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.