Photos of the Week – December 4, 2020

Back in 2018, when I was working on my square meter photography project, my hopes of photographing pollinators visiting stiff sunflower plants within my plot were dashed by hordes of small brown beetles. Those beetles ravaged the flowers, eating everything that pollinators might have been interested in, and more. It was a neat phenomenon to observe, but I was also really hoping to photograph lots of pollinators on those sunflowers…

A 2018 photo, showing a mass of leaf beetles on stiff sunflower within my square meter plot.

At the time, I remember wondering where the predators were. Usually, when there is a concentration of animals, predators come around to take advantage of the situation, but I never saw anything eating those beetles. This past summer, in a different part of Lincoln Creek Prairie, the situation was different. An abundance of jagged ambush bugs (great name, right?) appeared at the same time as the little beetles. Oh, and thanks to MJ Paulsen, I can report that those beetles appear to be a species of Metrioidea – a group of skeletonizing leaf beetles.

A jagged ambush bug (Phymata sp) sits on a stiff sunflower plant, waiting for prey to come within striking distance of its short powerful front legs.
Another ambush bug on another stiff sunflower. Their front legs are ‘raptorial’, just like those of a praying mantis, but much thicker and shorter.

I walked around Lincoln Creek Prairie on the morning of August 16 and saw leaf beetles on numerous flowers, though not quite in the same densities as I’d seen them in 2018. I also saw ambush bugs on numerous flowers. NUMEROUS flowers. Lots of them. I don’t know where those ambush bugs were in 2018, but they sure made a dramatic appearance in 2020. And they were definitely catching and eating those little leaf beetles.

Ambush bug and leaf beetles.
In this closer view, you can see the ambush bug’s mouthpart inserted into a beetle.

It was a beautiful morning, so I didn’t spend all of the good light photographing ambush bugs, but it was hard to avoid pass by without peering at and photographing quite a few of them. I’m not saying their abundance was a direct response to the leaf beetles emergence, but the coincident occurrence was certainly interesting. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else has noticed these beetles or the ambush bugs feeding on them.

Nature is complicated, so it’s hard to know whether ambush bugs are adapted to, or even are proficient at suppressing population booms of leaf beetles. On the other hand, predators in general – including little ones like ambush bugs – definitely play very underappreciated roles in ecosystems. The immensity of those roles goes unnoticed until predator populations suddenly decrease in number, due to disease, weather patterns, human actions, or something else.

There are lots of examples of research projects showing those cascading impacts, by either reducing predator populations on purpose or simply studying the response when it happens through other means. One of my favorites is a study I mentioned in an earlier post I wrote on coyotes. Halving the population of coyotes on a huge ranch in Texas dramatically reduced the abundance and diversity of small mammal populations, but allowed two species to skyrocket – kangaroo rats and jackrabbits. The latter of those competes with cattle for forage, which created a situation that was probably not what ranchers who shoot coyotes are hoping for.

Another ambush bug with its prey.

It’s easy to root against predators when they’re eating something we think is cute, or something we’re hoping to harvest ourselves. Responding by trying to reduce predator numbers, though, has been shown countless times to be a mistake, with ramifications often much greater than the perceived impact of those predators. Again, nature is very complex, and while most ecosystems need careful management, especially these days, there is also plenty of evidence that large scale predator control efforts are usually a bad idea.

Predators have such fascinating lives and hunting strategies, it’s easy to fall in love with them. Even the ones you have to lean in closely to see are worth the trouble. Ambush predator invertebrates like assassin bugs, ambush bugs, crab spiders, and others, are particularly easy to observe and study. While they capture and kill a lot of cute butterflies and bees, they also kill a lot of beetles and other species that compete with those pollinators. What’s their overall impact? What would happen if they weren’t around? So many storylines and interconnections to ponder!

The Beauty of Prairies in 2020 – March/April

Many thanks to everyone who voted on their favorite images from my first post in this series. The results were very helpful. So far, it seems pretty clear you like sunrises and scenics more than closeups (are you following the right blog?). To be fair, two of those closeups included dead animals, which I can see might diminish their attractiveness to some… We’ll see what happens when we get more into flower/insect season, I guess.

If you want to keep score at home, the top votes for January/February (in order) were for #’s 1,5,3,7,12, and 10.

Here is the second installment of my favorite images of 2020. I’m lumping March and April together, but I’m probably going to handle the rest of the months individually since I have so many photos from those months. Once again, I’d really appreciate your votes for the images that most resonate with you – just put the numbers you like best in the comments section for this post. Thank you in advance, and I hope you enjoy the photos.

1.) The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve – Niobrara River and moonrise. March 9, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 28-300mm lens @140mm, ISO 640, f/11, 1/13 sec.
2.) Leaves and melting snow, Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska. March 15, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 400, f/18, 1/400 sec.
3.) Roundheaded bushclover and melting snow, Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska. March 15, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 400, f/29, 1/80 sec.
4.) Marsh ground beetle along a wetland drainage. Helzer family prairie. March 25, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, f/13, 1/400 sec.
5.) Ant and wetland. Helzer family prairie. March 25, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, f/14, 1/640 sec.
6.) Seed head of wild bergamot. Helzer family prairie. March 29, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, f/20, 1/60 sec.
7.) Seed head of Illinois bundleflower. Helzer family prairie. March 29, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, f/18, 1/250 sec.
8.) Dormant grasses and wetland. Helzer family prairie. March 29, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Tokina 12-28mm lens @14mm, ISO 500, f/14, 1/200 sec.
9.) Ice and barbed wire. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. April 3, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 640, f/18, 1/320 sec.
10.) Plains garter snake. Helzer backyard. April 5, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, f/7, 1/640 sec.
11.) Frost on wetland plants. Helzer family prairie. April 15, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 320, f/11, 1/400 sec.
12.) Pasqueflower at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. April 15, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 320, f/16, 1/50 sec.
13.) Pasqueflower and sunset at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. April 15, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Tokina 12-28mm lens @12mm, ISO 400, f/22, 1/60 sec.
14.) Buffalo pea flowers at the Helzer Family Prairie. April 19, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 250, f/13, 1/125 sec.
15.) Rockjasmine flowers at the Helzer Family Prairie. April 19, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/400 sec.
16.) Water drops on bracted spiderwort. Helzer backyard prairie garden. April 26, 2020. Nikon D7200 with Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 320, f/16, 1/80 sec.