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!

Photo of the Week – August 16, 2018

I’ve been spending a lot of this summer at Lincoln Creek Prairie, right across town from my house.  Much of my time there has been spent working on my square meter photography project, but I’ve wandered a lot through the rest of the prairie as well.  Visiting the same site frequently always helps me appreciate the dynamic nature of prairies.  I get to track individual flower blossoms as they transform from buds to blossoms to seed heads, and watch insects move from larva/nymph stage to adult.

Last weekend,  for example, I visited the prairie two days in a row and spotted four different Chinese mantises  that had just emerged from their last molt, leaving their exoskeletons behind.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those exoskeletons before, let alone four over a two day period.  I’m guessing the skeletons don’t usually hang around long before they fall, dry up, and shrivel into obscurity – not necessarily in that order.

A Chinese mantid peers at me as I eased my camera toward it.  This one was photographed a few days before I found the exoskeletons and recently-molted adults.  
This is one of four shed mantis exoskeletons I found over a two day period.

One of my most exciting finds at Lincoln Creek this month was a small bee with gorgeous blue eyes.  It was a male Tetraloniella cressoniana – something I know only because I sent the photo to  Mike Arduser for identification.  I’ve photographed this species once before, back in 2009, and I wrote about it in a 2011 blog post.  The bee is noteworthy because it is very specialized in diet – feeding only on pitcher sage, aka blue sage (Salvia azurea).  Not coincidentally, that is the flower species in both pictures I have of this species.

Ever since learning about the species from Mike, I’d been hoping to see and photograph it again.  I finally got my wish last week, on a dewy morning at Lincoln Creek.  The bee was poised on a blue sage flower, probably waiting for the prairie to warm up and dry out enough that females would emerge from their nests.  I took quite a few shots of it as I gradually edged closer and closer, until it nearly filled the frame.  As soon as I got home, I fired off one of the photos to Mike, who enthusiastically identified it for me.

A male blue sage bee, which tolerantly allowed me to photograph it – only, I assume, because no females were available to chase.

Dewy mornings have always been favorite photographic opportunities for me, especially when the wind is calm.  Insects get trapped in dew drops, making them easy to photograph, and the entire prairie glistens and sparkles as the first light of the day hits it.  Photographing individual dew drops is always alluring, but rarely turns out very well for me – my macro lens doesn’t magnify them enough for my taste, and depth-of-field issues and slight breezes increase the technical difficulty significantly.  Now and then, however, I find the right situation.  That happened last week with a big droplet near a patch of sensitive briar flowers.

A dew drop and sensitive briar flower (Mimosa quadrivalvus) made a pretty combination.

Lincoln Creek Prairie has been a favorite spot of mine since I moved to town over 20 years ago.  It’s only about a mile from my house, and is a nice restored prairie with lots of flower and insect diversity.  The prairie is small and subdivided by tree lines and roads, but none of that really affects close-up photography.  Despite having made hundreds of trips to the prairie before this summer, though, I’m still finding new subject matter and making new observations – showcasing beautifully what prairies are all about.

Photo of the Week – September 6, 2013

Here are three photos from the last couple weeks that didn’t fit into any particular story or theme.  Each is from a different prairie, and each was the result of a quick opportunistic stop in the midst of doing something else.  The pitcher sage photo (immediately below) came after I walked past a patch of the flowers and then backed up to capture the image that stuck in my head when I first walked past.  I noticed the soldier beetle (second photo) as I was walking back to take more photos of the praying mantis eating the sphinx moth.  Finally, I spotted the bee sitting on a dew-covered gayfeather flower (third photo) as I got out of my truck to work on a fence project at our farm.

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in our plant diversity research plots.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in our plant diversity research plots. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

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A soldier beetle on a grass leaf.  Lincoln Creek Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska.
A soldier beetle on a grass leaf. Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

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A male long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).  Helzer family prairie - south of Aurora, Nebraska.
A male long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata). Helzer family prairie – south of Aurora, Nebraska.

Why I Care About Prairies and You Should Too

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I think prairie conservation is so important.  I’m not questioning my conviction – I feel very strongly that prairies are worth my time and effort to conserve – but if I can figure out exactly what it is that makes me care so much, maybe I can be more effective at convincing others to feel the same way.

I can list off all kinds of logical and aesthetic reasons that prairies are important.  Prairies build soil, capture carbon, trap sediment, grow livestock, and support pollinators.  Depending upon our individual preferences, prairies also provide us with flowers to enjoy, birds and butterflies to watch, and/or wildlife to hunt.

The buckeye is one of the more striking-looking butterflies that can be found in prairies.

Those are all very practical reasons to think prairies are important, but I don’t care deeply about prairies because they make soil and grow pretty flowers.  More importantly, those reasons are not enough to make someone stop and reconsider a decision to plow up a prairie to plant corn or broadcast spray 2,4-D just to reduce ragweed abundance.  If prairie conservation is going to succeed, you and I both need to understand and articulate the deeper reasons that we feel prairies are worth saving.

Which brings me to Dr. Seuss.

As I was mulling over why I cared so much about prairies, the story of “Horton Hears a Who” popped into my head.  In case you’re not familiar with the story, Horton the elephant accidentally discovers an entire community (Whoville) living on a speck of dust.  After he finds and starts talking with the Whos, Horton agrees to help protect them from harm.  The other characters in the book don’t believe Horton when he tries to tell them about the Whos, and actually go out of their way to steal and destroy the speck of dust he’s trying to protect.  Only when the Whos are finally successful at making enough noise to be heard do those other characters recognize the existence of the Whos and agree to help protect them.

Dr. Seuss’s intended moral to the story (repeated many times) is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  It’s a fine moral, but isn’t what drew me to the story as a metaphor of prairie conservation.  Instead, I was thinking about WHY the other characters in the story finally changed their minds.   The sour kangaroo and the Wickersham brothers didn’t give up their threats to boil the speck of dust in Beezelnut oil because Horton finally came up with the right logical argument to explain why the Whos were worth saving.  They changed their minds because when they finally heard the Whos making noise they recognized and identified with the Whos as fellow living creatures.

Can you see where I’m going with this?  I think the biggest thing that drives me to devote my career (and a fair amount of my free time) to prairie conservation is that I have developed a personal connection to the species that live in grasslands.  Not only do I know those species exist, I can also identify with them and what they’re doing to survive.  By becoming familiar with them, I became fond of them.

When I was in graduate school, I studied grassland nesting birds.  I got to know those bird species well, including where they lived, how they survived there, and what motivated and threatened them.  I saw prairies through their eyes, and that made me want to help make those prairies as hospitable to birds as I could.  Eventually, I began learning about prairie plants and insects as well.  I was fascinated to find that their stories were equally or more interesting than those of birds.  Each species had their own unique set of life strategies that allowed them to survive and interact with the world around them.  As a photographer, I usually learn about new species by taking a photograph of some interesting plant or insect, and then identifying it and researching its life later.  I’ve yet to come upon a prairie species that doesn’t have an amazing life story, which means the process of discovery continues to be fulfilling for me.

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) is one of my favorite flowers to photograph because of it's unique color and shape. It also seems to be a favorite haunt of many insect species, judging by the number that always seem to be crawling around on or near the flowers.

As the number of species I’ve gotten to know has increased, so has my commitment to prairie conservation.  Maintaining the resilience and vigor of prairie communities has grown from something that seemed like a good idea into a personal mission.  Now I’m working to protect things I love, not just species I’d read about or knew about only in the abstract.

Be honest, would you be more likely to send money to help people recovering from a natural disaster in a neighboring town or in a town on another continent?  With rare exceptions, we’d all choose the nearby town.  Why is that?  I think it’s because we can more easily identify with the people who live there.  We can imagine ourselves in their places.  We can see the disaster and their plight through their eyes.  It’s not that we don’t care about people on other continents, but they’re naturally a little less real to us.

By the way, forming sympathetic bonds with species can be dangerous when managing prairies.  The more I know about the species living in my prairies, the more I understand the ways in which those species are affected (positively and negatively) by management activities.  Any management treatment has negative impacts on some species, and impacts from activities such as prescribed fire can be quite dramatic.  Caring about individual species to the point where I’m unwilling to do anything to hurt them would paralyze me.  Management is all about tradeoffs, and while my management objectives are to sustain all the species I can, I have to be willing to knock populations of some species down periodically so that others can flourish.  I think the key is to become attached to the species, but not the individuals.  Tricky…     

Why does all this matter?  It matters because we need to recruit as many people to the cause of prairie conservation as we can.  Excluding a tiny minority of prairie enthusiasts, when the general public thinks about nature and conservation they look right past prairies to the mountains, lakes, and forests beyond – even when prairies are in their own backyard.  After all, what’s to care about in prairies?  It’s just grass.

If we’re going to fix that, we’ll need to do more than describe how prairies can help sequester carbon, filter water run-off, or support pollinator populations.   We’ll need to introduce people to the camouflaged looper inchworm that disguises itself with pieces of the flowers it eats – and to the regal fritillary caterpillar which, after hatching from its egg in the fall, sets out on a hike that will end by either finding a violet to feed on or starving to death.  They’ll need to become acquainted with sensitive briar, the sprawling thorny plant with pink koosh ball flowers whose leaves fold up when you touch them.  And who wouldn’t love to meet the bobolink – a little bird that looks like a blackbird after a lobotomy and flies in circles sounding like R2D2 from Star Wars?

The charming and vociferous bobolink.

Through this blog, as well as through numerous presentations, articles, and tours, I spend much of my time sharing what I’ve learned about prairie species with anyone who will listen – hoping that those stories will spur people to explore prairies on their own and start to form their own individual relationships with the species and communities they find.  My photographs and narratives aren’t themselves sufficient to convert people to the cause, but maybe they can at least get some of them to put on their hiking boots and go for a walk.

What about you?  Have you met the citizens of the prairie?  If not, let me help introduce you.  If you have met them, what stories can you tell?  How will you spread your passion about prairies to others?

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Here are some accounts I’ve written about prairie species I find fascinating.  If you find them interesting too, please share these links with others!

Camouflaged Looper – An inchworm that disguises itself with bits of the flowers it eats.

Yucca Moth – A terrific relationship between a plant and the single species of moth that has the capability to pollinate it.

Submarine Sora – Ever wonder why soras and other rails are so hard to find?

Sensitive Briar – A plant with a koosh ball flower, thorny stems, and leaves that fold up.

Pussytoes – One of the first spring-blooming flowers, and a surprisingly important resource for early season pollinators.

Of Mice and Clover – A great example of the complexity of interactions in prairies.

Crab Spiders – One of the great ambush predators of the world.

Flies – An unbelievably diverse group of insects with a wide range of ecological roles.

Grasshoppers – From their cute little faces to their complex communication strategies, it’s hard to beat grasshoppers.

Last Gasp of Summer

Below are photos taken a week or so ago from a prairie here in Aurora, Nebraska.  It’s the time of year when everything is preparing for winter.  Most plants are done blooming and entering dormancy.  A few are squeezing a couple last flowers out while they still can.  Meanwhile, insects are scrambling around trying to find something to eat before they either die or find a way to survive the winter.  Any still-blooming flower is literally crawling with insects trying to eat the pollen, nectar, seeds, and any other part of the flower that’s available.  Makes you wonder if it’s really worth it to the plant to make the effort…

A false milkweed bug on a false sunflower. (The photo, however, is real)

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Butterfly milkweed seeds ready to fly.

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Crab spider (Tibellus sp) on grass.

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The same crab spider as above. If I nudged the grass stem it was sitting on, the spider would quickly jump to nearby stem or leaf, crawl to the top of it, turn around, and freeze in this tight position - often making it nearly impossible to see.

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I actually saw this cottonwood leaf fall and lodge in the grass. I took the photo about 10 seconds later.

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Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) was one of the plant species that still had a few flowers.

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This tiny crab spider is dwarfed by a pitcher sage bloom. I'm not sure if the spider was waiting for prey or just resting.

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We haven’t had a hard freeze here yet, but it probably won’t be long.  That first freeze brings the end of life for many living things, but just signals the beginning of a long wait till spring for many others.  In the meantime, it’s work work work, tying up loose ends before the winter comes.  That applies to prairie species and prairie ecologists alike!

Photo of the Week – September 2, 2011

I photographed this bee in late August of 2009 in a restored (reconstructed) prairie.  At the time, I naively assumed it was a honey bee – not knowing much about bee identification.  I stuck to that assumption a year later when a version of the photo was used on the cover of NEBRASKAland magazine.

Native bee on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in restored prairie at the Deep Well Wildlife Management Area near Phillips, Nebraska.

Then, in August of this year, I was giving a presentation to staff of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) about prairie ecology, and I used my “honey bee” photo as part of a slide on the decline of honey bees and the need for a strong community of native bees to pick up the slack.  As I was talking, I glanced over at Mike Arduser, a natural heritage biologist – and bee expert – with MDC and noticed that he had a pained expression on his face.  Knowing I was in trouble, I stopped and asked him what I’d said.

Mike explained that the bee in the photo is actually the native bee, Tetraloniella cressoniana, that feeds only on the pollen of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) – the plant I photographed it on.  So – far from being a social generalist feeder like a honey bee, this bee is an example of the other extreme.  A specialist bee that relies on pollen from only a single plant species.  How great is that!

Apart from my chagrin about calling it a honey bee, knowing the real story about this bee makes me like the photo even more.  The fact that the photo was taken in a location where cropland had been converted to high-diversity prairie – and there is no other prairie nearby – makes it even more interesting.  I’d love to know how this bee managed to find and nest in/near a prairie that contains pitcher sage.  Where did the bee come from?  Did it search randomly, or does it have a way to “smell” or otherwise sense this plant species?  What a fun thing to think about!

The above photo wasn’t taken in one of our Platte River Prairies, but I’m sure hoping to find Tetraloniella there this fall.  Pitcher sage just started blooming a week or so ago and I’ve been out looking a couple times.  So far, no luck.  I did find a bee with a similar color and striping pattern, but it turned out to be the other species of bee Mike said I’d likely find using pitcher sage (don’t you love experts!).  So I’m still looking… 

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Photo of the Week – November 12, 2010

Back in mid-September I spotted this caterpillar feeding on the flowers of pitcher sage – a beautiful tall blue flower – in one of our prairies.  I’m pretty sure I’ve photographed this same kind of caterpillar before but don’t know what it is?  Tiger moth larva maybe?

Caterpiller on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea). The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies - Nebraska.

Sometimes I find surprises in my photographs as I’m looking through them after the fact.  Such was the case with this one.  While I was concentrating on the big fuzzy caterpillar (and fighting the gentle breeze that kept swinging it away from me…) I didn’t notice the little inchworm and ant on the next flower over.  Fortunately, they don’t detract from the photo – in fact I like them there because it helps portray the diversity of life in prairies – even on a single flower cluster!