From the Field

One Square Meter of Prairie

January 8, 2019

The author photographing a square meter plot. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

The richness of life in prairies can be astounding, even at a small scale.  As a prairie ecologist, I see that every day as I wander through them with my camera or clipboard, but it can be hard to portray that to a skeptical public.

Photography has been a crucial tool in my crusade, giving me the opportunity to introduce people to the plants and animals that inhabit what so many people consider “boring grassy areas”.

In 2018, I undertook a new project to celebrate the diversity and beauty of prairies.  It was a way of doubling down on my frequent assertions that you can find an astounding number of species in prairies if you just take the time to look for them.

To prove the point, I went to a small restored prairie near my Nebraska house and then chose a much smaller portion of it – a 1×1 meter square – and pledged to photograph everything I could within that diminutive fragment over the course of a year.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

I began in late January, 2018.  As of today, I’ve photographed 113 different species of plants and animals inside that little patch – not counting others that flew, scurried, or hopped away before I could snap their picture.  I’ve made nearly 50 trips across town to my plot and have yet to come away disappointed.  During the field season, nearly every visit yielded at least one new species.

Clearly, most of the species I photographed within my plot didn’t spend their entire lives within that tiny area.

The diversity I found was dependent upon the surrounding prairie, though even that larger prairie is only a few acres in size and fragmented by several patches of trees.  The prairie is also fairly new – planted by Prairie Plains Resource Institute in the early 1980’s.

Cope’s gray tree frog. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

Many people might be surprised to find 113 plant and animal species within a small unassuming prairie nestled between a suburban neighborhood and a corn field, let along within a single square meter of it. That is pretty much the crux of the project.

A beetle on Maximilian sunflower. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

Among the eighteen beetle species is bright red one that, like monarch caterpillars, feeds exclusively on milkweed plants.  Another decapitates sunflowers so it can lay eggs inside the exposed stem.

The seven spider species I found within the plot represent a range of hunting strategies, including some that catch food in webs, but also some that stalk and/or ambush their prey.

Arabesque orbweaver (Neoscana arabesca) on Maximilian sunflower. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

I was thrilled to photograph two different monarch butterflies inside the plot, the more so because of their current population declines.

However, I was equally excited by the sunflower stem that looked like a miniscule woodpecker had drilled a hole into it – clear evidence of a stem borer moth caterpillar at work.

A soldier beetle on Maximilian sunflower. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

The most diverse group of insects found in my square meter was the flies.  There were twenty one different kinds of flies, including some that resemble the familiar house fly, but others that few people would recognize as flies.

For example, a bee-mimicking hover fly was a common visitor throughout much of the season.  I also photographed a crane fly that looks like a massive mosquito and a gall midge with an ovipositor (tubular egg-laying organ) as long as its body.

My favorite of the flies, though, was Delphinia picta, a gorgeous picture-winged fly that looks like it’s wearing a gas mask, feeds on rotting vegetation, and blows bubbles as part of its courtship behavior.

A hover fly on dewy grass. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

Despite the impressive diversity of organisms I found, this project was about much more than biological inventory.  I found myself inspired to photograph tiny feathery anthers on the flowers of grasses, an exquisite network of veins in a backlit leaf, and gracefully drooping petals of flowers as they wilted.

Because I confined my exploration to such a limited geography, I looked at the prairie in new ways.  Eschewing my typical photography approach of roaming broadly across prairies, looking for something of interest, I instead sat down and examined my plot inch by inch for appealing subject matter.  I always found it.  I hope others will find it among my photographs.

Monarch butterfly. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

It would be great if thousands of people were sufficiently moved by my project to go explore the nearest prairie.  It would be great, but I’m not counting on it.  Instead, I’d be thrilled if people took a moment, looked through some of my photos, and thought to themselves, “huh, I had no idea there was so much going on in prairies!”

Just as it’s easier to empathize with people in far-off places after you’ve met a few of them, seeing some of what lives in prairies makes those prairies harder to dismiss as “boring grassy areas.”  I love prairies and want to see them conserved.  Showing others what I love is an important step in that process.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and hazy sunrise. Photo © Chris Helzer / TNC

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57 comments

  1. We have been doing something similar in El Paso, Texas for several years now. We go to the same short loop trail, called the Nature Walk Trail, in Franklin Mountains State Park almost every weekend and photograph whatever we spot. We then post at least 4 dated photos a day on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Nature-Walk-Trail-568774656515379/. It has turned into an interesting collection of plants, flowers, insects, birds, and other animals. Our idea is to illustrate the natural diversity on the 8 acres of land inside the trail, which is only a small part of the 27,000 acre state park and an even smaller part of the Chihuahuan Desert.

  2. Beautiful photos! Prairies are so diverse and species rich. With the deep roots of the plants, they are drought resistant, erosion preventers and enrich soils and lives. Keep up the good work.

  3. Very cool. Thanks for sharing. You inspire me to do the same on my Klein Prairie restoration near Murrayville, IL.

  4. Such beautiful photos and thanks for the numbers of types of flies, etc. I will share with my environmental science students here in Illinois.

  5. Considering what is happening with our national parks with the littering and literal crap everywhere, I’m not so sure you would be interested in thousands of people visiting prairies.

    1. I’d say prairies with litter and crap are infinitely better than extinct prairies covered in pavement or crops because no one cared enough about them to preserve them.

  6. What a wonderful project to undertake! Thank you for sharing your work with us.

  7. I am looking forward to attending your presentation in Lincoln tomorrow night. I love your photos and descriptions of what is in them. I want to spend more time in our yard looking for visitors to the plants.

  8. I remember doing this kind of observation on a girl scout outing. Your pictures are beautiful!

  9. Thank you for writing this article. I thoroughly loved seeing some of your photos and the idea of going back to the same spot to really see the diversity of life. Ya gotta love a prairie!

  10. Chris, this is wonderful! I’m doing a similar project in my own backyard and writing about it on my blog (NatureIsMyTherapy.com). Last year I started transforming my garden to native plants, and am using iNaturalist to document the biodiversity I find among the plants. I’ve found it incredibly rewarding to see how many species of pollinators and other insects are living here with me.

  11. Love this panoply to the god of small things! Here’s to taking time to not just look but study!

  12. I live in the middle of Cambridge, Massachusetts and I have about a 16 square foot plot of what I call “meadow” in front of my house. I have planted a few things in it–some asters, for instance–but most of what fills it to overflowing are what my Mother used to call volunteers, wonderful things that just appear. Every year there is a somewhat different suite of volunteer plants. This past fall I had three kinds of goldenrod, bursting with a wondrous variety of insects. My best visitor though was a praying mantis! No landscape is “boring”–in fact nothing is boring if you take some time to study it. Thank you for your wonderful project.

  13. What a wonderful article! I would love to see more of your photos. Am so happy to see new prairies established! Keep up the good work.

  14. This was obviously done in the Tall Grass Prairie which is virtually all under cultivation now because it is on some of the best soil in the world. It should not be confused with the Mid-grass or Short-grass prairies. It is an excellent work for an entomologist, but it is woefully unsatisfactory from a botany stand point. None of the iconic species of tall grass such as big bluestem, little bluestem, cane bluestem (all different genera), reed grass, Indian grass, etc. It neglects the beautiful forbs like bush morning glory, vervain, leadplant, gayfeather, larkspur, lupine mint, bee balm and a host of others. Therefore I was quite disappointed.

  15. A wonderful exploration! Beautiful!

    As an art teacher one of the challenges I gave my kids was to mark off a square foot of field or lawn (or wherever we were) and draw what they could find. Everyone had a magnifying glass.

    The kids loved it…and I did too!

  16. Brilliant, well written article on the many aspects of a prairie…prairie up!!!

  17. So much exposed here in picture and in text! Thank you for giving our precious prairies inhabitants a voice.

  18. Wonderful article. Hope it encourages people to slow down and look.

  19. Cool project! And nice companion with David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen.

  20. I’ve been doing something similar in Houston Texas, photographing and writing about what I encounter in Buffalo Bayou Park, which is part of a prairie restoration effort along the Gulf Coast. https://buffalobayou.org/blog/. I had not thought about a meter square project and I am fascinated and thrilled to see all you have done. Inspired, I will be doing the same in my park. How did you select your square meter? As I contemplate the same, the initial selection seems to be somewhat important. Thanks so much for the work and for sharing it.

  21. Excellent! And I like the comparison to meeting people from other places.

  22. Your pictures aren’t just beautiful, they are technically exquisite! This project should be shared extensively across the country. Great job!

  23. Thank you for sharing your wonderful photos! We are fortunate to live near some beautiful Champaign County (IL) Forest Preserve tall grass prairie & forested parks, where we walk (w/dog) almost every day. Thanks to my iPhone, I’ve had the opportunity to take thousands & thousands of photos in every season of nature’s wonders. You are an inspiration!

  24. It would be really interesting to revisit in depth this same exact patch of Prairie periodically to see how it evolves. There’s no way this patch has attained it’s end state.

  25. Very interesting and inspiring. What a fun project that can make a difference. Thank you for sharing this article and your beautiful photos. Young students would love this project as well as myself (much older).

  26. I fell in love with prairie from a picture in a book when I was just a kid, maybe 11 years old. When the chance came, I transferred from a college in Oregon to a college in Montana and have lived mostly on one kind of prairie or another since then (I’m much, much older now). I have found that living here requires me to slow down and savor the sights and sounds around me. I am always amazed at what there is to see and I have never seen a sunset here that did not dazzle me. I do miss the mountains of my childhood (northern California) but have no desire to go back. This is my home.

  27. Exploring in your own yard will enlighten as well! All you need to do is go outside and open you eyes!! Those fabulous prairies will draw you in once you learn to see.

  28. “I took a vacation this summer and made it half way across the meadow.” Paraphrased I think somewhat and author unknown. I too live in Nebraska and have converted lowland river [Niobrara] meadows to CRP and added pollinator plots this year. Very much enjoyed this article. Thanks.

  29. Thanks for the lovely photos and the story of interdependence in the tiny plot of Earth.

  30. I think this is/was a wonderful project, and I am thankful that you did it, and shared it. It is vaguely reminiscent of the “Big Sit,” version of N. J. Audubon’s World Series of Birding, ion which one can choose to stay put, at one spot,rather than scour the state, or a county, trying to identify as many species of birds one can see, usually on the 2nd Saturday of May.

  31. Very intriguing work. Would make for an interesting in-depth book, perhaps?

  32. Lovely report on prairies and yes life abounds in the smallest of areas. And now I know why my sunflowers are sometimes decapitated. I thought the birds did it but no it is some kind of beetle. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  33. I am reminded of the poem by Emily Dickenson: To Make a Prairie it Takes a Clover and One Bee

    To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee
    One clover, and a bee,
    And revery.
    The revery alone will do
    If bees are few.

    We may have to rely on revery (daydreaming) to conjure up prairies if our bee populations continue to decline. So thank you Chris Helzer for what you are doing to document life on the prairie. May your work inspire humanity to conserve and protect them.

  34. I enjoyed browsing through your photographs and being able to see the insects and spider closeup in all their color and intricate body parts. Wonderful photography! Makes me want to take a photography course!

  35. wonderful photos and article, thank you.
    would love to read more about your views of
    our beautiful, bountiful, natural world.

  36. Gorgeous photography which reminds us to look around and really see nature, the large and the little.

  37. Dear Chris,
    To show the uniqueness and rich diversity of such a small space is inspiring. We need to protect this area
    and other islands like it to give ecological purpose to our landscapes. Keep up the good work!!
    Ann Young, Colorado Springs, CO.

  38. Thank you. I do the same, but not with such good technique! Where can we see the others in the series?

  39. Very interesting! I’m so glad to read of the biodiversity that you witnessed and captured with your camera. I also am always astounded and delighted by all the various plants, insects, spiders, and “critters” that I see in my own backyard! Keep up the great work you are doing to share the variety and beauty of nature all around us, everywhere,everyday.

  40. I totally applaud your effort. I must say we have done about the same thing, in a slightly different way, on our land in Kansas, and as we work the land and the vineyards. Insects, animals, birds, plants and flowers each with their food sources and and reproductive methods. The prairies are distinctive and offer up opportunities every time you are out in them. The various kinds of bees and various kinds of mice are all around us, if you look closely. We photograph with the iPhone, but document.

  41. What a joy to look at your photos and read about what you are doing. Living in Portland, Or. we don’t have prairies nearby but could certainly take up a similar experience in a forest. Maybe I’ll try soon. I’m inspired.

  42. I loved the article on all the interesting things you see in the prairie. I had no idea so much could go on in the prairie, and the photographs are amazing!!!!

  43. As a native of Nebraska, I have always loved the “boring, grassy areas!” Thanks for showing the rest of the world what wonders we can find if we just have eyes that see. Lovely photos!

  44. Prairies are all over. Two states away is the Chicago Botanic Garden. They built a large area of prairie environments: xeric gravel upland, savanna, wetland, and lake. Iconic species like cardinal flower are identified by interpretive plaques. Served by commuter rail and a hiking trail, the gardens are not far from the Loop. More removed is Volo Bog (or fen), a remnant of the ice age. And downtown Chicago constructed small prairie areas in Millennium Park.

  45. It is amazing the diversity that can be found in small spaces. Even in my small backyard I find it surprising.What’s more is the tenacity of these little creatures to survive despite living in an urban environment. I wish more people would take such pleasure in the natural world. Thank you for the wonderful photos!

  46. I love your photos and the hopefulness I got reading about the carious species that passed through your plot. Very cool!

  47. Thank you so much for your comments and pictures! As a gardener, with my nose at plant and bug level, I agree that you see fascinating things that would escape your notice if you were just walking by. It’s good for all of us to slow down. I live in Rochester, NY, and can’t wait to visit some real prairies when we do some road trips to the middle of our country.