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 – November 14, 2014

The praying mantis is an impressive predator, especially when it’s a Chinese mantis the length of a ball point pen.  The ones who live around here seem to have a particular affinity for sphinx moths.  I haven’t yet watched the capture take place, but I’ve seen the mantises (mantes? mantids? critters?) devouring their fuzzy prey several times, including one I photographed last year.  Almost exactly a year later, I took the following photos at the same prairie.

A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth.  Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.
A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth. Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.

You can see from the photo how well this mantis can hide – it is exactly the same color as the pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) plant it was hunting on, and its shape and texture blend in perfectly.  Other mantis species around the world have even more sophisticated camouflage, which almost seems unfair.

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ENPO140828_D057

After watching the mantis for a little while, I decided to try out the video function on my camera.  I’ve been trying to do a little more video work lately anyway.  If you’ve always wanted to see watch a mantis eat up close – and who wouldn’t want to?? – here’s your chance.  The barking in the background is from the dogs in the nearby animal shelter who were apparently excited to watch a prairie ecologist take video of a praying mantis…

My favorite shot of the day was this last one.  There is sure a lot of personality in a mantis face…

"Just trying to eat here... do you mind?"
“Just trying to eat here… do you mind?”

Chinese mantises are, of course, not native to the U.S., but as far as I can tell from bug-smart friends, don’t seem to be having any major negative impacts (neither are they providing the kind of “pest control” they are often introduced to provide).  Some introduced species have certainly become major ecological disasters, but it seems the Chinese mantis is just a new predator for prairie insects to watch out for, and for prairie enthusiasts to enjoy watching.

(Now would be the appropriate time for entomologically-savvy readers to correct my ignorance on the topic of the Chinese mantis and its impacts.  Please do.)