chase.

Dewy mornings have always been favorite photographic opportunities for me, especially when the wind is calm.  Insects get trapped in dew drops, making them easy to photograph, and the entire prairie glistens and sparkles as the first light of the day hits it.  Photographing individual dew drops is always alluring, but rarely turns out very well for me – my macro lens doesn’t magnify them enough for my taste, and depth-of-field issues and slight breezes increase the technical difficulty significantly.  Now and then, however, I find the right situation.  That happened last week with a big droplet near a patch of sensitive briar flowers.

A dew drop and sensitive briar flower (Mimosa quadrivalvus) made a pretty combination.

Lincoln Creek Prairie has been a favorite spot of mine since I moved to town over 20 years ago.  It’s only about a mile from my house, and is a nice restored prairie with lots of flower and insect diversity.  The prairie is small and subdivided by tree lines and roads, but none of that really affects close-up photography.  Despite having made hundreds of trips to the prairie before this summer, though, I’m still finding new subject matter and making new observations – showcasing beautifully what prairies are all about.

Square Meter of Prairie Project – July 2018

Quick note – registration is still open for the 2018 Grassland Restoration Network workshop (September 5-6) in Illinois.  Click here for more information and/or to register.  It’ll be worth your time!

The square meter photography project continues!  Throughout this calendar year, I’m trying to document as much beauty and diversity as I can within a single square meter of prairie along Lincoln Creek in Aurora, Nebraska.  Today, I’m sharing some of my favorite images from July.  If you want to look backwards, you can click to on these links to look at selected photos from June, May, and January.

July was a little slower than I’d expected, to be honest (August, however, has been really hopping).  I was surprised how few pollinators showed up to feed on the butterfly milkweed plant in my little plot.  (I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with the loony guy and his camera looming nearby.  There were lots of insects hanging around on butterfly milkweed plants elsewhere in the prairie…)  Regardless, there was still plenty going on in the plot last month.  Here are some highlights.

One of the few bugs I did see on the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot kept playing hide and seek with me.  This was the only photo I could get on this particular day.
A few days after the above photo, I saw the same kind of bug again, but this one was more tolerant of my lens in its face.
Morning dew drops.
I’m not sure what this beetle is, but I saw it a few times last month.
This tiny spider was hanging out one day.  It looks similar to the lynx spider I was seeing in June, but the eyes are wrong – and it seemed to be making a web.
Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).
A leaf-footed bug (I think?)
I believe this intricately-patterned little beauty is a leaf hopper. Any guidance as to species would be appreciated…

A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

I blame whomever named the plant.  Giving a plant the name “ironweed”, apparently – according to Google – because of its tough stem, creates an unnecessarily negative connotation right from the start.  It’s an unfair connotation for a plant that is both beautiful and important.  It’s also a big favorite of butterflies; something I can attest to after spending a couple hours last weekend chasing monarchs and others around ironweed patches at our family prairie.

Ironweed at our family prairie, growing abundantly in a smooth brome-filled draw.  The abundance of the plant goes up and down each year, but it never spreads beyond the draw or shades out the grass around and beneath it.

There are three species of ironweed (genus Vernonia) in Nebraska, and two that are common in the prairies I am most familiar with.  Both of those – V. fasciculata and V. baldwinii – seem to act in similar ways, but the first likes a little wetter sites than the second.  Both species can occur as scattered plants across a prairie, but are also often found in fairly dense patches where conditions favor them.  That patchy local abundance is the first mark against them by people who don’t appreciate their value.  The second mark is that cattle absolutely refuse to eat them.  This both helps them stand out (especially when blooming) in heavily grazed pastures and helps them spread across those same sites since they gain a strong competitive edge when surrounding plants are all being grazed hard.

Like many other plant species I tend to admire and write about, however, ironweed is not an invasive plant – it’s an opportunist.  It takes advantage of soil and management conditions that favor it, but doesn’t just spread aggressively across pastures.  If you look online, it’s not hard to find websites that encourage its control in pastures.  I dispute that.  At least in my experience, ironweed has its favorite locations (often in draws or other low spots where moisture and nitrogen are high) and pulses in abundance within those locations as grazing treatments and weather vary from year to year.  At our family prairie, ironweed is fairly abundant in some of the low draws where high nitrogen also strongly favors smooth brome, but while there are years when those patches are thicker than others, the overall patch sizes and stem densities of ironweed aren’t any higher today than they were 15 years ago.  That matches what I see elsewhere in central and eastern Nebraska.

(I found a university website online that blamed ironweed for making cattle have to look harder to find grass, thus reducing grazing efficiency.  Give me a break.  That’s the same attitude that leads to people spraying pastures to remove everything that isn’t grass, and then wondering why they need to fertilize their grass and supplement their cattle’s diet.  The same people blame others for the lack of wildlife and pollinators on their land.  …Ok, I’m done ranting – let’s talk about butterflies.)

When I arrived at our family prairie last weekend, I immediately noticed monarch butterflies flying all over the place.  I’d seen a surprising number of larvae back in July, so figured we might have a good August, but I was still impressed with how many adults I saw.  I’m guessing there were 40-50 or more across our 100 acres of prairie.  They kept moving, so it was hard to count them…

Almost every monarch I spotted was either flying or feeding on ironweed.  A few other flowers got attention too, including wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii), and some early tall thistle blossoms (Cirsium altissimum), but ironweed clearly monopolized most of their attention.  I started stalking monarchs with my camera and eventually found a couple that let me get close enough for to capture reasonable photographs.  While I was doing that, I also spotted myriad bees, along with quite a few other butterfly and moth species.

Here are some photos of the butterflies and moths that were kind enough to let me get close.  I didn’t ever get a good shot of a bee, though there were at least a dozen species feeding on the ironweed flowers, and I also never caught up to one of the many silver-spotted skipper butterflies that were all over the place.

This is one of many monarchs that were floating from plant to plant across ironweed patches last weekend.
I haven’t looked up this moth yet. Maybe one of you can save me the trouble? Thanks in advance.
I’ve been seeing a lot of adult swallowtails around lately, including this tiger swallowtail , which was pretty easy to spot, even from across a large draw.
Ok, this black swallowtail wasn’t on ironweed when I photographed it, but it went to ironweed after feeding on this native thistle.  I was taking bets (in my head) about whether or not the crab spider on that thistle would be able to take down the big butterfly. The butterfly eventually moved within striking distance, but the spider didn’t attack, so I’m guessing it decided to wait for something a little smaller.
Thanks to Neil Dankert, I can tell you that this gorgeous little brown skipper butterfly is a tawny-edged skipper.

Ironweed is too beautiful and important for its name.  Maybe we need a campaign to rename it, and maybe that campaign would help convince people, including those at a certain unnamed university, to leave this plant alone to do its job.  Either way, it might be fun to think about potential names.  Any ideas?

Photo of the Week – August 3, 2018

I walked around one of our newer prairie/wetland restoration sites yesterday morning.  The sun was just starting to punch some holes in low-lying fog and everything was wet.  A cool and wet summer morning is usually a great time to find immobile insects and photograph them, but I for some reason I wasn’t seeing much as I walked.  Not a dragonfly, not a butterfly, not even a big ol’ beetle…  I did eventually find some bees encased in dew drops, waiting for the sun to emerge to warm and dry them.

A sunflower bee (Svastra obliqua) hides beneath a wet sawtooth sunflower leaf while waiting for morning fog to completely disperse.

Unlike females, male solitary bees don’t have nests to defend and spend most of their days chasing around foraging females.  When night comes, most species (except for a few night-feeding bees) just find a convenient place to shelter until morning.  Many times, they seem to choose roost sites where they can be a little protected from potential predators, but other times they just end up on the exposed surface of a flower (the equivalent of falling asleep on their dinner plate, I guess).  Most of the bees I saw yesterday were at least somewhat hidden- which is why I had to look pretty hard to find them, but there were a few out in the open as well, including the one pictured below.

This little fella (Melissodes agilis) looks like he fell asleep and became covered in dew drops while feeding on this rosinweed plant (Silphium integrifolium).

As I wandered along a wetland swale, I was admiring one of my favorite plants – prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) – when I happened to look down inside the blossom and spotted a fuzzy little bee.  Because it seemed like a convenient and relatively safe hiding place for bees, I started looking into other flowers too, and sure enough, I found more bees.

An agile long-horned bee (Melissodes agilis) sheltering inside a prairie gentian blossom. The circular holes in the flower petals were made by a different kind of bee – a leaf cutting bee, harvesting materials for its nest construction.

All the bees I was seeing in the prairie gentian flowers looked like the same species to me, but I’ve become smart enough not to overestimate my ability to tell bee species apart, so I double checked with Mike Arduser.  Mike confirmed that they are all male agile long-horned bees (Melissodes agilis), as was the bee I’d seen on the rosinweed flower.  He said they appear to have just recently emerged, based on their fresh appearance.  I’ll take his word for that and so should you.

There are actually three bees stacked on top of each other on this flower.

Mike also confirmed that the agile long-horned bees don’t have any particular tie to prairie gentian (they don’t specialize on its pollen or use it for nesting sites or materials).  Instead, it just appears a number of them independently recognized the potential value of prairie gentian flowers as safe overnight roost sites.  If I hadn’t been specifically admiring the gentian flowers, I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed the bees.  I’m guessing most predators wouldn’t have spotted them either, though if a smart predator had happened to find one then and decided to do what I did and check other flowers nearby, it would have had a pretty easy time filling up on bees for breakfast!

After hearing from Mike, I followed up with a series of questions I’m guessing even he can’t answer.  Among those, I’m wondering if an individual bee returns to the same roost site night after night – assuming it isn’t disturbed while sleeping the previous night.  If that hasn’t been studied, it seems like it would be relatively easy to do a mark and recapture study on them.  The trick might be to catch the bees AFTER they leave their roost, though, so they don’t associate that roost site with being caught…  Ok, maybe it wouldn’t be as easy as I was thinking.  If you try it, however, let me know what you figure out!

A Day of Bush Katydids

I was at our family prairie for a while last weekend, checking on grazing progress and generally catching up on what’s been happening.  There were several highlights of the trip, but one big one was that I saw LOTS of bush katydids.  Apparently, they had gone through their final molt to adulthood recently because they were flying all around the prairie (nymphs don’t have functional wings).  They were flushing away from my feet as I walked, which was nice because then I could watch where they landed.  That was about the only way I could spot them because of their impressive camouflage.  During a couple hours on site, I was able to track and re-find enough katydids to get quite a few photographs (all the photos in this post were from the same evening).

Bush katydids are exquisitely beautiful.

Katydids are similar to grasshoppers, but are in different suborders (meaning they split off fairly high on the taxonomic tree).  If you’re of a certain age, or read older natural history books, you may have first learned to call them “long-horned grasshoppers”, but that’s a fairly outdated term nowadays.  Katydids are pretty easy to distinguish from grasshoppers by their antennae length.  Grasshoppers have short antennae, while katydids have very long threadlike antennae – usually longer than their bodies.

Bush katydids (Genus Scudderia) are one of several groups of katydids, and tend to have a very green leaf-like appearance.  They are so leaf-like, in fact, most of us probably walk past many more of them than we notice, despite the fact they are pretty big insects (often over 2 inches in length).

Males of these and other katydids make courtship “songs” by rubbing their wings together.  While we hear those sounds through the ears on our head, katydids hear sounds through tympanum located on their legs.

The dark oval on the leg of this bush katydid is the tympanum, or ear.

Here are more photos of bush katydids from last weekend.  I saw a lot more of them than I photographed…these are just the ones that sat still long enough for me to get within range (some of them flew a couple times before giving up and letting me take their picture).

Crickets and katydids, including bush katydids, provide much of the evening sound in prairies.  There are many websites that feature those sounds, but here is one that is set up pretty well to help you distinguish between the various species.  If you can’t find them by sight, maybe you can at least find them by ear!