Photo of the Week – April 27, 2018

I feel like I need to apologize to long-time readers of this blog.  This is the seventh spring season I’ve photographed and shared via this blog, and each of those spring seasons starts with essentially the same wildflower species.  Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus), and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – in no particular order – are the first three wildflowers I find and photograph almost every single year.  I’m always excited to find them because they are an important signal of a new growing season, but also because I’m desperate for something vibrant and colorful to photograph after a long winter.

Sharing those spring flower photos with you each year feels to me like a shared celebration of the annual prairie rebirth, but I also imagine some of you checking in on the blog, seeing the photos, sighing deeply, and checking right back out again.  If that’s you, I really do apologize, and you’re free to go.  I’ll try to do better next week.  For the rest of you, guess what!  It’s spring!  Look at these gorgeous flowers!!

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) was blooming at our family prairie this week.  Most were extraordinarily short still, but flowering nonetheless.  It was as if they didn’t feel like they had time to grow to their typical height – they just needed to BLOOM ALREADY.
Quite a few insects were flying between and crawling upon the pussytoes flowers, but many were tiny enough I had to look awfully close to see them.  That included this tiny true bug.
Because of the extended cold weather this spring, the flowering season is getting a late start, but plants seem to be responding with phenomenal speed.  I visited our prairie six days before this photo was taken and didn’t see any flowers of any kind.  Less than a week later, ground plum (shown here) and its colleagues seemed to be racing to catch up, and were in full bloom in all their regular places.
Dandelions bloomed first, but were still difficult to find a week ago. Now they are all over the place, especially in places that were grazed hard last year.
More pussytoes.
While not particularly showy, the flowers of pussytoes must produce fairly significant resources of pollinator insects, at least in comparison to the mostly barren (of flowering plants) landscape around them.  Flies were the most abundant visitors, but so were bees, moths, and even a few butterflies.

Photo of the Week – May 19, 2017

Over the last five years or so, I’ve been learning a lot more about pollinators, and that has changed the way I look at prairies.  As I walk around our prairies, I often think about how I would see the site if I was a bee trying to find enough nectar and pollen to both survive and provision my eggs.  Often, our prairies are full of flowers, but April and May can be pretty tough months.  The flowers that are blooming tend to be small and scattered, and I can walk a lot of steps without finding anything.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) was a welcome sight for this orange sulphur butterfly after its northward migration this spring.

The lack of available flowers in the spring is not necessarily a new thing.  Spring weather is unpredictable, and investing resources in blooming early means risking a late freeze or (in some cases) flooding rains that can scuttle the whole process.  However, many prairies today have fewer spring flowers than they used to, and restored prairies (crop fields converted back to prairie vegetation) are often low on spring flowers because finding seed for those species is difficult.  Flowering shrubs can help make up for a scarcity of spring wildflowers, but they are also less common these days than they used to be.

Shrubs like this wild plum (Prunus americana) can provide critically important pollinator resources when few wildflowers are blooming. This photo was taken back in mid-April.

Prairie managers and gardeners can both play important roles in helping to provide spring flowers for pollinators.  In prairies, allowing shrubs to grow in some areas of the landscape can benefit pollinators in the spring, but also help out increasingly rare shrub-nesting birds during the summer.  Thinking about spring flower availability might also help inform prairie management plans, and enhancing restored, or even remnant prairies, to add missing spring wildflowers might be beneficial as well.  For gardeners, adding native spring wildflowers can be both aesthetically pleasing and extremely important for the bees and other pollinators in your neighborhood.

By the time this monarch emerges as an adult in a few weeks, there should be plenty of wildflowers available for it. Hopefully, it will be competing for nectar against a number of bees and other pollinators that made it through a tough spring season.