Out of the 20,000 or so known species of bees in the world, bumble bees are some of the only species that can raise their own body temperatures by rapidly vibrating their flight muscles. This allows them to forage very early in the morning when many other species of bee are unable to fly. The Northern Great Plains is home to more species of bumble bee than any other region of North America, in part due to this special adaption, which allows them to thrive in this often-cold region of the world. While I find this fascinating, knowing this has forced my own rapid adaption to occur, prompting me to wake earlier than I’d like some days to hunt for these fuzzy pollinators.
It was my last day at the ranch and Katie and her cousin Patrick needed to run to town, leaving me with the prospect of a few hours by myself. This wasn’t an opportunity that I was going to waste. I gleefully packed my things and headed out for the day; camera in hand and a hat that was slightly too small for my head. While I love sharing nature with others, I selfishly tend to enjoy time alone the most. That’s when I’m able to focus my senses of observation and become more introspective. It was in this state of mind that I set off in search of bees.
The Badlands of South Dakota harbor an abundance of native bee species. The warm summers combined with abundant floral resources make them an ideal spot for pollinators. In addition to the bumble bees that I love so much, I knew that there were bound to be many more species of native bee at the ranch, so I decided to start my hunt along the sides of the driveway where native flowers grew in abundance and the hard-packed earth was perfect for nesting sites. Insects—in fact, much of nature as a whole—is incredibly resilient if given half a chance. Even the edges of roadways can become corridors for pollinators and birds when the right conditions are allowed.
Within minutes of beginning my search I spotted a tiny, but beautiful pair of mining bees (Calliopsis sp.). The female had beautiful blue-grey eyes and a mostly grey body, while the male featured yellow accents on his legs, face, and abdomen with mostly green eyes. On a nearby patch of Asters I discovered a species of sweat bee (Halictid)—a common family of spring bees—and a small yellow-faced bee (Hylaeus sp). It wasn’t a terrible start considering I was still only a few steps from the breakfast table and the last dregs of the coffee.
After shooting for around an hour I decided to move on. I had already discovered several other interesting insects and spiders and felt satisfied that I’d done a reasonable survey. Besides, the rising sun reflected harshly from the dry soil along the drive forcing me to squint and sweat in the glare. It was time to head to prairie in search of unique bees and a little breeze to cool me off.
Passing through billowing grasses, I noticed a patch of the lemon-yellow flowers of the plains prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha) in peak bloom up ahead. I knew from experience that bees find the cactus’ flower irresistible. Prickly pear flowers produce very large, heavy pollen granules, which are best collected by large bees—the fuzzier the better. Most bees have specialized, feathery hairs over their entire body that trap pollen. These help to create an electrostatic charge that attracts pollen granules to a bee’s body when it lands on a flower. However, prickly pear flowers have another amazing trick up their sleeve when it comes to pollination. When brushed against by a large insect, their stamens—the structures that hold pollen—move rapidly (click to watch video) toward the center of the flower, increasing the chances of successful pollination.
While many bees and other types of pollinators are generalists, there are some that are specialists. Their fate, and the fate of their host plant, are intertwined. If one goes, the other stands a greater chance of going extinct too. One family of bees that are known as specialists are commonly called chimney bees. These extra fluffy, fast-flying bees protect their nests with small soil turrets. Exactly why they do this is yet to be determined, though defense and protection from flooding on the hard soil that they nest in offer possible explanations. As it turns out, there is a species of chimney bee known as the cactus bee (Diadasia australis) that specializes in visiting prickly pear flowers. Within seconds of standing amongst the patch of cacti, I began to see cactus bees zipping here and there, diving amongst the petals and swimming in circles among the pollen-filled flowers.
There is a beauty and relief in finding things in nature exactly where they should be. When a habitat such as the grasslands of the 33 Ranch is managed well—by wildlife or people—both the ecosystem and its inhabitants thrive. Throughout the rest of the morning, examples of this were made apparent, one after another. Bees, wildflowers, and beautiful native grasses were abundant, and as I headed back to the house to meet up with Kate, both my heart and my memory cards were full.
My time in South Dakota was coming to an end, but before I left, there was one last picture that I needed to make. For days I had been trying to document cattle grazing alongside thriving prairie wildflowers. This co-existence was something that I wanted to capture and felt certain that out of all the photos on my list, this one would be the easiest to produce. Boy was I wrong. Each time I’d get anywhere near cattle while on foot, they would turn and run over the nearest hillside, only turning to stare when they were far enough away to appear as a tiny black dot in a sea of green.
I shared my frustrations with Kate, and she said she knew a surefire way to get the picture. I followed her to a small paddock filled with bright purple wooly verbena, a wildflower native to South Dakota. She explained that by nature, cattle are quite skittish, but curious to a fault. Anything that is new or different attracts their attention. She suggested that we try sitting in the field and see if they might come closer. I suspected that my death was imminent. Kate laughed. I said another prayer.
Positioning ourselves near a good grouping of wildflowers, with my camera in hand, we waited. At first the cattle were visibly curious but not taking the bait. But soon, like a bunch of nosey middle-school kids, the young cows edged closer and closer. Before I knew of it, a wall of Black Angus surrounded us. Looking through my wide-angle lens, it seemed that the cattle were still a few feet away. That is, until one of them licked my knee. Startled, I looked up and realized that they were only inches away. It was a humbling feeling. Suddenly, one of them got spooked and they all ran at once; several thousands of pounds of beef galloping very close to me. Let's just stay it was a thrilling experience that I don’t necessarily want to repeat. However, I was awed when Kate’s sense of calm as she told me how she would sometimes lie in the field surrounded by the cattle, confident that they wouldn’t harm her.
Over the proceeding days, it had become abundantly clear that the Rasmussen’s relationship to the livestock that they managed and the land that they called home was more than just a job. It required courage and dedication and more than just the knowledge of how to get cows to market. This lifestyle was guided by love for the land, the animals, the plants, and the people.
As Laurence S. Rockefeller once said, “How we treat our land, how we build upon it, how we act toward our air and water, in the long run, will tell what kind of people we really are.” If this sentiment is true, then it is without question that the health of the land that I had just spent a few treasured days exploring spoke volumes about those who cared for it. Let’s hope there are many more out there who feel the same way about North America’s last remaining grasslands.
Read part one, and part two