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!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Finds a Fancy Moth

This post is by Olivia Schouten, one of this year’s Hubbard Fellows.  In this post, she shares a quick story about a moth she stumbled upon while doing invasive species control work.

Searching for musk thistles has given me a great way to explore every last corner of our properties here on the Platte, finding some cool things along the way! While we need to remove them, there’s no question that musk thistle flowers attract a wide assortment of pollinators, and it was on one such musk thistle that I found one of the coolest moths I’ve ever seen.

Look at this neat little moth!  (Photo by Olivia Schouten)

This little guy caught my eye as I approached this thistle, and I just had to stop and inspect it. It was about the size of one of my fingernails, and one of the fanciest insects I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Its wings looked like a bright red dress fringed with lace, with a golden furry cape thrown over its shoulders. I’ve always thought moth faces are cute, and this one was no exception, with its big green eye watching me warily as I stuck my phone in its face to get a few pictures.

A little online searching later and I identified it as the Indian blanket moth (Schinia volupia), a southern plains species that lays its eggs exclusively on Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), a prairie wildflower that is just as brilliantly yellow and red as this moth. I’m not entirely sure if this coloring of the moth is meant to act as camouflage while it sits on the host flowers, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that its fancy coloring probably doesn’t hurt (though it certainly made it more obvious when sitting on a different flower). The larva are just as striking, with red and white stripes running vertically down the caterpillar’s body. They feed exclusively on Indian blanket, though the adults will likely visit different species of Asteraceae for nectar.

Overall, it was great to get a chance to see this cute little specialist moth, and I’ll definitely be looking closer when I pass a patch of Indian Blanket in the future!