Sunday, June 10, 2012

White Prairie Clover - Hitched to Many Things

I think I may actually get it done!  Before the next Monday morning rolls around, I may actually get all the blog posts done from my one hour walkabout last Monday morning! 

Besides the black eyed Susans that I talked about in my last post, another newly blooming perennial that was in full glory last Monday was the white prairie clover, Dalea candida.  While I find white prairie clover very easy to overlook among the grasses, prairie coneflower, black-eyed Susans, and other larger, more colorful plants of the prairie, the insects obviously don't agree with me.  This unassuming little prairie native is crowded with six-legged life while it's in bloom.

On the left hand bloom, notice the reddish brown scarab beetle and a pair of mating gray beetles (weevils?).  A sphecid wasp is flying in to join them.  (The white prairie clover blossoms are the cylindrical flowers that start blooming at the bottom and progressively open moving up to the top, often giving them a green cone effect early on.  Behind the white prairie clover blossoms in this photo is a fading yarrow flower head.)

Here a tiphiid wasp and an eastern tailed blue seem to equally divide the single white prairie clover blossom.

Separating the insects out helps us to see them a bit better.

Here is a scarab beetle, in the same beetle family that contains dung beetles, rose chafers, and June bugs.  The larvae of these beetles are the small white grubs you find in your lawns.

This mating pair of beetles look like weevils to me, although the photo is blurry enough that I can't see them well enough to identify them for sure.

Called a sphecid wasp (Prionyx atratus), this black wasp with a hairy head and thorax paralyzes grasshoppers to fill its nest with food for its larvae.  I am VERY glad to see these guys this summer.  We have grasshoppers everywhere this year.

With its long banded abdomen, this five banded tiphiid wasp (Myzinum quinquecinctum) is very distinctive.  While the adults feed at flowers, the larvae are parasites of small white (scarab) beetle grubs.  Legs of the adult male wasps are yellow;  legs of the adult female wasps are reddish.

There are many species of small butterflies whose gray underwings are speckled with black, white and orange.  The upper wings of these "gossamer winged butterflies," as the group is called, can be markedly different in color, ranging from bright orangish copper through duller grays to iridescent blues, but it's often hard to see the upper wing surfaces, as the butterflies usually sit with their wings closed.  At the back end of the hind wings, many of these little butterflies have a combination of a small pair of tails which look quite similar to small antennae and relatively large orange dots resembling eyes.  This pattern of markings helps confuse potential predators into aiming for the wrong end of the butterfly.

Known by the small tails - which you can't see well on this individual - and two bright orange spots set closely together at the hind edge of the rear wings, this little butterfly feeding at the white prairie clover is an eastern tailed blue (Cupido comyntas).  The caterpillars of this generalist feed on many plants in the pea and bean family.  Not surprisingly, they are quite common.  Almost all of the small gossamer wings that I saw last Monday were eastern tailed blues.

I did, however, notice a pair of slightly larger, gossamer winged butterflies at one point.  This is a gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus), another generalist whose caterpillars feed on over 50 species of plants.  Look closely to notice the difference in the markings between these two common species.  The small tails are showing nicely on this individual and illustrate well how they, combined with the flashy orange spots, could fool a predator into attacking the back end of this butterfly, allowing it to fly away relatively unscathed.

So, overall, what did I see last Monday?  A series of interrelationships through space and time, the very complexity of which helps keep the prairie in balance through changing seasons and a range of weather.  Just in this post, for example, ....   The tiphiid wasps help balance the populations of the scarab beetles.  The sphecid wasp helps balance the populations of the grasshoppers.  All but the grasshoppers help pollinate the white prairie clover.  If the weevils are the beetle I think they are, their larvae eat grass roots and help provide space for the forbs like white prairie clover to grow.  The blues and hairstreaks feed on many plants as caterpillars and help pollinate many plants as adults. 

Or, to quote John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

What are the natural interrelationships in your yard and garden?


Jason said...

Love the butterfly pictures. I have a couple of purple prairie clover, but they are being slow in getting established.

Sunnyside Dru said...

Thank you! These photographs and your description are wonderful!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Jason, I've got some purple prairie clover in my garden beds, but it's been slow to take off too. My white prairie clover, though, is flourishing out in the restoring prairie.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Dru, Thanks for stopping by! I've been reading your blog for some time now and enjoy learning about your adventures in farming.