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!

The Painted Lady Butterfly: This Year’s Poster Child for Insect Migration

Note: this post was slightly edited after initial publication to make it more accurate.

Migrating painted lady butterflies are stealing some of the attention from the annual monarch butterfly migration, at least here in Nebraska.  Thousands upon thousands of painted ladies are fluttering around flowers and trees here in town, as well as out in nearby prairies and roadsides.  It’s been a great opportunity for photographers like me, but those big numbers of butterflies also present a great opportunity to remind people that other insects besides monarch butterflies rely on long-distance migrations.  Some of you will probably remember posts I wrote several years ago about moth migrations in North America and about longer intercontinental migrations of painted ladies and other species.

This painted lady butterfly was sharing this (native) tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) blossom with a bee. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
Right after I took the earlier photo, a second painted lady butterfly joined the first.  These thistles are extraordinarily popular among pollinators this time of year.

There is still a tremendous amount to learn about insect migration, mostly because it’s difficult to study.  Technological advances allow for the use of smaller and smaller transmitters that can be attached to some insects to help track them, but most studies of migration rely upon large coordinated reporting efforts by scientists and members of the public across wide geographic areas.  To date, we know that many butterflies, moths, and dragonflies migrate, along with locusts (in Africa and the Middle East) and maybe some ladybird beetles.  Many of those migrations are assisted by winds, but the insects use the winds to go where they want rather than just getting blown randomly around.  Navigation and orientation strategies are still being explored, but it appears that some species use the sun to help orient themselves, and maybe even the earth’s magnetic field.

Back in September 2013, I photographed this migrating variegated meadowhawk dragonfly as it waited for the morning sun to dry it out enough to continue its southward journey.

Painted lady butterflies have migratory populations around the world (they are on every continent except Australia and Antarctica).  In North America, populations are centered in the dry landscapes of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.  Migrations to the north and west occur frequently, but not consistently, and are strongest in years of abundant rainfall in those dry landscapes.  Strong plant growth in the desert provides lots of food for painted ladies, allowing them to grow big populations that start to outstrip their food availability, and that pushes them to migrate.  This year’s painted lady numbers in the Central U.S. appear to be some of the highest in recent years.  Reports of very high numbers passing through Albuquerque, New Mexico and Las Vegas, Nevada provide clues about the possible origins of this year’s butterfly “outbreak.” (Thanks to Royce Bitzer for that information).

Painted lady on heath aster (Aster ericoides).
Sunning itself.

It’s fascinating to consider the idea that plant growth conditions (and probably other factors) in the desert southwest led to the hordes of painted lady butterflies we’re seeing right now in Nebraska and around the Central United States.  As we learn more about insect migration, we’ll probably see more and more of these kinds of interrelationships between what happens in geographic locations that are very distant from each other.

We already know that many of the grassland nesting birds in Nebraska rely heavily on habitats in Central and South America, as well as on grasslands between here and there.  Insect migrations are much less well  understood, but monarch butterfly concerns have highlighted the fact that what happens in forests west of Mexico City impacts the butterflies we see in the Central U.S. – and vice versa.  Imagine the other interconnections we’ll find as we discover more migratory species and the routes they take from place to place!

Danger lurks as a painted lady feeds right above a Chinese praying mantis which was finishing off a smaller butterfly (a skipper of some kind) this weekend.

I don’t have any idea what painted lady butterflies need for habitat between their desert southwest origins and Nebraska.  Apparently, they’re finding what they need for now, but it’s a little disconcerting not to better understand what factors could lead to a collapse of that migratory process in the future.  Painted ladies are really common right now, so understanding those factors might not seem particularly urgent, but how many of us would have predicted the current calamity facing monarch butterflies just a few decades ago?  Hopefully, researchers and their citizen scientist partners can start figuring some of this out before we start seeing populations of migratory butterflies, moths, and dragonflies start to decline because of something we just didn’t realize might be important.

As I mentioned earlier, research on insect migration relies on coordination between many people, and across wide geographies.  If you want to get involved, there are numerous options.  To help collect data on dragonfly migration, check out the Xerces Society’s Migratory Dragonfly Partnership where you can learn how to identify and report sightings of migratory species.  If you want to contribute sightings for monarchs, hummingbirds, whooping cranes or even gray whales, check out the Journey North website.  Finally, if you want to learn more about the lives and migrations of painted ladies and their cousins the red admirals, visit Royce Bitzer’s excellent website.

In the meantime, if you live in part of the world where painted lady butterfly numbers are extraordinarily high right now, enjoy them while you can.  As I write this, I’m following my own advice by gazing happily out my dining room window at the (literally) hundreds of butterflies I can see in my yard right now.  I wasn’t able to travel to the desert to see the amazing colors during this spring’s wildflower season, but apparently some of that desert color traveled here instead!

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.

Intercontinental Insect Migration (!)

Insect migration is a world we’re just starting to discover, and the more we find, the more fascinating that world is.  One of the most recent discoveries involves Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui), a species found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.  Scientists in the United Kingdom knew that millions of painted ladies migrated north from North Africa each year.  Until recently, they assumed it was a one-way trip.  Now, innovative radar techniques show that the species migrates back to North Africa, taking advantage of high-altitude winds (up to 500 meters off the ground).  

A painted lady butterfly in Nebraska – feeding on Baldwin’s ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii).

In case you’re wondering why painted lady butterflies would bother making the trip, the results from radar readings showed that in one year about 11 million butterflies came from Africa to the United Kingdom, and 26 million went back – so the species apparently benefits from migrating.  (The butterflies that return are the offspring of the ones that come).  You can a further description of the study here from Science Magazine’s website, and link from there to the full scientific article.

Back in May, I posted about what is being learned about how moths and butterflies migrate in North America.  The story is similar, except that (at least at this point!) we think the majority of species migrate northward in the spring, but don’t return south.  Sounds like a great project for someone to look into!

Monarch butterflies in the Platte River Prairies – Nebraska.

I’m particularly fascinated by multi-generational migrations.  In North America, we’re familiar with the monarch butterfly migration, which takes place over four generations – each successive generation traveling the next leg of the journey.  The fact that each new generation of butterflies knows where to go and how to get there, without having been taught, is about as fantastic a natural phenomena as I can think of. 

Monarchs are not the only four generation insect migrant.  In fact, there’s a fantastic story about the globe skimmer dragonfly that migrates back and forth from India to Africa over four generations as well – using high-altitude wind currents like the painted lady butterfly.  You can read more about that dragonfly migration here.

Continuing advances in technology are allowing us to learn more and more about the lives of insects and other small creatures.  We’re starting by looking at the migrations of large showy insects such as butterflies, moths, and dragonflies, but I wonder how many smaller, less charismatic species are making long-distance trips that we’ve just never noticed.  I’m looking forward to reading many more fascinating stories as the data keeps coming in.

Don’t you just love science?

Pussytoes and Early Season Pollinators

I drove out to our family prairie yesterday to look for some early spring activity.  I scared up a couple of turkeys and a big owl, watched a red-tailed hawk soar for a while, and listened to the western meadowlarks tuning up for the breeding season.  No snakes were to be found, but there were plenty of leopard frogs along the edge of the pond.  I’d hoped to see some wildflowers, but there weren’t many blooming yet.  Apart from abundant sun sedge (Carex heliophila) plants on the steeper slopes, the only blooms to be found were patches of pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta).  Not that there’s anything wrong with pussytoes!

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) in the Helzer Prairie, south of Aurora, Nebraska

Our prairie sits right on the transition between tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie in Nebraska.  As such, it can be dominated by big bluestem and indiangrass, or by western wheatgrass, side-oats grama, tall dropseed, and other shorter grass species – depending upon recent weather and management.  Part of the property is unplowed prairie, but much of it was seeded in the early 1960’s by my grandpa soon after he bought the property.  The formerly cropped areas were seeded with grasses, but have also been colonized over time by many of the forb species from the hillier unplowed prairie on the site.

Pussytoes grows well in both the unplowed and seeded portions of the prairie.  It can be found in small patches consisting of a few individuals, but also in living room-sized populations.  The plant is considered to be allelopathic and reduces the height of surrounding plants, which makes large patches fairly easy to see.  It also seems to do well in the areas of the prairie favored by grazing cattle.  (Whether this is because the cattle are drawn to the shorter grass or because the pussytoes do well in heavily grazed areas I can’t tell – it’s likely both!)

Many of the pussytoes flowers were just starting to emerge, meaning that they were only an inch or so off the ground.

Regardless, the pussytoes had the wildflower blooming stage to themselves on this early April day.  I needed to scratch my itch for wildflower photography after a long winter, so I laid down with my tripod and focused in on a few plants.  As often happens when I take the time to sit down in a prairie, I noticed other things around me.  This time it was the buzzing of pollinators who had also noticed that pusseytoes were blooming.  As I watched, I counted at least 8 species of pollinating insects bouncing from flower to flower, looking for those with pollen-laden anthers.  Most of the insects were flies, but a few bees and a moth were among the visitors as well.  Elsewhere on the prairie I saw some orange sulphur butterflies too, but never actually saw one land on a pussytoes flower.

This was one of several fly species busily visiting pussytoes flowers.
Another fly species (about the size of a house fly).
A much smaller fly, wiping pollen off its leg with its mouthparts. (I assume - or wiping its mouthparts with its leg, who can tell?)
This was the only bee species I saw, though I thought I heard a bumblebee go by...

Since our prairie is a 106 island of prairie in a landscape consisting mostly of cropland, these pussytoes were not only the sole source of pollen in our prairie – they were just about the only thing to pollinators to eat for miles.  Not even the dandelions in the neighbor’s creek bottom had started to bloom yet.  I’d never thought of pussytoes as a critical plant for pollinators, but apparently I underestimated this low-stature plant.  I’m guessing it’s not the first time its been overlooked…

Yes, I know, this looks like the same fly species shown above, but I really like its face, and this photo shows it off better than the other one does...

Photo of the Week – January 6, 2011

I saw these two moths in a restored prairie in eastern Nebraska last spring.  They formed a mirror image that was too perfect not to photograph.

While butterflies are typically more showy and get much more attention from biologists, moths make up a much larger part of the taxonomic family (Lepidoptera) the two share.  While these two are are exceptions, most moths are typically less colorful and better camouflaged than butterflies.  Because coloration is not always a dependable cue, the most reliable characteristic for telling a moth from a butterfly is that moths have fuzzy antennae and butterflies don’t.