Sunday, July 4, 2010

July...A Window Into The Whole

Canada Anemone
(Anemone canadensis)
click images for larger view

This amazes me to no end, always has, always does time pass so quickly?!  It's already July!  

When I was young...very young, time was a chain that prevented the enjoyment of the natural world...glued to the window during class in school I griped about the day wasting away "out there", while trapped inside - not wanting to learn what I was told I must!

Now, it (time) is so fleeting and the natural world progresses, through the many processions of blooms and bust.  Even with the native pasture here, it is difficult to not miss things, and when you miss something, you usually must wait till next year!  (But at this rate - that doesn't seem to take very long anymore!)

I walked a favorite prairie close to home one evening this past week. The Porcupine grass was standing tall and mostly naked; nearly all their quills had been given up to the ground.  The Canada anemone blooms, which were quite prevalent in this same space only 2 weeks ago, were becoming rare...their seed now forming.  

The air was full of sounds of insects.  This is a sweet sound to me now...may not have been in earlier naive years.  I once found myself a quarter of a mile from the road in a boggy area of SE Iowa, photographing Bur Marigolds (Bidens aristosa) in a mass bloom I've not seen anything like since.  I was photographing with my old Crown Graphic 4X5 camera and heavy old tripod.  When I finally set up for a shot I realized a now nearly deafening drone of bees.  I looked around and almost immediately had to suppress a feeling of panic.  I had to have nearly a hundred solid acres of bees busily working all around me!  I was an island in the middle of these insects. The slogging walk back to the car, in my chest high waders, was made much harder by now trying to avoid upsetting any of the "quadrillion" (my mentally disabled estimate!) bees in a feeding frenzy!  I knew then, and know now, that I had nothing to worry about as long as I stayed upright - these insects had the same distraction I had (the flowers!) and were unconcerned or aware of my incidental presence!

I have always been interested in insects (invertebrates) and I suppose if I'd had my 35mm camera with me at the time I might have spent the next hour trying to get back to the car, photographing bees pollinating these forbs!  

I've become more interested in invertebrates in recent years here at our acreage and native pasture.  I've mentioned many times in past "A Tallgrass Journal" entries, about trying to balance the maintenance of the small remnant and the reconstructed areas with fire and mowing "and" leaving it alone...for the good of the insects.  This subject has become, perhaps one of the most important and discussed parts of prairie biodiversity (health).

With prairie remnants so dissected, fragmented - and small, the total picture is seldom still intact.  The prairie, as a real habitat, is in more danger of no longer existing as it once did than nearly any other type of habitat in our region of the country.  It all works together, as so eloquently put in "The Emerald Horizon, the History of Nature in Iowa", by Connie Mutel (see "A TAllgrass Journal" Vol.7 No.1)

Invertebrates are so key to the tallgrass diversity, as are the plants...but the ecosystem will not hold together integrally without the invertebrates.

I've noticed the pollinators among them (invertebrates) over the years and find it fascinating.  I never gave pollination much thought years back, until we became more familiar with some economic impacts of them...such as bees with world food crops.  In our region, much of our most common grain crops (corn and soy beans) are wind pollinated so the importance of pollinator health is nearly unappreciated.  This is unfortunate and many say "short sighted", as pollinator health is a key to world food production we should not disregard!

 Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with ant
(you'll have to click on the image to see the ant!)

One thing I've noticed out on our native pasture in recent days is the variety of pollinators one usually does not consider as such. I often see ants on various forbs...many time they'll be with aphids of course but often pollinating, gathering nectar and/or pollen and becoming important to specific plants.  The asclepias (milkweed) is one forb I often see ants working.

 Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with Mosquitoes
(click on image for larger view)
One insect that I've seen participating in this process, that surprised me are mosquitoes (!).  I remember hearing that mosquitoes also feed on nectar, but figured it must be the males, because we all know what the females feed on!  (ouch!)  But I've noticed many, many examples the past week of female mosquitoes inadvertently pollinating plants...especially the milkweeds.  Do they feed on others?  Well I'm guessing so, it's likely the opportunity that presents itself (?).  Wouldn't it be nice if female mosquitoes would prefer nectar to us!!!

 Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)with Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

Another insect I see feeding on nectar are wasps.  Or perhaps it's the pollen they are after, or both?  I'll have to study this more.  But one wasp I really like here is the Great Golden Digger Wasp.  They seem to feed on whatever is in bloom, which at the moment are the milkweeds.  The Great Golden Digger Wasp seem to really be attracted to the Whorled Milkweeds here, and then when they're done - the Goldenrods.

Interesting what's out there and what niche they partake. Well, they not only make fine music but as a group (the invertebrates) are part of the glue that holds the tallgrass prairie together...some may be not so pretty to others, but the natural world is shaped by them and our food throughout the world hinges on their health.  


  1. Great journal Bruce. As always I enjoy the writing, photos, and the ecology emphasis. cgh

  2. Hey Clark Thanks and good to hear from you!