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!

Photo of the Week – May 12, 2016

Being a nature photographer sometimes means I can plan trips to interesting places and spend extended periods of time focusing on nothing but photography.  More often, however, my photography comes in short opportunistic bursts in the middle of other activities.  Fortunately, my family and coworkers are (mostly) patient with me when these opportunities arise and I briefly break away from whatever we’re doing.

Spider on a foggy morning. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Spider in foggy prairie. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

This week, two of my coworkers and I spent a couple days at our Niobrara Valley Preserve working on some strategic planning.  Our time together was really productive, but we were in one of the most scenic places in the world with almost no time to get outside and enjoy it.  When I woke up Tuesday morning, it was foggy outside, but bright enough that the sun was just barely visible through the fog.  My two coworkers were nowhere to be seen, so I made an executive decision that it was a great time for photography and slipped out the door and up the hill to a beautiful prairie ridgetop.

This web seemed to be uninhabited except by hundreds of water droplets.
This web seemed to be uninhabited except by hundreds of water droplets.
Water droplet at the tip of a grass leaf.
A single water droplet at the tip of a grass leaf.

I spent about 20 minutes photographing spiderwebs and other dew-covered natural wonders before slipping back into our cabin, ready to resume the meeting.  Fortunately, the other two – including my boss – hadn’t started without me.  Throughout the rest of the morning, I only sighed aloud a few times as I watched the fog slowly break up over the river and bluffs just outside our cabin, and I’m pretty sure I only pointed out the beautiful photography light seven or eight times.  Other than that I was completely focused and productive…

The same spider as shown in the first photo, but from a different angle. As long as my knees were wet from the dewy grass and the spider seemed ok with my presence, I figured I'd better shoot as many angles as I could...
The same spider as shown in the first photo, but from a different angle. As long as my knees were wet from the dewy grass and the spider seemed ok with my presence, I figured I’d better shoot as many angles as I could…

Photo of the Week – September 24, 2015

I showed up a little early for a meeting at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters this week.  While waiting for the others to arrive, I took advantage of morning sunlight filtering through the fog to photograph a few insects stuck in the dew.  I found a few big robber flies and dragonflies that were so cool and wet that I was able to stick my lens as close to them as I liked.  Here are four photos, two each of a robber fly and dragonfly.

Robberfly. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Robber fly. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Robberfly. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A more up close and personal view of the same robber fly.
Dragonfly and dew. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A meadowhawk (dragonfly) in a patch of western ragweed.  This is migration season, and there were several of these nearby.
Dragonfly and dew. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A second look at the same dragonfly.

Nothing like some dew and nice light to make me look like a great photographer!

Photo of the Week – October 30, 2014

I’ve always had a difficult time taking pleasing landscape photos in heavy fog.  I love the way prairies and wetlands look on foggy days, but I rarely come away with a scenic photo I’m happy with.  Fortunately, I can (and usually do) fall back on close-up photos…

Water droplets, gerardia and spider silk on a very foggy morning at a Platte River Prairies wetland last week.
Water droplets, false foxglove and spider silk on a very foggy morning.

One foggy morning last week, I waded into the shallow water of a wetland at our Platte River Prairies.  Everything was dripping wet because of the dense fog.  There was a light breeze, but not quite enough to blow the droplets off the plants or spider silk strands.

More gerardia in the fog.
More false foxglove in the fog.

Fog creates a “flat” light.  Flat light can be used for scenic photos, but it’s difficult to portray depth and texture because of the lack of any shadows.  However, that same light can work pretty well for close-ups, especially as the fog thins a little and the ambient light becomes a little brighter.

Droplets on a late-blooming plains coreopsis.
Droplets on a late-blooming plains coreopsis.

There were several patches of sand lovegrass along the sandy edge of the wetland last week.  The plants were bent almost to the ground under the weight of water drops.  Hidden among the sparkles was a cold wet grasshopper…

A grasshopper on a water-bejeweled sand lovegrass flower.
A grasshopper on a water-bejeweled sand lovegrass flower.

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Sand lovegrass close-up.
Sand lovegrass close-up.

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Sand lovegrass closer up.
Sand lovegrass closer up.

As the fog started to dissipate, the sun popped out periodically, providing a few opportunities for some landscape photos, but by then I was too intent on the little drops of water to pay much attention to the bigger picture.  I did take a few photos of the wetland, but quickly put the wide angle lens back away in favor of my macro lens.

Here's what the wetland looked like as the fog started to lift.
Here’s what the wetland looked like as the fog started to lift…

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Water droplets on spider silk.
…but it was the close-ups that continued to catch my eye.  Water droplets on the tip of a grass leaf and spider silk.

 

Goofy Bees

Nature can be incredibly complex and difficult to understand.  Every creature is always reacting to the conditions around them, and continually evolving strategies to keep up with an ever-changing world.  Because we don’t always understand the full spectrum of challenges facing organisms their behavior sometimes seems illogical.  (And, sometimes, it probably is.)  Regardless, trying to understand that behavior sure makes ecology fun!

Over the last month, I’ve seen two behaviors that are really interesting but don’t quite make sense to me.  Both involve bees.

On several occasions during the last several weeks, I’ve seen bumblebees spread out across the prairie, sitting on prominent high perches.  When approached, the bees fly a short distance and then either return to the same perch or land on a nearby one.  The second time I saw this, Anne Stine (Hubbard Fellow) and I were out collecting data for a research project.  There were dozens of bees on perches, and I just had to know what was going on.  Fortunately, I was able to catch Mike Arduser by cell phone and ask him.

A male bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) scans for females.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A male bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) sits above the prairie on an unopened stiff goldenrod flower. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I didn’t even finish my description of what we were seeing before Mike was able to tell me the species and gender of the bumblebees, as well as the reason for their perching behavior.  He said we were seeing males of the species Bombus griseocollis, and they were on the lookout for new queens making their first foray from of the nests they were raised in.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, we saw a gigantic female bumblebee being swarmed by eight or ten smaller males trying to mate with her.   Apparently, the perching behavior is successful.

So I guess sitting on perches makes sense.  However, wouldn’t it be more effective for the bees to wait right outside the nest exit instead of at apparently random locations across the prairie?  Surely these bees – or at least some of them – hatched from the same nest as the queens, so they should know where that nest is.  I’d think the males would want to be as close to that exit as possible so they could be the first one to “welcome” the female to the outside world.  Maybe there’s a good reason not to do that, but I don’t know what it would be.  As I said earlier, this kind of thing is what makes ecology fun!

(Another thing that’s fun is tossing small flower heads or other bumblebee-sized objects near the perched bees and watching them dart out after them…)

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The second bee observation came from the little prairie across town from my house.  I was out on a dewy morning, taking a few photographs before heading to the office.  It was cool and wet enough that most insects I saw were sitting very still, encased in droplets of water – a very nice situation for a photographer.

Many of those insects had found relatively sheltered and hidden locations in which to spend the night. A few, though, were right out in the open – something that seemed foolish to me, but certainly made it easier to photograph them.  One such insect that caught my eye was a medium-sized bee hanging upside down on a grass stem.  As I approached it, the bee spread its legs out (defense mechanism?) and by the time I set up my tripod to photograph it, the bee looked like a circus acrobat – hanging upside down and holding on only with its teeth (mandibles).

A female bee (Anthophora walshii) clings upside down to a grass stem with her mandibles.
A female bee (Anthophora walshii) clings upside down to a grass stem with her mandibles.  Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

I don’t even know where to start as I question this behavior.  First, why would the bee spend the night out in the open, rather than in a more sheltered location?  One explanation, I guess, is that it fears predators that hang out in sheltered locations than those that hunt in the open.  More confusing, however, is that this bee is a female ground-nesting bee.  She should have nearby a nest tunnel with eggs in it – why doesn’t she stay in that and protect her babies?  I asked Mike about this (of course) and he suggested it was possible that she had just become an adult and hadn’t yet had time to build her own nest.  I saw two or three other females of the same species nearby –  had they also just emerged as new adults from the same nest?  I guess it’s possible.

Another view of the same bee.
Another view of the same bee.

So, maybe the bee was a young female, still in the process of trying to find a good spot to dig her own nest tunnel.   I can buy that, and I wish her good luck if that’s the case.  However, that still doesn’t explain why she was hanging upside down by her mandibles…  I’m sure there’s a good explanation for that too, but I’m not sure I’ll ever figure it out.

Fortunately, my lack of understanding doesn’t make it less interesting to watch bees – and all the other organisms in the prairie.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  If I knew what I was going to see – and why it was happening – there’d be no reason to go to the prairie at all!

Thanks (again) to Mike Arduser for confirming the identifications of these bees and for explaining at least some of their behavior!