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  • Joe Dlugo

A Bee Safari at Beautiful Belmont Prairie, Illinois

There is one word that will get any bee lover’s heart racing: prairie. So where better to get worked up than in the prairie state? Here I take a look at the native apid residents of a small but rather spirited plot of wildflowers in the Chicago suburbs.

Coming in at a mere 10 acres one might not assume the grandeur of wilderness larger prairies in the area provide. This is a true remnant for sure, but its gentle sloping topography and tree-lined borders have a way of wrapping the imagination into daydreams of a time when the tallgrass touched the horizon.

The historical spirit is also helped along by the nature of the trail carved through it. Only about a foot wide at the ground, the grasses engulf the path. Its passage is a thoroughly sensory experience of brushing shoulders with the bluestem. Any wider of a trail on such a small prairie and the experience would suffer.

In a field of flowers such as this, it is not hard to find bees. Late summer forbs in numerous bloom included cream gentian (Gentiana alba), tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris). They all had visiting bees.

The largest were male and female eastern carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica. These enormous bees manage to capture the attention of even the most disconnected nature observer. They capture even more attention when people are worried about their diggings in decks. However I am in no competition with nature so they are welcome and appreciated for the way they liven up a patch flowers.

A male eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, on tall boneset, Eupatorium altissimum at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve
Eastern Carpenter Bee - Xylocopa virginica

Coming in as universally beloved, the ubiquitous and aptly-named common eastern bumble bee, Bombus impatiens. Here it is seen on the equally as common blooms of the large sawtooth sunflower, Helianthus grosseserratus. It is also sharing the flower with a cucumber beetle, Diabrotica sp.

Common eastern bumble bee on a bloom of sawtooth sunflower, Helianthus grosseserratus, sharing the flower with a cucumber beetle at Belmont Prairie
Common Eastern Bumble Bee - Bombus impatiens

Another good bloomer for early September was tall coreopsis, Coreopsis tripteris. These prairie stunners loft 8 foot flower clusters that float above the waving prairie grasses and attract stunning bees like this male jewel bee, Augochlorella sp.

A shiny green jewel bee of the genus Augochlorella visiting the bright yellow bloom of a tall coreopsis, Coreopsis tripteris at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve
Jewel Bee - Augochlorella sp.

Closely related to the jewel bee but a little less showy was this female Lasioglossum sweat bee. This particular bee had extensive hairs under her abdomen which can be seen as a fuzzy white sheen in the image. They appear to be like the scopa in various other bees such as mason or leafcutters, which are small hairs the bees use to store pollen when foraging. However bees of this genus are known to use their legs for this purpose. Perhaps this bee requires further identification.

A female Lasioglossum sweat bee on sawtooth sunflower, Helianthus grosseserratus at Belmont Prairie
Lasioglossum Sweat Bee - Lasioglossum sp.

Another sweat bee found on the prairie is the every so tiny Dialictus bees. This lovely 6 millimeter long olive green lady is visiting a tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima. These bees can be amongst the most common bees, however this was the only one I happened to find on my safari.

A tiny Dialictus bee visiting tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima on Belmont Prairie
Dialictus Bee - Dialictus sp.

Another very tiny bee enjoying the equally tiny flowers of tall goldenrod was the very sleek masked bee. These bees are rather wasp-like, as they have very little hair. Hair serves a purpose for warmth and pollen transportation on bees. The masked bee carries its pollen internally.

A masked bee, Hylaeus sp., visiting the flowers of tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve
Masked Bee - Hylaeus sp.

And while we're exploring the goldenrod, a slightly larger bee that is found from coast to coast on our continent, the fuzzy and chunky little ligated furrow bee, Halictus ligatus. Note the pollen stored on the hairs of her hind legs.

Halictus ligatus on tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima, at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve
The Ligated Furrow Bee - Halictus ligatus

All of the three bees on the goldenrod in the previous images were shot on the same plant, a magical goldenrod that hung over the fence along Cross Street. No other goldenrod seemed to have such magical pull as this one. Maybe its orientation in flopping over the fence, or that its genetics led it to have a greater amount of nectar or pollen.

Joe Dlugo photographing bees at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve
Me and the Magic Goldenrod

As I had mentioned before, Bombus impatiens was in abundance at the prairie, as it is in most flower patches around Chicagoland. Superb generalists these bees are, visiting almost anything in bloom. Here it is on rough blazing star, Liatris aspera.

Bombus virginica on rough blazing star, Liatris aspera, at Belmont Prairie
Common Eastern Bumble Bee - Bombus impatiens

Here one visits cream gentian, Gentiana alba. A worker bee carrying pollen, note the orange sacs of pollen on her hind legs. She'll return to her nest with that pollen to nurture the next generation.

Common eastern bumble bee on cream gentian, Gentiana alba at Belmont Prairie
Common Eastern Bumble Bee - Bombus impatiens

Lastly, a photo that won't win a competition but a bee that I saw numerous times on the prairie but couldn't get a solid image. A lovely chestnut colored long-horned bee of the genus Melissodes. Usually these bees come in shades of gray. Long-horned bees are only found on compound flowers such as daisies, asters, and sunflowers. Sometimes they are referred to as sunflower bees.

Melissodes long-horned bee on sawtooth sunflower Helianthus grosseserratus at Belmont Prairie
Long-horned Bee - Melissodes sp.

Belmont Prairie is a great botanical treasure of this world. If you find yourself in the Chicago area, do go check it out or find one of the many other tallgrass prairies that dot the region, and of course take note of the bees.

-J 9/3/19

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Joe Dlugo photographing bees on a tallgrass prairie

Joe Dlugo

Welcome to Bee Safari!

This is the product of many long afternoons in the garden, planting seeds, pulling weeds, watching bees.

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The world is a lovely place that has thousands of different kinds of bees. Contrary to popular opinion, few of are actually colored black and yellow. In fact, a great many are green - like those in the photo above.  Most also do not live in hives making honey and beeswax. They do other exciting things. I hope you find this intriguing and want to dive into my bee photo galleries to see the diversity of their world for yourself. 

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