Master Naturalist – Grasslands & Insects

Living in a prairie state, we spend a lot of education hours on it. Having lived here most of my life, its an easy thing to take for granted. But as we delve further into the details and its importance, I am growing to appreciate it more and more. I often joke about living in the flatlands of Illinois, and in fact it was the glaciers that shaped our landscape and our midwest climate that allowed the prairie to flourish here. Most of our precipitation comes from the gulf and we average 36 inches of rain a year. This makes our land really fertile stuff.

Its not just the rain that keeps a prairie healthy though, regular burns were vital to keeping invasives and trees from encroaching. For so long, land management has tried to avoid fire. Just remember all those Smokey the Bear campaigns! Now its an important tool that has helped restoration projects breath new life into the prairie preserves scattered throughout the state.

We got to go outside and participate in a scavenger hunt of sorts, where we tested our knowledge of prairie plants. It was terrific fun, and I’m super proud to say that we got all 35 plants right!

The second part of the day was devoted to insects and their amazing adaptability. Its incredible to realize that they first graced our planet 350 million years ago. Dinosaurs didn’t show up until 265 million years ago!

We learned about both the complete and incomplete life cycles. The dragonfly nymph I showed you last week has an incomplete life cycle. They metamorphose from egg, to nymph, to adult. A butterfly however phases through the egg, the larva, the pupa and then adult stages in a complete life cycle.

We spent a lot of time on spiders which was pretty neat. I had no idea that spiders generally eat their old web before building new ones. Its made from a protein, so ingesting their work saves them energy plus it gives them other nutrients from the pollen their webs pick up! I thought that was incredibly cool.

The Argiope spider pictured above was found in our garden as soon as we got home from class. We learned that they have a particularly unique mating cycle. Our spider is a female, and is sitting on her web eating as much as she can so that she can generate enough energy to make her eggs. Males are a lot smaller, and will roam all over in order to mate with the females. The problem is that with the size difference, the female sees the diminutive male as nothing more than the next meal. In order to get around this problem, the male will sit at the edge of the web and tap a rhythm to coax the female to hold still. If shes feeling ‘in the mood’, the male will tap tap away as he moves closer. While shes still in her tapping trance, he will quickly tie her legs to the web! He does this because as soon as mating concludes, she will snap out of her trance and eat the poor guy. He can usually get away in the time it takes her to free herself. Whew – spider relationships squarely fall under the “it’s complicated” category.

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