“Those showy flowers in the tall prairie were a sure sign of countless insects . . . .” —John Madson, Where the Sky Began
Even a couple of decades ago, in the summer kids could easily gather enough fireflies between dusk and bedtime to fill a jar and create their own living night light. Across much of the Midwest, lightning bugs are getting much harder to find.
Every spring both monarch butterflies and waterfowl head north to the grasslands and prairies of the Upper Midwest and northern Great Plains and south again in the fall. Although they don’t have names most would recognize, my home state of Minnesota has at least 455 species of bees. Butterfly names are almost as colorful as the butterflies themselves—e.g., great spangled fritillary, painted lady butterfly, fiery skipper and Poweshiek skipperling. Almost all of these insects spend their entire lives in Midwest grasslands, just like pheasants, quail and prairie grouse do. After using their bees to pollinate crops around the country, many beekeepers return to these same grasslands where their hives spend the rest of the summer and fall so that the bees can feast on the pollen and nectar of dozens of wildflower species.
In my own travels I used to wash splattered bugs off my windshield with every fill-up during the summer months. A couple summers ago I drove from Minnesota to Illinois and back. When I pulled into the driveway, my windshield was almost as clean as when I’d left.
Across North America’s central grasslands, the decline of pollinators parallels the decline of gamebirds and grassland wildlife. All of these declines, of course, reflect the loss of grassland habitat.
As a wildlife biologist, most of the calls I used to get were about pheasants. “How can I improve habitat on my land?” “What are the recent population trends?” Over the past four or so years almost every call has been about pollinators. “Why am I not seeing monarchs this summer?” “What native wildflowers are the best to plant for pollinators?” “Is prescribed fire or mowing better for pollinators when managing habitat?”
This isn’t a problem; in fact it’s an exciting opportunity to talk about grassland-habitat conservation with people outside the hunting community. Instead of talking about just pollinators, however, we should take a step back and talk about grassland insects and invertebrates more generally.
People too often see insects only as pests. Pheasants, quail and prairie grouse see insects as nutritious little packets of protein. One 1980 study found that wood duck hens, roughly the size of hen pheasants or grouse, need to eat 60,000 invertebrates to gain enough protein to lay a dozen eggs.
During the first two weeks of a gamebird’s life, its diet is almost 100 percent insects. A newly hatched prairie chicken or pheasant weighs practically nothing, but it weighs almost two pounds by fall. Put another way: The birds have to increase their weight almost 70 fold in the few weeks between midsummer and fall. That much growth that fast requires a lot of protein.
While adult birds have more of a vegetarian diet, they still need protein to maintain their muscle, especially during periods of the year when they molt. There are reports from Minnesota in the late 1800s that prairie chickens were “too valuable as grasshopper exterminators” to overhunt, and each prairie chicken ate enough grasshoppers to save several bushels of grain.
Gamebirds need both a high diversity and high density of insects in their habitat. A 2010 study found that pheasant and quail chicks eat invertebrates from 18 and 22 families respectively. Any family of invertebrates could contain dozens to hundreds of species. A 1986 study found that pheasant chicks ate about five insects per minute. Other gamebird studies found that brood survival was strongly related to insect density and that broods were drawn to areas of high insect abundance. Most interesting: The areas with high densities of insects were the areas with the most wildflowers.
While most of us can’t name many insects, foresters know emerald ash borers, gardeners know potato beetles, and farmers know corn rootworms. All of these insects are so closely tied to a particular plant that they take the plant’s name. The same thing occurs on the prairie with iris weevils, leadplant gall-midges, cordgrass bugs and many others. Some insects are named after particular parts of specific plants, such as spiderwort leaf beetles and sunflower seed bugs. And, of course, many grade-school children learn about the close relationship between milkweed and monarch butterflies.
We can often see species like butterflies, but hidden in and among all those grasses and wildflowers are leafhoppers, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, bees, wasps, ants, thrips, lacewings, spiders, mites and many other invertebrates. Diverse, productive grasslands are a bird buffet.
This information has practical implications for hunters. When driving past public hunting areas during the brood-rearing weeks of summer, I take careful note of what units have the greatest diversity and abundance of native wildflowers. Where I see flowers in June and July, I’m confident that my dog will sniff feathers in October and November.
The information also has practical applications for habitat-restoration projects. There are insects that eat plants, insects that prey on those insects, and sometimes larger insects that prey on those predators. Every additional species of native wildflower added to the restoration seed mix may attract one or several additional insect species. More pounds of wildflower seed in the mix will produce a diversity and density of insects. More insect protein means more eggs in the spring and chicks in the summer. That translates to more birds in that same habitat in the fall.
If a landowner is getting ready to do a habitat-restoration project, he or she should get as many seeds from as many native wildflowers in the seed mix as the budget allows. If there’s an old food plot that isn’t as productive as it once was, it should be turned into a pollinator, or “bugging,” plot by seeding it down with a high density of native wildflowers. It will be low maintenance and will raise a lot of chicks.
Last and most important: We all should start making new friends and having new conversations. Those interested in pollinator conservation should be close partners with those interested in gamebird conservation. Whether discussing honeybees, monarch butterflies, native pollinators or gamebirds and whether talking to other hunters, those interested in biodiversity, beekeepers, orchardists or farmers with specialty crops that need insect pollinators, the common denominator is diverse, productive, healthy grassland habitat. If a friendship develops after a few conversations, ask your new acquaintance if he or she wants to go pheasant hunting this fall.
Pollination isn’t an abstract concept. A large percentage of our food disappears without pollinators. Upland-bird habitat helps, indirectly, protect the nation’s food security.
Whether grassland habitat is primarily focused on pollinators with birds benefitting or on birds with pollinators benefitting, it doesn’t matter. Either way there will be more grassland dotted with native wildflowers out there. What’s good for one is good for all. It’s a natural partnership between the people who are passionate about birds, bees and butterflies.
Our voices together are much louder than each voice separately.
Greg Hoch is a wildlife biologist who lives in east-central Minnesota. Both his job and hobbies involve spending time studying, restoring and managing grassland habitat for birds and pollinators.