Milkweed Attracts Many Insects

August 3, 2011 at 10:06 AM Leave a comment

Milkweed Attracts Many Insects

Learn about the intriguing insects this plant attracts, and why it deserves a spot in your yard.

Bill Johnson

Milkweed (Asclepias) is famous for being the only host plant for monarchs in their caterpillar stage. Without it, this beloved butterfly couldn’t survive. But most people don’t realize that milkweed is also a host plant for many other insects. So why not add it to your garden?

Not only will you help out the monarch ­population, you’ll support other fascinating insects at the same time.

Benefits of Milkweed

Of course, choosing the right kind of ­milkweed makes a difference. Many options are available, but planting species native to your area is always your best bet. Check with your local nature center, extension office or nursery for more specifics.

Milkweed is easy enough to grow—well-drained soil, a sunny to partly shady spot—and it easily reseeds. In fall, the seedpods burst, sending out copious quantities of seeds. This is a perfect time to gather some for passing on to friends. Or in spring, when you do a little selective thinning of the spreading plants, you can share the new sprouts with others.

So why exactly is milkweed so essential? The sap from the leaves is quite toxic to many insects and other animals, but monarch caterpillars, among others, can safely absorb the toxins. This absorption, in turn, makes the adult butterflies, moths or other insects undesirable to predators.

Other Milkweed Munchers

One of the first insects I think of when it comes to milkweed is the milkweed tussock moth, whose caterpillar is a furry eating machine. Like monarchs, the adult moths absorb the toxins the caterpillars have ingested, keeping predators away.

The red milkweed beetle and the milkweed leaf beetle, as their names tell you, also feast on these versatile plants. The first is a member of the longhorn wood-boring beetle family. The second looks like an oversized lady beetle, even though it’s in an entirely different family known as leaf beetles.

An obscure insect that dines on milkweed, one I’ve run across only a few times, is the milkweed stem weevil. The weevil feeds on the milkweed stem but doesn’t absorb the toxins from the sap. Instead, it girdles the stem, allowing the sap to ooze out; then it proceeds to feed on the leftovers.

Also worth mentioning are the large milkweed bug and the small milkweed bug, members of the family commonly known as seed bugs. These insects nibble the seeds of milkweed flower. The seeds, like the sap, are harmless to the bugs but dangerous to their predators.

Red for a Reason

Different as these milkweed-loving species are, they have at least one other thing in common: Each has bright, distinctive coloring, mostly in shades of red or orange. To many predators, that coloring says, Don’t eat me! I’ll make you sick!

If you already have milkweed in your garden, take a look and see what’s chomping on it. And if you don’t have any yet, plant some species that are native to your area. You’ll be sure to get some interesting visitors.

Entry filed under: Nature Notes.

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