…But Sometimes They’re White

I generally use this blog platform to share ideas and information about prairies, but now and then I also use it as a platform for asking questions.  Today is an example.

I want to know why many wildflowers, especially those with pink, blue, and lavender-colored blossoms, sometimes produce white flowers.  As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a white sunflower or goldenrod flower, or a white variety of any flower that is normally yellow, orange, or red.  However, it’s not that uncommon to see white gayfeather, verbena, or spiderwort blossoms.  What’s up with that?

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), showing the the typical pink flowers on the left and a white variant on the right.

I’ve looked for information on this, and talked to a few friends with horticultural/botanical knowledge, but haven’t really learned what I want to know.  I’m interested in the mechanics of how these typically pink or bluish flowers turn out pink, but I’m actually more interested in why it seems not to happen with all species – especially those with yellow flowers.

Prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) might be the species with which I see this phenomenon most frequently.  It is an annual/biennial that is typically purplish in color, but whenever I find a big patch of them, I can usually find a few plants with white flowers.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) sometimes has white flowers – I used to have some in my home garden.

Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) can sometimes have white flowers as well.  I wonder if the white blossoms are any more or less attractive to pollinating insects?

In addition to wondering about how the white flowers occur and why it seems to happen mainly in bluish and purplish-flowered plants, I’m curious about a few other things.  Is the white color variant recognized differently by bees and other pollinators?  Are there other differences (nectar or pollen amounts, odor, or flavor) that correlate with those color differences?  If you harvest seed from the white flowers, do at least some of them grow into more white flowers?

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) and bumblebees.  Most pitcher sage plants are blue, but at least a few grow white blossoms now and then.

I’d sure appreciate any insight on these topics.   I was surprised not to find answers readily available online, but maybe I just wasn’t framing the questions correctly?  Thanks.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 13, 2017

My favorite photos tend to be those I’ve taken most recently.  I imagine that’s true of most everyone who does any kind of creative work.  I have a tab at the top of the home page for this blog called “Prairie Photos” where you can see some of my favorite photos.  The other day, I looked through them and realized it had been way too long since I’d updated that page, so I remedied that.  Now you can click on that tab (or just click here) and see a batch of some of the photos I’m most proud of.  Here are a few examples…

This photo of prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) was taken this summer.  I think I mainly like it for its simplicity.

Most of the photos included in that collection were taken within the last couple of years, but there are a few older ones that I still like.  Often, those older photos captured a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.  Other times, they were the the final result of a lot of trial and error, and my pride in the image comes as much from that effort as from the quality of the photo.

This image of a crab spider and ant was taken back in 2013.  I was photographing the spider when the ant unexpectedly appeared.

This 2015 photo of stiff sunflowers in restored prairie along the Platte River still evokes a strong memory of the morning itself.

I honestly don’t know when this photo was taken. It’s a scan of an old slide. While I don’t remember the date (I could look it up) I definitely remember the moment because I’d been trying for years to find a vantage point from which I could capture the landscape diversity of the Niobrara Valley Preserve and this was the first time I felt successful.  Most of the cedar trees shown in the photo are gone now…

I have countless photos of stiff sunfllower (Helianthus pauciflorus), but this 2015 image is my current favorite. I like the color and composition, but also the fact that the petals are only partially elongated, giving it a different look than more mature flowers.

This katydid photo from 2014 is still one of my favorites because of the color and composition, but also because I can see its “ears” so clearly on its front elbows.  I use it often to talk about that fascinating anatomical tidbit about katydids.

When I see this 2015 photo, I can still smell the smoke of the prairie fire that scorched the vegetation on and around the big ant mound. I was monitoring the aftermath of our prescribed burn when I found these ants, and was able to capture the heightened activity of the colony as they scrambled to assess their newly exposed condition after the fire.

I have plenty of early morning photos with dew drops in them, but this one (from June 2016) is my current favorite.

One of my biggest aspirations for my photography is to help people see the beauty of prairies.  If you have friends or colleagues who aren’t yet aware of that beauty, maybe you can send them the link to these photos to show them a few examples.

Do it quick, though, before I get tired of these photos and replace them with newer ones!

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Back Door Thieves

I took a quick walk through one of our restored wetlands last week.  Most plants had finished blooming for the year, but in some recently-mowed patches, there were some scattered flowers of beggarticks (Bidens sp) and blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). I knelt down to look more closely at some small bees I spotted crawling around on the lobelia flowers.

I saw one bee crawl in and out of one of the flowers, but for the most part, the bees (and a few flies) were all hanging around at the base of the flowers.  As I watched, I saw one slide its long tongue into the flower.  I couldn’t tell if it opened up a hole or just took advantage of one that was already there.  Either way, it was apparently “stealing” nectar from the flower through a back window rather than entering politely through the front door.

A bee inserts its tongue into the base of a lobelia flower while two flies loiter nearby.

Another bee stealing nectar.

I sent photos and questions to both Jennifer Hopwood and Mike Arduser, who are always generous about sharing their expertise with me.  They both agreed with my interpretation, and Mike added some additional information.  He said that blue lobelia flowers have slits in them that make this kind of nectar robbing pretty easy for bees.

It seems an odd strategy for a flower to make it easy for bees to steal nectar without providing any pollination services in return.  Maybe the slits serve another purpose and the benefits outweigh the costs.  Or maybe it’s just a random loophole that natural selection hasn’t yet closed.  Regardless, blue lobelia plants tend to produce copious amounts of seed, so the flowers must get enough front door visitors to do the job.

In addition to the bees, there were a lot of flies hanging around the flowers too.  Flies have pretty short tongues, and it didn’t look like any of them were sticking those tongues into the flower slits.  Instead, they seemed to be feeding on the outside surface of the flower.  Maybe nectar was seeping through those flower slits?  Or maybe the bees were a little sloppy with their drinking and the bees were cleaning up after them?  Whatever the reason, I saw at least as many flies as bees on the flowers, so there must have been some attraction.

Flies were crawling around the bases of the flowers too, apparently feeding on the leftovers.

I wish now that I’d spent more time examining the flowers, and that I’d brought one home with me so I could look at the slits under a scope.  However, I hadn’t really planned to stop at the wetland, let alone to kneel down in the mud to look at bees stealing nectar from hapless flowers.  Also, my neck was starting to throb a little from holding my head at an uncomfortable angle necessary to photograph the bees.  Instead of sticking around to learn more, I took my camera, my muddy jeans, and my sore neck back to the truck and headed home.

Little cheater…

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 5, 2017

I had a few minutes after a meeting yesterday to walk through a restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies.  I didn’t really have any preconceived notion of what I was looking for – I just wanted to explore a site I hadn’t visited for a while.  There weren’t many flowers still blooming, but the golds and browns of autumn vegetation were still mixed with quite a bit of green.  Recent rains had raised the level of the stream flowing through the site, as well as the groundwater-linked wetlands adjacent to it.  I pulled my muck boots on over the decent jeans I’d worn for the meeting and wandered out into the wetland.  Here are a few of the photos I got from my brief walk.  I hope you enjoy them.

Water flows over a small beaver dam, split and rippled by multi-colored vegetation.

Swamp milkweed seeds lined up and waiting to make their jump.

A beggarticks (Bidens sp) plant in water surrounded by floating duckweed.

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A Little Calm in a Noisy World

The world seems awfully turbulent and noisy right now, and I don’t know about you, but I could use a little calm and serenity.  In my world, calm and serenity often come from a quiet walk through a prairie early in the morning or late in the evening when the light is soft and the breeze is even softer.  I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a few of those mornings and evenings this month, and I’m hoping maybe a few photos from those tranquil times might bring a little peacefulness into your life as well.

Common milkweed seeds (Asclepias syriaca). Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

A stinkbug posing on Canada tick clover (Desmodium canadense). Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.

Grasshopper on silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa). Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) seeds. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.

A painted lady butterfly settles in for the night on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, Nebraska.

Dew drops. Lincoln Creek Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.

Peace be with you all, my friends.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , | 20 Comments

Plant Game (Sept 27, 2017) Answers

Thanks to everyone who played this week’s plant game.  Here are the answers:

First, the photo didn’t get many guesses, but Ally got it right.  It is rough rattlesnakeroot, aka rough white lettuce, aka Prenanthes aspera.  Sorry Mike, your iNaturalist app failed this test…

In terms of guessing which plant name was fake, 181 people attempted the first question, and only 24% of you correctly guessed that the fake name was duckbill hairycress.  Spider antelope horns got the most votes (35%) but is the real name (at least one of them) for a kind of milkweed.

On the second question, 145 people guessed, but only 21% picked the actual fake name, which was silky sunwort.  Curve-pod fumewort, believe it or not, is a real live plant.

I hope some of you got a chuckle out of the third question.  Bela Lugosi is actually the name of a very famous actor (from a long time ago, granted) and is not a plant.  56% of you knew that, but about a quarter of you went with Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, which certainly does sound like a fake plant, but is real.

The game works because no matter how hard I try, I can’t usually come up with plant names that are more outlandish than the real ones…  Thanks for playing.

Posted in Prairie Natural History | Tagged | 4 Comments

Photo of the Week – September 29, 2017

As the growing season comes to an end and most wildflowers wind up their blooming period, insects that feed on nectar and pollen have to work a lot harder to find food.  The few remaining plants with active flowers suddenly become really popular.  In this part of Nebraska, those last remaining wildflowers include species like tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), heath aster (Aster ericoides), and New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), among others.  The other day, I spotted a lone New England aster plant being mobbed by hungry insects.  Here are some photos…


Over the five minutes or more that I watched the horde of insects on this plant, I saw the same individual blossoms get worked over multiple times by multiple insects.  After all that activity, I can’t imagine any of those insects were really getting much of anything out of those flowers, but they were certainly trying…

Painted lady butterflies are still pretty abundant, but not nearly as abundant as they were a year ago.

How many insects can you find on the photo below?  I can find four painted lady butterflies, a skipper butterfly, three different bees, and a tree cricket.  Not pictured are a couple of grasshoppers and a few other bees that were just below the field of view.

How many insects can you see?  Click on the photo to see a larger version of the image.

I assume the remaining painted lady butterflies will migrate soon, but most of the other pollen and nectar-eating insects around here don’t have anywhere to go.  Some will simply die with the flowering season, but others will spend the winter in a state of dormancy and re-emerge in the spring.  I sometimes use the analogy of watering holes in Africa when talking about flowers and pollinators.  In this case, the analogy seems particularly apt as the last “watering holes” are drying up and the animals relying on them are highly concentrated.  I was surprised not to see any “crocodiles” (e.g., crab spiders) at this particular watering hole, taking advantage of an increasingly desperate prey base.

I appreciate living in a temperate zone where I can enjoy a nice variety of seasons through the year, but I’ll certainly miss seeing (and photographing) flowers and insects over the winter.  It’s hard to focus on indoor work these days, knowing that my opportunities to see those flowers and insects this season are dwindling fast…

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Plant Game – September 27, 2017

The rules are simple.  Just pick the fake plant name from each list.  Three of the names in each list are official common names (as opposed to the scientific, or Latin names) of plants found growing in Nebraska.  The other is one that I made up.  See if you can guess the fake plant name.

Good luck!  I’ll post the answers in a day or two.

Bonus question. Can you name this Nebraska plant?



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Photo of the Week – September 22, 2017

The Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) is an impressive creature.  Introduced to North America, it has certainly made itself at home here.  Entomologists I’ve talked to express varying levels of concern about the presence of the Chinese mantis – as well as the narrow-winged mantis (Tenodera angustipennis) and European mantis (Mantis religiosa).  Most would rather those non-native mantises not be here, but say it’s hard to find strong evidence that they are doing measurable harm to the ecosystems they’ve moved into.  If anyone knows of research that has defined the impacts of these non-native mantises I’d love to hear about it.

The Chinese mantis comes in either grayish-brown, green, or a combination of green and brown.

Regardless of impact, Chinese mantises are fascinating animals, as are our native mantises like the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina).   While I was out taking pictures last weekend, I ran across three different Chinese mantises and captured the images in this post.  I think they show some of the various attributes of these amazing (and possibly harmful) creatures.

A Chinese mantis feeds on a captured hover fly.  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Seen from underneath, the mouth of the mantis is really otherworldly.  Praying mantises can turn their head 180 degrees – a unique attribute among insects.  That ability helps them scan for both prey and predators.

“Do you mind? I’m eating here…”

This mantis was finishing off a skipper butterfly (a Sachem?) while hanging beneath the flowers of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea).

The “pupils” in the big compound eyes of mantids are actually pseudopupils, and are a trick of the light rather than an actual structure.  Look at the location of the pseudopupil in the earlier photo showing the underside of a mantis’ head…

The mantis in this photo is not looking in a different direction than in the above photo, but the angle of light hitting the eyes makes it look that way.

One additional attribute of praying mantises, especially the big ones, is that they are noticed by the general public, including kids.  I spent last Friday helping with a prairie-based field day for 5th graders, and my job was to get the students interested in invertebrates.  We used sweep nets to catch inverts, and the kids got to catch and hold grasshoppers, katydids, and spiders.  Moving kids from “Spiders are icky!” to “Ha ha – this spider tickles when it walks on my hand!” is a really important process.  If we want people to understand the value of invertebrates, they first have to see them as something other than icky.  In that regard, the absolute star of the day was a big Chinese mantis one of the kids found early in the day.  I kept it and showed it to each group of students I visited with during the day, and it never failed to get oohs and aahs from them.  Everyone got to touch it, and it was big enough that we could easily talk about it’s various body parts, how it hunts, etc.  As an ambassador for invertebrate kind, it was very effective.  An important gateway bug, if you will.

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Corrected/Updated Information on the Painted Lady Migration Post

Well, about an hour after I published today’s blog post on the painted lady migration, I received an email response from Royce Bitzer (Iowa State University) which answered some questions I’d sent him earlier in the week.  I’d waited for his responses before posting, but finally decided to just go ahead with the information I had.

Dr. Bitzer provided one main piece of information that was different from what I’d originally said in my post, which is that there isn’t any evidence that the big super bloom of wildflowers in California spurred the migration.  He was surprised by that, but said that based on reports from the Las Vegas, NV and Albuquerque, NM areas, this year’s high numbers of migrating butterflies likely came from places near those reports, rather than from further west in California.

A little bit of additional information from Dr. Bitzer…   There is no evidence that painted ladies (or red admiral butterflies) can overwinter around here, so the butterflies we see during the summer get here through migration.  The painted ladies in my backyard now are likely a combination of butterflies that hatched out here (descendants of migrants) and others that are passing through from further north.  He’s been trying to track reports of movement over the last several weeks, and it appears that the big southern migration started over Labor Day weekend (Sept 2-4) when a cold front swept butterflies out of Canada and into the Dakotas.  Since then they’ve been moving further south, reaching Iowa and Nebraska.  They are joining up with already-present large populations that had hatched out here before the migrants arrived.

Anyway, I apologize for a second post on this topic, but I wanted to be sure I was providing the best information I could.  The original post has now been edited to make it more correct.

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