Photo of the Week – June 1, 2018

I ran into a couple mysteries this week.  I enjoy mysteries, whether they get solved or not, but I’m wondering if maybe we can crowd source answers to both of these.  Stay tuned to the comments section for potential answers, and add your own suggestion if you have one.

First, when I was out at our family prairie last week, I found something interesting along the edge of our wetland.

Mystery #1. Who ate this bullfrog on top of this fencepost and left the remains hanging there afterward?

Something is helping us control our invasive bullfrog population, which I’m grateful for, but I’d like to know who to thank!  What kind of creature would pick up a full sized bullfrog, move it to the top of a nearby fence post and eat it?  The remains of another frog were on the next post over from this one, so it’s not an isolated event.  I’m thinking it has to be a bird, and a large one at that.  Herons like to eat frogs, but as far as I know, they leave the remnants floating in the water.  Do hawks eat frogs?  Owls?  Osprey?

The second mystery is a little different, and I’ve already had help solving part of it.  I’ve been walking past a couple New Jersey tea plants recently (on the way to my square meter photography project site).  Each time, I’ve noticed a particular kind of insect hanging around on and near the flowers.  The way the bugs (because they are clearly Hemipterans – true bugs) are sitting poised and apparently waiting for something, I’ve been assuming they are predators.

This bug, and several more like it, have been hanging around on a couple New Jersey tea plants lately.

I recognized the bugs but didn’t know what they were.  They reminded me of leaf-footed bugs, but instead of the flattened “leaf” structure being on their legs, this bug had them on its antennae.  I submitted the above photo to Bugguide and got a quick response, identifying it as a Euphorbia bug (Chariesterus antennator) – a kind of leaf-footed bug, after all.  That was easy, but my next step was to try to learn more about it, and that’s where I got stuck.

I found information on a couple other leaf-footed bugs, but not the Euphorbia bug.  It appears most leaf-footed bugs are plant feeders, with some doing minor damage to crops or garden plants.  Photos of the Euphorbia bug I can find on the internet often show it on Euphorbia plants (spurges), which makes sense, but I can’t find anything that says it actually feeds on spurge plants themselves.  Maybe that’s a favorite plant, but not its only food source?

So, I want to know what Euphorbia bugs eat.  Are they predators that hang out on plants waiting for opportunities to catch prey?  Or are they plant feeders that may or may not prefer spurge species?  While we’re at it, what do their larvae feed on?  Where do they live?  Is there anything else interesting about them?  Mysteries.


Photo of the Week – March 16, 2018

Ok, here’s a little nature puzzler for you.  In today’s post, I’m including three photos from 2017 that have something in common.  Are you sharp enough to figure it out or will you need someone to point it out to you?  (Hint, the answer is not that they are all animals, live in prairies, or have legs and eyes, though all of those are true.)

These red beetles are often found feeding on milkweed plants.
This speedster was photographed in the Nebraska Sandhills.
This beetle is one of many insect species that often feed on the pollen of sunflowers.

Given the level of expertise within this blog’s readership, I figure someone will come up with the answer a few minutes after I post this.  If you think you know the answer, please put it in the comments section.  I’ll keep an eye on the comments and reply when someone’s got the answer I’m looking for.  Have a great weekend!

(If you are subscribed via email and just read posts from your email messages, you might have to click on the title of the post to see it in a web browser and view the comments.)

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Nature of Human Intervention

This post is written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric has a solid background in land management and apparently thinks quite a bit while he’s doing stewardship work.  Here are some of his latest thoughts – I think you’ll find them thought-provoking.

What if I told you our most resilient prairies will likely experience burning, mowing, cutting, shredding, chemical spraying, and fencing for decades to come? Among splendidly diverse native wildflowers and grasses, and a rich assemblage of insects, birds, herps, and mammals, there will be the consistent imprints of boot tread in the soil. The sounds of wind-blown grass, and meadowlarks will be occasionally interrupted by the clamor of metal and engines. We will know resilience not only by the existence of a vibrant prairie pulsing with life, but also by the presence of a sturdy 4-strand barb wire fence, and a two-track road worn to mineral soil.

Managers know that maintaining the function and diversity of prairies is highly involved work. I think the image of that monumental work is viewed somewhat quizzically by much of the public that has not had an opportunity or guide to understand prairies. The notion of conservation as the process of removing human presence and intervention is still widely circulated. Once removed from the yoke of human imposition, the natural world is supposed to largely perpetuate itself; growing more abundant, diverse, and resilient in its respite. That is the idea at least. My experience on prairies tells me that conservation landscapes characterized by little human presence is a mold not applicable to prairies. It probably has not been for 150 years. Considering the long history of Native American land management, it may never have been. What’s more, the intensive management in prairie conservation is representative of what many of the world’s ecosystems will require to maintain their functions into the future. Decades of prairie management suggest that we consider ourselves and our presence not as obstacles or crutches to the diversity of life, but as integral drivers of the processes and forces that maintain integrity and functioning of ecosystems.

The author cuts down a cottonwood tree on the edge of one of our Platte River Prairies. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

On the prairie, we light the fires, control the grazers, and suppress the invasive plants. In doing so we drive species composition and distribution, habitat heterogeneity, and the presence or absence of ecosystem functions; the most fundamental ecological attributes. Our involvement is not out of hubris, nor does it make prairies an artifice. Science and experience tells us that without our involvement prairies nearly always slip into measurably degraded states, or entirely disappear. Chris has written thoroughly on the science and implications around the myth of the self-sustaining prairie and the reasons why management is necessary. Seeing our new role with clear eyes has important implications for our approach to conservation.

Rather than thinking of ourselves as prairie doctors, we should see ourselves as prairie organs. Organs are not optional, and cannot be removed from the whole when the budget it tight. When we set up prairie conservation complexes we need to consider humans with the same gravity we consider plant diversity. Whether it is land management professionals, volunteer cohorts, or farming and ranching families, thoughtful and capable human managers are as important as the native grass community.

People have been lighting North American prairies on fire since the last glaciers retreated and grasslands emerged as the dominant ecosystem in the Great Plains.

What does recognition of that human importance look like at The Nature Conservancy? Since 1994, standard operating procedure in TNC has mandated setting aside an endowment for every new land acquisition with the principal set at minimum 20% of the fair market value of the land. It is a small but key step in maintaining essential human capacity in our conservation lands. We also strive to recognize human importance by making our conservation work relevant to ranching families. The ecological and management knowledge we seek out strives to reconcile economic and conservation needs. The gold standard in our work are solutions that allow people and nature to thrive. This is not just because supporting human communities is important, but because prairies with deep human presence are healthy, resilient prairies.

If at this point you’re thinking- “This sounds like an overly involved prairie person issue.” I say this- Prairies are likely a vanguard for where many of our natural systems are headed. Our ability to find success as drivers of ecosystem integrity and resilience through active management have implications for the future integrity of countless ecosystem types. Resilience processes in forests, reefs, tundra, and countless other systems are being broken down by ongoing fragmentation, and novel disturbances. There is already a need for us to step in and play a key role in the ecology that reinforces the biodiversity, functions, and services those systems provide. That need is only growing. North American Prairies are a proving ground for our ability to do that effectively.

I hope you consider sharing your thoughts.

Photo of the Week – July 21, 2016

Lately, I’ve had some great opportunities to photograph big charismatic animals like bison and cute mammals like prairie dogs.  During the same period, however, I’ve also managed to make the kind of photographs I’m most drawn to – images of little things like flowers and bugs.  Since  much of what I’ve posted lately (the dung beetles post notwithstanding) has been bigger wildlife, I decided to share a selection of more close-up views of prairies today.

Black-eyed Susan from beneath. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) from beneath. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Prairie cicada at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Prairie cicada at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower. Platte River Prairies.
Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower. Platte River Prairies.
Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Broad sweeping vistas and big stompy animals add drama to prairie landscapes, but most of the complexity and function actually happens at a very small scale.  Sometimes it’s nice to just pause and enjoy the little things.

Graduating. Naturally.

My daughter graduated from high school this spring.  The graduation ceremony got me thinking about commencement speeches and how I might craft a conservation-oriented commencement speech in the extremely unlikely event that I’d ever be asked to give one.  Here’s an example of what I might have said to my daughter’s class if they’d asked.  

My daughter when she was much younger.  She's not planning a career in conservation, but I hope the time she's had in nature will serve her well and that she'll support conservation efforts no matter where life takes her.
My daughter when she was much younger. She’s not planning a career in conservation, but I hope the time she’s had in nature will serve her well and that she’ll support conservation efforts no matter where life takes her.  And yes, I’m very proud of her.

Congratulations on completing high school and earning your right to independence.  Use your new power and freedom wisely.

One of my greatest hopes for you is that you can feel comfortable in the outdoors.  That you can walk through natural areas without unreasonable fears of hidden snakes or spiders (or bears).  I hope you don’t feel intimidated by wide swaths of open space or dark shadowy woods.  The natural world does present some risk, and even bears in some places, but while it’s smart to take precautions against risks, being in nature should bring you relaxation and joy.

Gaining the confidence to feel at home in the outdoors comes through experience.  Hopefully, you’ve already had enough experience in nature to feel relatively comfortable there.  Whether you have or not, please make time to visit your backyard, local parks, national parks, and other areas where you can surround yourself with wildness.  Use your time there to reenergize yourself, but also to remind yourself that you too are a part of the natural world.  Explore.  Pick up rocks to see what’s under them.  Where appropriate, leave the trail and bushwhack up a hill or through a line of brush to see what’s on the other side.  Sit and watch an ant hill until you start to see order in the chaos.  With time, you’ll begin to recognize the many cycles that occur in your favorite natural places, including the migratory patterns of birds, butterflies, and dragonflies, and the regular progression of blooming plants through the seasons.

I hope that as you grow older you’ll also grow your appreciation of the value of nature.  Those of us who spend significant time exploring the outdoors understand the emotional and spiritual benefits that come with periodic escapes from the horde of humanity and its demands on our time and energy.  There are plenty of recreational activities that can pull you into the natural world, including hiking, hunting, fishing, photography, backpacking, boating, and birdwatching.  Any of those can help you relax, reflect, and keep a healthy perspective on the world.

At the same time, it’s also important to recognize the more utilitarian values of the natural world.  Clean drinking water comes from healthy ecosystems.  So does our food supply.  Critical processes like pollination, decomposition, and nutrient cycling rely on multitudes of species that, in turn, rely on intact food webs and biological diversity.  The air we breathe and the climate that sustains us depend upon cascades of natural processes driven by millions of plant, animal, and microbe species.

For all those reasons, both personal and societal, I hope you’ll support conservation efforts.  That doesn’t mean you have to chain yourself to a tree or shout slogans on the steps of the Capitol.  You also don’t have to be a research biologist or land manager, although both can be very fulfilling jobs if you’ve got the interest.  Instead, start by simply speaking well of nature and the outdoors to your peers.  Help others see the beauty and importance of the natural world through your eyes.  Help them see conservation for what it is; non-partisan, common sense, and good for everyone.  Recycle.  Compost.  Vote.  Contribute time and money to causes and organizations you feel good about.  Grow native plants in your yard.  There are countless small ways to contribute toward the conservation of nature, and all of them can make a real difference.

Most importantly, go take a hike.  Kneel down and watch the bees come and go from a flower.  Grab your old dirty shoes and splash around in a stream.  Or wear your good shoes and splash around in a stream.  You’re a high school graduate – who’s going to tell you no?

Boys and Sticks

My wife and I are both biologists.  She’s a high school biology teacher and I’m a prairie ecologist.  You won’t be surprised that we think it’s important for our kids to get outside and explore nature.  However, we don’t often take the kids out with any particular agenda or curriculum in mind.  We usually just take them out.

This last weekend, we decided to spend our Sunday afternoon enjoying the pleasant weather preceding what we’re being told might be the blizzard of the century. (C’mon man, it’s just snow and wind!  Having said that, if I don’t make it through this storm alive, this will be an ironic last blog post.)  Anyway, we took Atticus (age 10) and Calvin (7) out to our family prairie for several hours.  Once there, we pretty much let the boys do what they wanted, with the exception that we kept them off the softening ice on the wetland/pond.

Boys with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.
Atticus and Calvin displaying sticks they found at the prairie.

I didn’t watch the boys closely the whole time, but as far as I could tell, they spent about 92% of the time they were at the prairie whacking sticks against dead trees.  I’m not kidding.  Sure, they poked around the prairie and wetland a little, saw some animal tracks, found some bones, practiced getting through barbed wire fences, and played with the dogs a little.  But the majority of their experience, and what they’ll probably remember most from the day, was stick whacking.

And that’s just fine with me.  They came away from the afternoon with a positive impression of spending time in nature, and they’re excited to go back.  That’s just perfect.

Boys with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.
Climbing on a dead tree.  With sticks.
Boy with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Calvin Miller (Photographer's stepson)
Calvin and his stick.  (Yes, I was having fun with the sun.)
Boy with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Calvin Miller (Photographer's stepson)
Calvin again.  And the sun.  Again.
Outing at the Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Kim Helzer with Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.
Heading home.  Tired and happy.

Photo of the Week – September 3, 2015

Recently, we’ve been seeing some very pretty sunrises and sunsets (and moon rises, for that matter) because of a thin veil of smoke in the sky from the western U.S. wildfires.  That diffused light makes pretty good opportunities for photos, and I’ve been trying to take advantage of those when I can.

Last Saturday, I drove to a nearby town to do some shopping, but took my camera along.  I ended up stopping briefly at a restored prairie on both the way there and back because the light was so nice – even at around noon – and the wind was barely blowing.  Here is a selection of photos from the day.

Sphinx moth. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
A sphinx moth feeds on nectar from a tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum). Thistles were abundant in this prairie, as were bumblebees, other bees, butterflies, moths, and many other insects feeding on pollen and nectar from them.  Deep Well Wildlife Management Area, near Phillips, Nebraska.
Rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera) Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
Rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera).  This is not a common species in this area, so it was nice to see a healthy population growing in a cropfield-converted-to-prairie.  The site was restored by Prairie Plains Resource Institute and owned/managed by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Katydid. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
This is a very attractive little katydid (a female because of the ovipositor – the egg-laying tube coming out the back).  However, I couldn’t ever manage to photograph an even more attractive katydid that was colored both bright green and purple.  Gorgeous, but skittish.
Indiangrass. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) was reaching the tail end of its blooming period.   These anthers have lost their bright yellow color and will probably fall soon.
Butterflies. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
These eastern-tailed blue butterflies let me get close enough for a photo before flying off (still attached) to a more private location.
Damselfly on monarda. Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
I had fun watching this damselfly but am still not sure what it was doing.  It was flying up to plants and bumping its “nose” against them repeatedly while moving up and down the stems.  I wonder if it was looking for insects to eat but I’ve never noticed this kind of behavior before.  It would bump plants for 15 or 20 seconds and then find a perch to sit on for a while before starting out again.
Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Deep Well Wildlife Management Area.
Entire-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) was done blooming and well into its senescence last weekend.  Summer must be nearly over…  That was quick.

If You Were a Bee…

During the past two Mondays, I had the opportunity to help out with Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Summer Orientation About Rivers (SOAR) program.  It’s the best summer day camp I’ve ever been involved with, and my kids, my wife, and I have all enjoyed being part of it over many years.  This year, I was tasked with talking to kids (about 8 kids at a time) about the value of biological diversity in ecosystems.

Dip netting for aquatic animals at SOAR 2010.  Daycamp for kids put on by Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Day 1 at Lake Mary, near Hordville, Nebraska.
Dip netting for aquatic animals at SOAR back in 2010.

I needed an activity that would keep the kids engaged for about 15 minutes and send them away with an appreciation of why prairies need to have so many species in order to function well.  With the help of my wife, I came up with a pretty good plan.  Then I refined it a little each time I presented it to a new group of kids.  It turned out well enough that I decided I’d share it here as well – I hope it helps you think about the same concepts I was trying to pass on to the kids.

I started off by talking about ordering food at a fast food restaurant.  When you walk in, you go up to the counter and order food from the cashier.  What happens if that cashier is sick that day?  Do you just go home hungry?  No, of course not – the restaurant has more than one person who can do that job, so someone else fills in and you still get to eat.  Well, the same kind of thing happens in nature.  Each organism in a prairie plays a certain role – it has a job to do – but if one species is unavailable (because of a disease outbreak, bad weather, etc.) other species can usually fill in and cover for it.

Next, I asked the kids for an example of a prairie species that plays an important role.  Most of the time, someone said “bees”, which was perfect.  If not, I provided that answer after discussing the ones they came up with.  We talked briefly about the importance of pollination, the number of bee species found in many prairies (often 50-100 species), and that most of those bee species are “solitary bees”, meaning a single female trying to build and care for a nest of eggs.  That female digs a tunnel in the ground (usually), lays an egg and then collects enough pollen and nectar to feed the larva until it becomes an adult.  She seals the egg and food into a cell and then starts another cell on top of it.

This tiny bee was visiting purple prairie clover outside our field headquarters yesterday.  Its nest must have been fairly close by because an insect that size can’t travel very far.

I then showed them a couple sweat bees, and we talked about how bees that small couldn’t fly very far from their nest.  Then I had them look at a circle of flags I’d put up around us (a circle with about a 50 meter radius) and told them that for some very small bees, a circle that size was basically their entire universe with their nest in the center.  Within that circle, a female bee would have to go out every day and find enough food to both stay alive and provision her eggs.

Next I split the kids into groups of two or three and handed them a little bag with a wildflower in it.  All of the flowers in the bags could be found within our circle of flags, but some were much more abundant than others.  I told the kids they were solitary bees and their job was to spend the next five minutes counting the number of flowers (blossoms, not plants) within the circle that matched the one in their bag.  Off they went!

After five minutes, I called them back in so we could talk about their search.  Some of the kids struggled to find any flowers that matched their sample, while others came back with counts of between 100 and 200 blossoms.  This led to a great discussion about the importance of plant diversity to bees.  If a bee relied on only one plant species and it wasn’t very common within the “universe” around its nest, it would probably starve – especially because it would be competing with other pollinators for the pollen and nectar from those few flowers.  Even if the bee’s flower species was really abundant, it might only bloom for a few weeks, so once it was gone, the bee wouldn’t have anything left to eat.  However, if the bee’s universe contained lots of flower species it could feed from, the bee was likely to find enough food for itself and its eggs throughout its entire life.

What would this prairie look like through the eyes of a tiny bee trying to find food for itself and its eggs?
What would this prairie look like through the eyes of a tiny bee trying to find food for itself and its eggs?

To wrap up, I reinforced the point that bees rely on having lots of choices of plant species to feed on.  If one plant species is unavailable, there are others that can provide the food the insects need.  At the same time, most flowers also do best when there are lots of pollinator species available to visit them.  In a prairie with a diverse community of bees, it’s less of a big deal when a few of those bee species are low in abundance because of weather or disease.  Other bee species can cover for them and flowers still get pollinated.

Finally, I said that while we’d been talking about bees and flowers, biological diversity was important in many other ways as well.  Many herbivores need lots of different kinds of plants so they can find high quality food all year round.  A wide range of available prey species is important to predators.  And so on.  When a prairie, or other ecosystem, loses too many species, it’s just like a restaurant losing too many employees.  At some point, there’s no one left to cover for someone who gets sick, and the system breaks down.

Two quick asides:

1. The fast food restaurant example I used with the kids was not my first idea.  I actually started talking about bank tellers, and asked the kids what would happen if the bank teller was sick when you went to get money out of your account.  However, my wife helpfully pointed out that most kids have probably never met a bank teller since so many people do their banking electronically or through ATM machines…

2. The circular “universe” around a solitary bee nest has been a really useful idea for me over the last several years.  While the size of that circle varies quite a bit by bee species, the concept has changed the way I evaluate our prairie restoration and management.  When I walk around our prairies, I often stop and think about what a solitary bee would experience if it were nesting there.  If you’re in charge of a prairie, I’d encourage you to try it sometime – maybe it’ll be helpful to you as well.

Favorite Photos From 2014

As we near the end of another year, I’ve put together a collection of my favorite images from 2014.  I hope you enjoy them.  Though I traveled to prairies in several other states this year, all of my favorite images ended up being from Nebraska.  (No offense to the beautiful grasslands in those other states – it’s just the way it worked out this year.)

The slideshow will run on its own, but you can speed it up by clicking on the arrows to move through the images.

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Thanks, as always, for your interest in prairies and this blog.  Knowing there are others who enjoy the beauty and complexity of prairie landscapes is very satisfying.  Have a great holiday season!

If you want to see similar collections of images from previous years, here are links to 2013 and 2012.


Photo of the Week – December 11, 2014

For no particular reason, here are two unrelated photos from the same day.  Both photographs were taken on September 28, 2014 at our family prairie south of Aurora, Nebraska.  I wish I could come up with a pithy and informative way to link the two together, or to a larger theme or lesson.  I can’t.  I just like the photos.  I hope you do too.

A katydid on stiff goldenrod.  Frequent readers of The Prairie Ecologist will remember that you can distinguish a katydid from a grasshopper by its very long antenna.
A katydid on stiff goldenrod. Frequent readers of The Prairie Ecologist will remember that you can distinguish a katydid from a grasshopper by its very long antenna.


Stiff goldenrod seeds resting on the leaf beneath the seedhead they dropped from.
Stiff goldenrod seeds resting on the leaf beneath the seedhead from which they dropped.