Something Blue

One of the most striking plants in our prairies this time of year is pitcher sage, also known as blue sage (Salvia azurea).  It’s tall, of course, but more importantly, as the surrounding prairie is dominated by green-becoming-gold grasses and big yellow flowers, pitcher sage stands out simply because it is starkly and unabashedly blue.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photo of a bee that specializes on pitcher sage, but there are many more insects commonly seen on the plant.  Last week, I spent about 45 minutes in our Platte River Prairies, photographing pitcher sage and as many visitors as I could.

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I initially pulled my camera out because there were several monarch butterflies flitting around a patch of pitcher sage.  While chasing them around (and, as always, being thankful no one was watching me), I came across quite a few other insects – some of which I managed to photograph.

A sulphur butterfly (and a second partially shown at the bottom left) enjoys pitcher sage.
Anthophora walshii (a digger bee) is a species I see on pitcher sage frequently, and this was just one of several hanging around a single patch of flowers.
This moth was nose deep.
Several skipper butterflies were around, including this sachem skipper.
Not all the insects were feeding on pollen and nectar.  I’m not sure what this plant bug was doing, but there it was.
This blister beetle was feeding on the flower itself.
This monarch was so distracted by the nectar of pitcher sage, I took this photo from about a foot away with a wide angle lens.
One more monarch…

In addition to being tall, striking, and beautiful, pitcher sage is also pretty good at withstanding drought.  During late August of 2012 – a year of extreme drought, pitcher sage stood out against a background of brown dormant grass, blooming just like it does every year.  Not only did it provide some welcome color when many other plants were wilting, it gave all the insects pictured above, and many others, something to eat when they needed it most.

What a great plant!

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.

Photo of the Week – September 2, 2011

I photographed this bee in late August of 2009 in a restored (reconstructed) prairie.  At the time, I naively assumed it was a honey bee – not knowing much about bee identification.  I stuck to that assumption a year later when a version of the photo was used on the cover of NEBRASKAland magazine.

Native bee on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in restored prairie at the Deep Well Wildlife Management Area near Phillips, Nebraska.

Then, in August of this year, I was giving a presentation to staff of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) about prairie ecology, and I used my “honey bee” photo as part of a slide on the decline of honey bees and the need for a strong community of native bees to pick up the slack.  As I was talking, I glanced over at Mike Arduser, a natural heritage biologist – and bee expert – with MDC and noticed that he had a pained expression on his face.  Knowing I was in trouble, I stopped and asked him what I’d said.

Mike explained that the bee in the photo is actually the native bee, Tetraloniella cressoniana, that feeds only on the pollen of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) – the plant I photographed it on.  So – far from being a social generalist feeder like a honey bee, this bee is an example of the other extreme.  A specialist bee that relies on pollen from only a single plant species.  How great is that!

Apart from my chagrin about calling it a honey bee, knowing the real story about this bee makes me like the photo even more.  The fact that the photo was taken in a location where cropland had been converted to high-diversity prairie – and there is no other prairie nearby – makes it even more interesting.  I’d love to know how this bee managed to find and nest in/near a prairie that contains pitcher sage.  Where did the bee come from?  Did it search randomly, or does it have a way to “smell” or otherwise sense this plant species?  What a fun thing to think about!

The above photo wasn’t taken in one of our Platte River Prairies, but I’m sure hoping to find Tetraloniella there this fall.  Pitcher sage just started blooming a week or so ago and I’ve been out looking a couple times.  So far, no luck.  I did find a bee with a similar color and striping pattern, but it turned out to be the other species of bee Mike said I’d likely find using pitcher sage (don’t you love experts!).  So I’m still looking… 

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