Photo of the Week – August 24, 2018

Former Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos came back for a visit last week and the two of us wandered around with our cameras for a couple hours on a wet foggy Saturday morning. (Quick reminder – applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellows are being accepted NOW – click here for more information.)

It was a beautiful morning, and we spent the bulk of our time in a prairie Evan had helped create while he was working for us.  Despite its young age (3rd growing season), the prairie already has a lot going on.  Plant diversity is looking good and invertebrates seem to be colonizing nicely.  Among those colonizers are a lot of spiders, and a foggy morning is a great time to see and photograph spider webs.  I spotted webs of several different species, but ended up photographing mostly webs created by a couple different species of (I think) longjawed orb weavers (Tetragnatha sp.).  I photographed much more than just spiders during those couple hours, but some of the longjawed orbweaver shots ended up being my favorite images of the day.

A longjawed orb weaver sits poised on its dew drop covered web, warming itself in the sun.
Early morning diffused light beautifully accented both spiders and their webs.
This is the same individual as in the first photo above, but from the other side of its web.  The spider was being very patient with me – and I was being very slow and deliberate in my approach to it.

The following three photos were taken within a minute or so of each other.  I couldn’t decide between them, so have included all of them.  I’m curious to know if any of you have strong preferences between them.  I think I like the first and third best, though the second is really nice too.  See what I mean?

Spider 1

The pose of this spider is common among many skinny long-legged spiders.  When inactive, or in the presence of a potential threat, they cozy up to a grass leaf or plant stem and almost seem to melt into it.  This one was in its hiding pose when I first spotted it. Judging by the dew droplets still affixed to its legs, I’m guessing it spent the night in that pose, but I’m not sure.

Between the first and second photo, I carefully held out my hand near the web and the spider shifted slightly away from it, moving a little more toward my camera, and into the light.  This is a really handy trick for slightly repositioning insects and other invertebrates for photos.  It always works spectacularly, except when it fails even more spectacularly and the subject hops, drops, or otherwise flees.

Spider 2

As I was photographing the spider in its new, more illuminated position, it suddenly stretched out its legs – as if it was yawning.  I squeezed off a couple quick shots before it returned to its original position.

Spider 3

The chance to photograph spiders on dew-covered webs always feels like a gift.  The conditions have to be just right – including near-zero wind velocity.  Late summer seems to be the time when an abundance of spider webs corresponds with an abundance of calm foggy/dewy mornings.  On those mornings, I tread carefully through prairies, trying hard not to blunder through webs, but knowing I will anyway.  I find most webs by looking toward the sunlight so that the glowing backlit dew-covered orbs stand out against a darker background.

Most webs are close to the ground, surrounded by tall vegetation, making them nearly impossible to approach without jiggling the web, and either breaking it or scaring the spider away – or both.  To add to the difficulty, most spiders sit on the downward slanting side of their web, with their eyes facing down and away from the sun. I always like to feature the faces of invertebrates when I can, but it’s not always possible to find a camera angle that works with web-weaving spiders.

The first three photos above were taken of webs that were along a restored wetland swale, where vegetation was relatively thin and I could fairly easily slide my tripod close to the spiders.  The last three were of a web that was placed at nearly head height – something I don’t see very often.

Oh, I did take photos of Evan too, but he wasn’t covered in dew and sitting on a glistening orb-shaped web, so he didn’t make the cut for this blog post.

Photo of the Week – August 3, 2018

I walked around one of our newer prairie/wetland restoration sites yesterday morning.  The sun was just starting to punch some holes in low-lying fog and everything was wet.  A cool and wet summer morning is usually a great time to find immobile insects and photograph them, but I for some reason I wasn’t seeing much as I walked.  Not a dragonfly, not a butterfly, not even a big ol’ beetle…  I did eventually find some bees encased in dew drops, waiting for the sun to emerge to warm and dry them.

A sunflower bee (Svastra obliqua) hides beneath a wet sawtooth sunflower leaf while waiting for morning fog to completely disperse.

Unlike females, male solitary bees don’t have nests to defend and spend most of their days chasing around foraging females.  When night comes, most species (except for a few night-feeding bees) just find a convenient place to shelter until morning.  Many times, they seem to choose roost sites where they can be a little protected from potential predators, but other times they just end up on the exposed surface of a flower (the equivalent of falling asleep on their dinner plate, I guess).  Most of the bees I saw yesterday were at least somewhat hidden- which is why I had to look pretty hard to find them, but there were a few out in the open as well, including the one pictured below.

This little fella (Melissodes agilis) looks like he fell asleep and became covered in dew drops while feeding on this rosinweed plant (Silphium integrifolium).

As I wandered along a wetland swale, I was admiring one of my favorite plants – prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) – when I happened to look down inside the blossom and spotted a fuzzy little bee.  Because it seemed like a convenient and relatively safe hiding place for bees, I started looking into other flowers too, and sure enough, I found more bees.

An agile long-horned bee (Melissodes agilis) sheltering inside a prairie gentian blossom. The circular holes in the flower petals were made by a different kind of bee – a leaf cutting bee, harvesting materials for its nest construction.

All the bees I was seeing in the prairie gentian flowers looked like the same species to me, but I’ve become smart enough not to overestimate my ability to tell bee species apart, so I double checked with Mike Arduser.  Mike confirmed that they are all male agile long-horned bees (Melissodes agilis), as was the bee I’d seen on the rosinweed flower.  He said they appear to have just recently emerged, based on their fresh appearance.  I’ll take his word for that and so should you.

There are actually three bees stacked on top of each other on this flower.

Mike also confirmed that the agile long-horned bees don’t have any particular tie to prairie gentian (they don’t specialize on its pollen or use it for nesting sites or materials).  Instead, it just appears a number of them independently recognized the potential value of prairie gentian flowers as safe overnight roost sites.  If I hadn’t been specifically admiring the gentian flowers, I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed the bees.  I’m guessing most predators wouldn’t have spotted them either, though if a smart predator had happened to find one then and decided to do what I did and check other flowers nearby, it would have had a pretty easy time filling up on bees for breakfast!

After hearing from Mike, I followed up with a series of questions I’m guessing even he can’t answer.  Among those, I’m wondering if an individual bee returns to the same roost site night after night – assuming it isn’t disturbed while sleeping the previous night.  If that hasn’t been studied, it seems like it would be relatively easy to do a mark and recapture study on them.  The trick might be to catch the bees AFTER they leave their roost, though, so they don’t associate that roost site with being caught…  Ok, maybe it wouldn’t be as easy as I was thinking.  If you try it, however, let me know what you figure out!