How to Plant a Prairie Strip: One Landowner’s Journey

How to Plant a Prairie Strip: One Landowner’s Journey

Just a few weeks ago, the hope of tomorrow was seeded in the middle of an empty field.

Chuck Waving from Tractor

Chuck and his neighbor, Henry, waving as they start planting prairie in Chuck’s waterway.

I turned my dusty Ford Ranger off a quiet two-lane highway in Marshall County into a dead grass waterway, soon to be planted with native prairie seed. I pulled up next to Chuck’s vehicle.

“Well, today’s the day, isn’t it,” he said, smiling despite the icy November wind. We were finally putting seed in the ground.

A Rough Start

It can take more effort than you think to plant a prairie in a grass waterway. Firstly, Chuck Stewart, of Ankeny, doesn’t live in Marshall County; he rents his field to a farmer, who plants traditional crops like corn and soybean. Secondly, the grass waterway was planted with smooth brome (a tough European grass), making it difficult to plant anything else in it. Lastly, the previous landowner had created the grass waterway without using any government programs. This last fact made it difficult to qualify for USDA programs to help fund the cost of planting a prairie strip in the waterway. Many NRCS and FSA (Farm Service Agency) programs stipulate the ground must be currently in production to receive funding. Landowners who don’t qualify for NRCS and FSA programs, like Chuck, can have a difficult time finding programs to fund prairie projects on their land.

“The reason I started this prairie project was to establish a site that will draw not only pollinators but all kinds of wildlife,” said Chuck. In order to do this, he needed expertise from environmental-based organizations, such as Prairie Rivers of Iowa.

Drilling the Seed
Discussion by Tractor

Finding a Way

Although he could not receive funding from traditional USDA programs, Chuck did, however, have a few things going for him. He initially had David Stein, a former watershed coordinator at Prairie Rivers, conduct a site visit and create a restoration plan.

“Prairie strips [are] one of the best ways farmers can get into conservation practices and habitat building,” David Stein said when asked about this project, “You’re taking unproductive land out of intensive use and replacing it with a small area that provides amazing benefits for the farm and surrounding environment.” For Chuck, some of those benefits include a reduction in runoff and erosion, increased water infiltration, and of course the perennial beauty of native prairie, pollinators, and other wildlife.

Additionally, Chuck was able to secure a 50% cost share from the Prairie Partners Program to reduce the expense of native seed. Chuck also had a neighbor, Henry, who had some prairie-planting experience and owned a native seed box for his tractor. Having a willing, experienced neighbor to help plant and manage the future prairie made this project much more cost-effective than hiring someone out of town.

Lastly, Chuck and I met with Dan Allen, the owner of Allendan Seed Company, to see the operation that supplied his native prairie seed. After viewing giant warehouses of seed, expansive fields of prairie plants, and a large greenhouse, we discussed how to help the prairie outcompete the smooth brome currently in the grass waterway. Knowing it may take a few years to truly defeat it, we decided to mow the smooth brome and hit it with two rounds of glyphosate, at about a month apart, before planting the prairie seed in the fall. We also added another seed mix in addition to the one cost shared with the Prairie Partners Program. While this was an out-of-pocket expense, planting higher than the minimum of 40 seeds per acre, as well as increasing plant species richness, will hopefully provide faster and stronger establishment, giving the prairie a greater chance at success in the long run.

The Seed

Seeds of Hope

As Chuck stepped down from the tractor at the end of planting, it was hard to imagine that the dull-gray strip of land would one day be full of color and life.

“We did it!” He said with a grin, “I hope the neighboring farms will see the results and consider planting prairie themselves.” It is our hope that more farmers will see the value of turning silent areas into vibrant habitat, with bird calls, bees, and dancing flowers breaking the monotony of row crops.

If you are interested in implementing prairie on your property, and are unsure of where to start, contact Jessica Butters, Pollinator Conservation Specialist, at Prairie Rivers of Iowa, HERE.

Many Thanks:

“In summary, I want to thank Prairie Rivers of Iowa staff David Stein and Jessica Butters. David developed a detailed plan outlining the process, and Jessica prepared an outline for the timing of each step, from preparing the seedbed to the ongoing steps of maintaining the prairie.” – Chuck Stewart

We would also like to thank Henry Rolston, Allendan Seed Company, Jon Judson, and Ty Mason.

Which Insects are “Home for Christmas”?

Which Insects are “Home for Christmas”?

Happy Holidays!

Insects are conspicuous by their absence during Iowa’s winter months. Absent are the beauty of butterflies, and we would be shocked to hear a bee buzzing around our snowy apartment balcony on Christmas Eve. So where did they all go? Did they perish from freezing temperatures? Have they all migrated south with the eastern monarch butterflies?

Here in Iowa, we have many insects that use truly astonishing techniques to stay here throughout the winter, braving the cold with the rest of us. From smart hiding places and suspended animation to making their own antifreeze, Iowa’s insects have developed some pretty wild adaptations to weather the winter!

Note: Iowa has many insects that undergo “suspended animation”, technically called diapause, to survive winter. Diapause is an insect form of hibernation where the insect pauses development; it stops maturing and halts all activity. It remains in its’ current life stage (which could be egg, larva, nymph, pupa, or adult) until conditions become favorable again and they can continue growing or start mating/laying eggs.

Wooly bear caterpillars: These fuzzy little guys will mature to become the Isabella tiger moth. They stare winter down by allowing themselves to freeze, but on their own terms! They seek shelter under logs and leaf layers. Once safe, they go into diapause and slow down the freezing process by creating glycerol, a natural alcohol and one of the many insect forms of “antifreeze”. They slowly allow their entire bodies to freeze except the insides of their cells.

Wooly Bear Caterpillar

Black swallowtail butterflies: These beauties stay cozy in their chrysalis while the snowflakes fall, entering diapause at the pupal stage. Their chrysalis mimics a dead leaf to keep them safe from predators, so be careful when cleaning up your lawn – especially if you grew dill, parsley, or other plants related to carrots in your garden! If you must move leaves, try not to chop/mow them to ensure you can enjoy the swallowtails next summer!

Chrysalis of Black Swallowtail

Dragonflies: Dragonflies brave the winter in a few different ways depending on the species. Some overwinter as eggs laid in logs near ponds, and others actually migrate. But one of the coolest ways some overwinter is as underwater nymphs (an immature stage of a dragonfly)! The dragonfly nymphs stay underwater beneath insulating ice layers, where they are voracious predators true to their namesake (even eating small fish!). They eat and grow throughout the winter until they can emerge as adults in the summer.

Dragonfly Larva

Flower flies: Also known as syrphid flies or hover flies, flower flies are a family of flies (called “Syrphidae”) that are fantastic garden helpers: when young they eat aphids, and as adults they pollinate. Here in Iowa, they’re commonly referred to as “sweat bees” due to their black and yellow stripes and the fact that they sometimes land on sweaty humans (sweat contains good nutrients for them). However, these flies only mimic bees, and cannot sting or bite (their mouth basically consists of a tiny mop). They survive the cold much like other insects; they find shelter in leaf layers and other plant material, enter diapause and overwinter as a larva, pupa, or adult depending on the species. Flower flies are no pansies!

Flower Fly

Bumble bee queens: Bumble bee hives only live for one year, unlike honey bees. Near the end of the hive’s life, new queens and male bees (“drones”) hatch and leave the hive to mate. When hive activity finally ends, the drones die while the newly-mated queens search for a warm winter home alone. Their new homes could be in leaf layers, warm compost piles, or just a few inches underground in a sheltered place! While winter winds howl, the entire fate of next year’s bumble bee hives rests on these young queens surviving the winter all alone. When it warms again, if all goes well, they will wake from diapause and emerge to start their very own hives to begin the cycle again.

Common Buckeye

How Can You Help?

As you can see from these few examples, surviving winter is key to us enjoying pollinators and other insects next year. So many insects rely on the shelter of leaves, logs, and other materials to block the cold wind and insulate them from freezing temperatures. Therefore, one of the best ways to help pollinators this winter, and to ensure there are pollinators this summer, is to find a place in your yard or balcony where you can let leaf litter and plant material accumulate. Think of it as a Cozy Corner that may harbor young bumble bee queens, sleeping swallowtails, and fuzzy wooly bear caterpillars. Give insects the gift of cozy this holiday season!

See below for more information on how to build your very own Cozy Corner:

Small Brush Pile

Create a “Cozy Corner”
You can create a “cozy corner”, or brush pile, for pollinators throughout the fall and winter by choosing a location to leave leaf litter undisturbed. You can add twigs, branches, and other brush to the pile as you clean up the other areas you want clear of brush. You can also leave potted plants on your balcony or patio and push them together to create a small shelter; I’ve found moths sheltering in my flowerpots in mid-fall, and I’ve noticed more bird visitors! Add layers of brush to your cozy corner to provide the best shelter possible. Click here to read the full article from which this paragraph was based on.

How-To Guides to Create Your Very Own Cozy Corner:

  • General Wildlife Brush pile: Article by the Wisconsin DNR
A Full Plate: Little Things Deserve Our Thanks

A Full Plate: Little Things Deserve Our Thanks

We’re dipping into the season of gratitude. Although it’s definitely cliché, I feel like many of us who sniffed at the idea of owning a gratitude journal have inevitably found ourselves thankful for small, everyday things more often than we did a few years ago. The truth is, the sum of many small things makes a big difference, and this rings true for the natural world as well.

A Full Thanksgiving Meal

The graphic above depicts some typical Thanksgiving Day food that either depends upon or may benefit from animal pollination, as well as pest control from wasps, birds, and bats. It is not an exhaustive list!

Who runs the world? Bugs!

E. O. Wilson said it best: insects are the “little things that run the world”, and that includes pollinators. Pollinators are not only key to the survival of about 87% of Earth’s flowering plant species; they are also a major food source for many animals, and around 35% of our world’s food crops depend upon them. The food we cook for a Thanksgiving meal, and many of our other meals, comes from all over the world. It is consequently imperative to appreciate and protect the biodiversity of the entire planet.

We rely on squash bees in our gardens to pollinate our pumpkins, and tropical flies and beetles to pollinate coffee and spice plants such as nutmeg, anise, and cardamom. If you hunt for a wild turkey this fall, know that about 10% of its diet was comprised of insects (and it required even more when it was a poult). And while not all of our food or cultivars require animal pollination, we clearly need all kinds of insects to run the world, from South American flies we will probably never notice or see, to the monarchs that bless our backyard gardens in summer.

Milkweed Beetle
Squash Bees
Swallowtail Butterfly

A Value of Their Own

Pollinators, and all wildlife for that matter, have intrinsic value, and should not be valued purely based on the goods and services they provide for humans. Pollinators and other wildlife have played key roles in nature and agriculture long before we realized it, and will continue to do so after we forget about them (but let’s try not to forget). The purpose of this article is to bring to light just how dependent we really are on all “the little things”. Whether we choose to value pollinators, insects, and nature in general or not, we are sustained by the air, plants, and diverse food groups they support. So at your next Thanksgiving meal, give a mulled wine toast to the little things!

Sources for percentages:

  • Ollerton J, Winfree R, and Tarrant S (2011) How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?
  • Klein A.-M., Vaissière B. E., Cane J. H., Steffan-Dewenter I., Cunningham S. A., Kremen C., & Tscharntke, T (2007) Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops.

  • Brigida D, Mizejewski D (2021) NWF Blog: 6 Tips for Feeding Wild Turkeys with Your Garden.

Pollinators/beneficial insects listed in the Thanksgiving food graphic were informed in part by the Pollinator Partnership.

Autumn’s Spooky Species: How to Appreciate Misunderstood Wildlife this Season

Autumn’s Spooky Species: How to Appreciate Misunderstood Wildlife this Season

These Halloween icons are in reality quite charming, and provide us with valuable services! 

The crisp October air brings the excitement of changing leaves and a changing season. While making yards and gardens cozy for wildlife braving the winter is a common discussion this time of year, we are focusing on what kinds of important wildlife you may notice this month! With Halloween around the corner, now is the perfect time to better understand some of the spooky (or maybe not-so-spooky-after-all) animals that you may see in autumn!

Owls

Soon leaves will fall to the ground, making it easier to spot this inquisitive bird of prey. The barred owl in particular hoots in a pattern that sounds like they’re asking “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”. I think we all wish the answer to that question was “someone else”. While this call at night may sound spooky, barred owls have some endearing qualities. This species mates for life, and lets its young stay near home longer than other species – up to six months! You can look for barred owls in Ames in mature tree stands near a water source. To help all owls, try to stop putting out rodent poison; owls eat rodents, and can consequently become sick from the poison. Healthy owls in your area may mean natural rodent control for you! Additionally, some owls utilize nesting boxes; you can contact Wild Birds Unlimited here in Ames to learn more!

Barred Owl
Little Brown Bat

Bats

Could we truly celebrate Halloween properly this month without bats? From décor to Dracula, this fuzzy animal’s image will be seen everywhere this month. However, the animals themselves will be seen less and less. Bats remaining in Iowa during winter are now looking for cozy spots for hibernation, especially as the amount of insects declines this month. Bats are great at gobbling down mosquitos and other pesky insects (the bat pictured here can eat 600 insects in an hour!), and their babies are called “pups”! These animals are much more helpful and cute than they are spooky. 

To help bats, consider building a bat box for fun! If a bat gets in your home, remember that they will not fly into you; they are expert navigators and will avoid you while they try to fly up and away. Calmly open a door or window for it to fly back outside and stand still at a distance until it leaves. If it can’t find the exit, call the Iowa Wildlife Center (515-233-1379) or other wildlife societies to have experts remove the bat in a humane way.

Spiders

Many people try their best to be open-minded towards insects, but most find spiders hard to appreciate (spiders are not technically “insects” – they’re “arachnids”). During late summer and early fall, you may see spiders more often, but don’t panic. They are not “coming in” to escape cool temperatures. Most spiders you see indoors are specifically adapted to survive indoors, where there is little food and water. Outdoor spiders are not well-adapted to live inside our homes, and are not trying to sneak in; their food is outside, and that’s where they’ll stay! If they accidentally wander in, they will not survive more than a few days, and won’t reproduce. What you are probably seeing are indoor spiders that have been inside this whole time, not bothering you at all. 

Beautiful Spider Web

But why are you seeing indoor spiders more often than usual? Because they are in love! This time of year is the mating season for many spiders, and instead of stealthy squatters, you’re seeing love-sick troubadours! Besides embarking on their quest to find love, spiders are also fantastic household helpers, eating any insects they may find along their way. I tend to leave spiders alone if they are along baseboards and in corners. If one particularly bothers me, I use a paper and cup to catch it and place it outside.

This time of year is beautiful in Iowa, and it’s the perfect time to find ways to appreciate the beauty of living things that continue to serve our needs, despite our fear of them. Happy Fall!

 

Household Tip: To truly understand any animal/insect you see in or around your house, look up information from science-based sources, such as university extension websites, rather than pest-control companies. Pest-control websites are likely to present alarming information, possibly to encourage use of their services. A majority of the time, whatever you are seeing is not only common, but harmless as well.

 

Links in Text:

Leave The Leaves! Xerces Society blogpost, by Justin Wheeler:

https://xerces.org/blog/leave-the-leaves

 

Wild Birds Unlimited, Ames (515-956-3145) Website:

https://ames.wbu.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=local&utm_campaign=localmaps&utm_content=279

 

Woodworking for Wildlife, Iowa State University, link to PDF file on how to build a bat box:

https://naturalresources.extension.iastate.edu/wildlife/woodworking-wildlife

A Mother’s Love: The Race to Provide

A Mother’s Love: The Race to Provide

Metallic Green Sweat Bee

A speck of sunlight warmed the face of a mother, causing her to wake and stand up. She took a few steps toward the sunlight, letting it warm her cold legs in her tunnel. Looking back at the wall of her nursery, she knew she had limited time to finish her work. Behind that wall was a row of rooms, one for each of her eggs. Each nursery room was provisioned with pollen and walled off from the others, providing a safe place to hatch, overwinter, and hopefully emerge next year. Her antennae started twitching excitedly. She tried beating her wings; they buzzed. She was warm and ready for another day’s work.

She cautiously peeped over the lip of her nest entrance. She was a metallic green sweat bee, and just last week she watched as a parasitic bee invaded one of her neighbors’ nests, ending the hope of a future generation from that mother. To keep all her efforts from being in vain, she had to leave and enter her nest in complete secrecy. She scanned the area around her, checking for someone perched on the tops of rocks or hidden in the shaded spaces between grass stems. So far so clear. She stepped out of her nest, allowing the sun to warm her entire body. Looking around once more, and seeing no sign of threat, she zipped off to start her chores.

Gathering pollen was her favorite chore. She had already started a new nursery cell; all there was left to do was to lay an egg and provide a provision of food. Using the sun as a compass, she navigated to a large patch of gold that she had seen yesterday. The yellow rays of one unoccupied flower caught her eye, and she flew into its center, landing on a blanket of brown bristles topped with yellow tufts of pollen. The buzzing of other insects at neighboring flowers reverberated in the air around her, and caused the flower to tremble even more in the breeze. The air was slowly growing cooler each day. It was taking her longer and longer to warm up enough to fly in the mornings. The frantic buzzing of other insects confirmed a sense of fear she didn’t quite understand. She sensed that she must hurry.

Native Sunflower

Thinking of her young ones back at the nest, she worked as quickly as possible, picking up pollen and snatching a mouthful for herself every now and then. As she moved across the flower, she let her body brush against as much pollen as possible. She paused periodically to comb this pollen from her abdomen, head, and feet to tuck it onto her back legs where she had thicker, hooked hair that was much better at holding pollen in place. The sun shone on, warming her even more. Through the race to gather and provide for her family, it was nice to be out in the sun and surrounded by velvety gold rays. The bristled brown underneath felt good on her feet and belly. Once she was through gathering here, she remembered a bright purple area that had looked promising.

Looking for her Nest

After a while, the little sweat bee had as much pollen as she could carry. Pushing off the sunflower, she flew back toward her nest, only pausing once for a breath on a stand of purple flowers. Back on the ground, she felt around with her antennae until she found her own nest entrance. She peered inside her dark nest. All was quiet, just how she left it. She glanced behind her. No one had seen her; her family was safe.

As she pulled pollen off her legs and rolled it into a loaf, she had a sense that this may be the last nest she would finish. She felt much more tired compared to a few weeks ago. She was particularly proud of this nest: it was in a well-hidden location, its walls were smooth, and she had a good mix of pollen from different flowers within each loaf she had made for her children. Although she would never get to meet them, she was glad they would have all the nutrition they would need to start a successful life. She hoped they would find the yellow and purple flower patches. She grew more tired. Maybe one more pollen collecting trip before she turned in for the day.