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 – 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.

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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