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.


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!

Little Blue Butterflies

The “tails” on the backside of the wings set the eastern tailed-blue apart from other relatives in our area

Though it’s one of the more common butterflies in this part of Nebraska, the eastern tailed-blue doesn’t get much attention.  One reason is that it is pretty small.  With a wingspan of about an inch, it isn’t much bigger than the white clover flowers it’s often feeding on in our yard.  Its name comes from the protrusions on its wings that set it apart from other blues (butterflies in the subfamily Polyommatinae).  The name “blue” comes from the striking color on the dorsal side of the wings of males.

An eastern tailed-blue displaying its incredible blue color while sitting on my finger.  I found this male in my yard and it was either too weak, tired, or sick, to fly away when I picked it up.  It provided an unusual look at the dorsal side of the wings of this species.

Blues rarely show the dorsal (top) side of their wings except in flight.  The rest of the time, all we get to see are the pale undersides of the wings, highlighted by dark spots and splashes of orange – the size and arrangement of which help distinguish species from each other.  There are several species of little blue butterflies found around here, including the Melissa blue and Reakirt’s blue, but 95% of what I see in the Platte River Prairies and in my yard are eastern tailed-blues.

The Melissa blue has much more orange on the ventral side of its wings than the eastern tailed-blue.  The endangered Karner blue, found only in a few isolated places in the eastern U.S. is a subspecies of the more widespread Melissa blue.

The eastern tailed-blue is far from the only tiny butterfly hiding in plain sight in prairies and yards across the country, but it’s an easy one to find if you start looking.  It’s also one you can feel confident identifying in front of friends and colleagues – assuming you can get close enough to see its little tails…

…the tails can sometimes be hard to see when the wings are completely closed…

Photo of the Week – August 3, 2017

Quick note on this Saturday’s Field Day.  We will be there rain or shine, and have indoor presentations , if needed, if rain keeps us from seeing insects outdoors during part of the day.  Please come join us for this free event!

A painted lady nectars from lanceleaf blazing star in the Platte River Prairies this week.

All of a sudden, painted lady butterflies have exploded onto the scene here in central Nebraska.  They are fluttering around all the flowers in our yard and are abundant in our prairies as well.  Painted lady butterflies are migratory, but this latest flush isn’t due to a new set of arrivals from further south.  Instead, a new batch of adults has just emerged after spending the last several weeks as caterpillars in prairies and other locations – including soybean fields.

In soybean fields, the caterpillars are known as thistle caterpillars and feed on the leaves of the bean plants.  According to my father-in-law Orvin Bontrager, a long-time agronomist, they don’t usually do enough damage to impact yields, though the damage can look a little scary to farmers.  For the rest of us, there’s nothing scary about these welcome accents to wildflower patches everywhere.  Here are a few more photos from this week of painted ladies in my yard and nearby prairies.

…on black-eyed Susan in our yard
…on whorled milkweed in our yard
…on rosinweed in the Platte River Prairies
…on Flodman’s thistle (native wildflower) in the Platte River Prairies


(Fun fact – painted lady butterflies are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia.  They also some make migratory flights that make monarchs look like amateurs.  Speaking of monarchs, they inhabit a larger slice of the earth than you might be aware of too…  Don’t get me started, I could spout insect trivia all day!)

Photo of the Week – May 19, 2017

Over the last five years or so, I’ve been learning a lot more about pollinators, and that has changed the way I look at prairies.  As I walk around our prairies, I often think about how I would see the site if I was a bee trying to find enough nectar and pollen to both survive and provision my eggs.  Often, our prairies are full of flowers, but April and May can be pretty tough months.  The flowers that are blooming tend to be small and scattered, and I can walk a lot of steps without finding anything.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) was a welcome sight for this orange sulphur butterfly after its northward migration this spring.

The lack of available flowers in the spring is not necessarily a new thing.  Spring weather is unpredictable, and investing resources in blooming early means risking a late freeze or (in some cases) flooding rains that can scuttle the whole process.  However, many prairies today have fewer spring flowers than they used to, and restored prairies (crop fields converted back to prairie vegetation) are often low on spring flowers because finding seed for those species is difficult.  Flowering shrubs can help make up for a scarcity of spring wildflowers, but they are also less common these days than they used to be.

Shrubs like this wild plum (Prunus americana) can provide critically important pollinator resources when few wildflowers are blooming. This photo was taken back in mid-April.

Prairie managers and gardeners can both play important roles in helping to provide spring flowers for pollinators.  In prairies, allowing shrubs to grow in some areas of the landscape can benefit pollinators in the spring, but also help out increasingly rare shrub-nesting birds during the summer.  Thinking about spring flower availability might also help inform prairie management plans, and enhancing restored, or even remnant prairies, to add missing spring wildflowers might be beneficial as well.  For gardeners, adding native spring wildflowers can be both aesthetically pleasing and extremely important for the bees and other pollinators in your neighborhood.

By the time this monarch emerges as an adult in a few weeks, there should be plenty of wildflowers available for it. Hopefully, it will be competing for nectar against a number of bees and other pollinators that made it through a tough spring season.

Frosty Monarchs

Adding insult to injury, the overly-ambitious monarchs in Nebraska this spring had to deal with cold wet weather all last weekend.  Temperatures got down to about 30 degrees F, and maybe lower in some places, and much of the prairie was covered in frost at least one morning.  During the days, it was rainy, windy, and cold.

We’d brought several monarch eggs from our garden into the house so we and the kids could watch them develop, and the caterpillars from those eggs seem to be doing very well.  When I went back to the garden, though, I didn’t find either eggs or caterpillars on the remaining plants.  I don’t know what happened, but I wonder if the caterpillars hatched out and then didn’t make it through the weather.  Maybe they’re just hiding really well?

Yesterday, I was out at our Platte River Prairies, and Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) and I spent a couple hours walking around and looking for caterpillars on milkweed with no luck.  In addition, the frost killed the tips of most of the warm-season grasses that were just emerging from the ground, and also wilted a lot of the common milkweed plants.  Interestingly, the whorled milkweed plants I’d seen caterpillars on during previous week seemed to have handled the cold just fine, but we couldn’t find any caterpillars on them.  We did find a few eggs on common milkweed plants, but it’ll be interesting to see how quickly those plants recover from the frost, and whether or not they are able to provide sufficient food for any caterpillars that hatch from those eggs.

This common milkweed plant looked a little wilted from the frost, but looked a lot better than the warm-season grasses surrounding it.
The common milkweed plant on the left was more typical of most of the plants we saw on our walk yesterday. Note the whorled milkweed on the right side of the image (skinny green leaves) – it looks perfectly fine.
This was one of several monarch eggs we found on common milkweed plants yesterday.  We found eggs on whorled milkweed as well.

There was good news from the day, though, which is that I saw two adult monarchs, one of which was nectaring on dandelions.  Maybe we’ll still see more eggs laid by this early migrant population.  Temperatures for the next couple weeks look pretty good, so those eggs might have both bigger milkweeds than their earlier counterparts and better weather as well.

This was one of two adult monarchs I saw yesterday. This one was so intent on feeding it let me army crawl to within a foot or so of it for a photograph.  Its faded color and rough-looking wings make it clear that it’s part of the migratory population that overwintered in Mexico.

While it’s been really interesting to see these monarchs show up early this spring, we’ve also seen some first-hand evidence of why we’re further north than those butterflies usually come to breed.  First, we were worried the butterflies wouldn’t find places to lay their eggs because the milkweed hadn’t emerged when they arrived.  Then we worried that caterpillars hatched out on those tiny milkweed plants might run out of food.  Now we’ve seen a frost and cold rainy weather that appears to have been hard on both caterpillars and milkweed.  Our prairies aren’t exactly giving those ambitious migratory monarchs a warm welcome.  Hopefully, we’ll see at least a few caterpillars turn into adults from this first generation, and their cousins further south will have better luck.  If so, we’ll see our regularly-scheduled influx of monarchs in a few weeks.  By then, we should be ready for them.

P.S.  Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the incredible journey the monarch in the above photo has made…  It hatched out of an egg late last summer, maybe even in Nebraska, and although its parents had been born near where it was born and hadn’t migrated anywhere, this one somehow knew that it needed to fly south.  Not only that, it knew to fly to a particular small spot northwest of Mexico City.  It somehow successfully navigated and survived the trip there, survived the winter with a horde of others like it, and then this spring, traveled about 1500 miles back north to get to the dandelion I photographed it on.  It’s a friggin’ butterfly, folks!  It’s just an amazing world, isn’t it?

Photo of the Week – December 1, 2016

Insect identification is unfair.

I came across this photo yesterday while looking through some images from last summer.  The photo caught my eye and I thought maybe I’d write a short natural history blurb about it and use that as my “Photo of the Week”.  My first task was to figure out what kind of butterfly is in the photo.  No problem.  I’ve got field guides and the internet.  How hard could it be?

A small
A small butterfly uses its long tongue to extract nectar from common milkweed at our family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.  If you click on the photo you can look at a larger version of the image and get a better look at the tongue.

I’m no butterfly expert, but I spent parts of a few summers learning butterflies back in the late 1990’s and have held on to much of my knowledge from that time.  I can usually identify the more common butterflies by sight and narrow others down enough that I can pretty quickly use a field guide to finish the job.  Skippers can cause me some problems, but they can be difficult even for seasoned butterfly biologists.  (Skippers are like the sparrows of the butterfly fauna – little brown fuzzy jobs that all look about the same.)

My first thought was that the butterfly was a pearl crescent.  That’s a common butterfly species around here and it looks much like the critter in the photo.  I looked it up, but the spots on the underside of the wing don’t quite match up.  The butterfly in the photo has more white patches than those in the field guides and online.

Next, I looked at the Gorgone’s checkerspot, another species we see quite a bit here.  No luck there either.  The patterns on the underside of the wings are really different from the butterfly in my photo.  I looked at the “Butterflies of Nebraska” and “BugGuide” websites and browsed through a number of other choices, including some species that only show up occasionally in the state.  Still no luck.  Frustrated, I left for a meeting, figuring I’d try again later.

By complete coincidence, my meeting today was about pollinator monitoring strategies, and the first two people I ran into were both butterfly experts.  Aha!  Since we had a few minutes before the meeting started, I grabbed my laptop and pulled up the photo in question.  They both stared at it, but neither gave me a quick answer.  I felt both better (it’s not just me!) and worse (come on, man, this isn’t supposed to be this HARD!).

After some hemming and hawing, the conclusion was that it’s probably some kind of crescent (Phyciodes sp.) but they couldn’t do any better than that.  To be fair, neither of them had access to field guides and it was a surprise question.  Still…  One of the biologists pointed out that not only do male and female crescents have different patterns, there can also be significant differences in patterns between different generations within the same summer.  What??

As a result of all this, I’m stuck not being able to tell you much natural history about this pretty little butterfly other than it’s probably some kind of crescent.  Interesting, huh?  About 30 minutes of my poking around in books and online, two butterfly experts looking at my photo with me, and that’s the best we’ve got.  Well, that and one unarguable conclusion:

Insect identification is unfair.

Photo of the Week – September 1, 2016

Two weeks ago, I posted about Yellow Season in prairies.  That annual phenomenon continues, and at our family prairie this week, stiff goldenrod was front and center.  Pollinators and pollen-eating insects seemed to approve.

Eastern-tailed blue
Eastern-tailed blue butterflies were abundant on stiff goldenrod flowers.  They were tricky to photograph, however, because at the slightest hint of danger, they flew from the flower and onto a nearby grass leaf where they sat facing directly away from the sun.  I’m not sure if that was always a risk aversion tactic (hard to see them in the shadows when their wings weren’t catching sunlight) or also a heat management tactic (turning their giant solar panel wings away from the sun to cool off).
Blister beetles were enjoying meals of goldenrod pollen, but it's not clear whether they were actually pollinating flowers.
Blister beetles were enjoying meals of goldenrod pollen, but it’s not clear whether they were actually pollinating flowers.  Some beetles eat parts of the flowers themselves, not just the pollen.  I couldn’t tell if blister beetles were doing that or not.
Cucumber beetles
Cucumber beetles (here) and soldier beetles (not shown) were also all over the place.  Not much pollen sticks to these smooth beetles, so they probably don’t carry much from flower to flower.
Moths of various species were numerous, but wary, quick, and thus difficult to photograph.
Moths of various species were numerous, but wary, quick, and thus difficult to photograph.  This is the only one I caught.  (You can also see a bit of a soldier beetle in the lower left corner of the image.)
Gray hairstreaks were even more abundant than eastern-tailed blues this week.
Gray hairstreaks were even more abundant than eastern-tailed blues this week.  They also held still better, which was nice.  You can see the long tongue at work on this one.
Bee flies have a rigid
Bee flies are part of a family of flies called Bombyliidae, and and many have a long rigid proboscis and feed on pollen and nectar.  Unlike a butterfly tongue, the fly’s proboscis doesn’t retract, so it just sticks straight out as the bee fly zips around.  The best nickname I’ve heard for these creatures is “beewhal” (get it?  it’s like “narwhal” but for a bee) which is just tremendous.
Often, when I post lots of pollinator pictures from a prairie walk, I also include a photo of a crab spider laying in wait. This week I couldn't find a single one! However, there was this big Chinese mantid, which will have to do.
Often, when I post lots of pollinator pictures from a prairie walk, I also include a photo of a crab spider laying in wait for an unwary insect. This week I couldn’t find a single one! However, this big Chinese mantid was lurking about amongst the goldenrod plants, so that will have to do.

Photo of the Week – December 17, 2015

Before and after sunrise…

Back in July, a small group of us got up early to do some prairie photography.  We were attending the Grassland Restoration Network workshop in northwestern Minnesota and wanted to catch the sunrise at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie.

We arrived at the prairie before sunrise, split up, and walked off in different directions, searching for photo opportunities.  Not far into my hike, I found a monarch butterfly roosting on a milkweed plant.  It was cold and wet and not able to move.  The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was nice color in the sky where the sun would appear in just a few minutes.  That sky glow provided enough illumination and color for me to take a few good photos of the monarch before I moved on to see what else I could find.  Before I walked away, I made note of the location so I could circle back later if I had time.

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed. TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
5:51 am.  The sun was nearing the horizon, but not quite up yet.  The light in this photograph is just reflected from the pre-sunrise glow behind me.  Nikon 105mm macro lens.  ISO 640.  F9, 1/25 second.

About twenty minutes later, the sun was up and I was wandering back near where I’d seen the monarch earlier so I stopped to see if it was still there.  It was, and the rich golden light from the sun was hitting it squarely.  I took some more photos .

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed. TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
6:13 am.  The sun is up and is a bright orange color, providing a rich orange/gold tone to both the butterfly and milkweed plant.  ISO 400, F11, 1/100 second.

These are just two of the images I shot of this butterfly that morning, but they are a good pair to use for comparison.  Both are nice photographs.  The first is a little flat, but has just enough color and definition of detail to make it work.  While not as flashy as the second photo, it accurately depicts the subtle beauty of the pre-sunrise world.  The second photo literally sparkles in comparison – every hair, scale, and droplet of water reflects the bright golden sunlight coming from the big orange sun behind me.  The details are much more defined, and it is a stronger visual image.

I’d guess that in a poll, most viewers of these two images would say they like the second better, but I bet there are a few of you who prefer the first.  (And if I hadn’t shown you the second, most of you would probably think the first is a very nice shot.)  I like them both, and am glad I took the time to circle back and get the second set of images.

In photography, light is nearly everything.  Composition is subjective, and it’s always interesting to see how different photographers frame the same scene.  The ability to recognize and use various lighting conditions, however, is what separates good photographers from the rest.  I can’t draw worth a lick, and I stick to very simple and safe color combinations in my clothing because I don’t have any aptitude in those regards.  I can see light, though, and am very grateful for that.  It makes the world a really interesting place to look at and photograph!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Lobelias and Pollinators

A guest post by Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  All photos are by Anne.

Derr Sandpit Wetland Restoration - The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Derr Sandpit Wetland Restoration – The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  September 12, 2013

I was scouting for native seeds in our sand pit restoration across from the crew quarters when I noticed a fascinating pollinator-plant interaction. This activity would’ve been best captured on video with a high quality zoom (which I did not have), but I was able to take pictures.  Bumble bees, and only bumble bees, were fighting their way into great blue lobelias along the edge of our restoration.  Meanwhile, their neighboring cardinal flowers were visited by butterflies exclusively.  Why, and how, were these two closely related flowers so specialized with their pollinator partnerships?

First, let’s consider the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).  The architecture of this flower insures that only burly bumble bees can gain access to the pollen and nectar.  Some other insects “cheat” and chew holes in the flower to by-pass the petal-gate, but bumble bees are their primary visitors. Watching the bumble bees pry open the flowers was entertaining. First, they climb onto the flower’s extending ‘tongue’. Then, they push aside the two top petal ‘lips’ and dunk themselves head first into the flower.  Their front half is completely inside the blossom. Only their bottoms and back legs stick out.  They clamber up the stalk, climbing from flower to flower until they reach the top, and then they fly off to visit a neighboring plant.  Because great blue lobelia seems to grow in patches, this is an efficient operation for both bee and blossom.  The bees act drunk on nectar, and the flowers are practically guaranteed a thorough pollination.

How bumblebees gain entry to lobelia flowers.



Conversely, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is traditionally considered to be a ‘hummingbird-specialist’ plant.  We are just outside the range of the ruby throated hummingbird here on the Platte River Prairies.  Instead, butterflies with their long tongues seem to have taken over the majority of the nectaring and pollination duties.  Or perhaps cardinal flowers in this part of Nebraska predominately self-pollinate.  At any rate, bees weren’t the major customers on cardinal flowers.  Cardinal flowers were visited by butterflies.

How strange that these two wetland con-generics, great blue lobelia and cardinal flower, could grow in intermingled patches and still rely on totally distinct pollinator communities.  Nature is weird and wonderful.

This monarch had the choice between blue lobelia and cardinal flower.  She chose cardinal flower. So did all the other butterflies.

This monarch had the choice between blue lobelia and cardinal flower.  She chose cardinal flower. So did all the other butterflies.
This monarch had the choice between blue lobelia and cardinal flower. She chose cardinal flower. So did all the other butterflies.

Regal Fritillary Butterflies in Burned and Grazed Prairie

We’ve been conducting field surveys of regal fritillary butterflies for the last three years.  During that time, we’ve learned a lot about how those butterflies are responding our prairie management and restoration work.  So far, there are two overwhelming lessons we’ve learned from our work.

1. The number of regal fritillaries produced in our Platte River Prairies is primarily tied to two factors: violets and thatch.  During the spring, when adults are first emerging from their chrysalises, butterfly abundance is highest in degraded remnant (unplowed) prairies that have few showy native wildflower species, but lots of common blue violets (Viola sororia).  While they don’t have much to excite a prairie botanist, these prairies sure produce a lot of regal fritillaries.  We don’t find many regals in recently burned portions of these prairies – only in portions that have built up some thatch.

A regal fritillary feeds on a thistle – The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

2. After regals emerge and mate in those thatchy violet-rich prairies, they spread out into more flowery sites to feed.  In our Platte River Prairies, those feeding sites tend to be restored (reconstructed) prairies located around and between those degraded remnants.  Those restored prairies have significantly fewer violets than remnant prairies, but lots of the favorite nectar flowers for regals, including hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and thistles (Cirsium and Carduus spp.).  Interestingly, while we don’t see regals emerging from recently burned prairie, some of the most-used summer nectaring sites are our most recently burned sites.

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