Variety in an Urban Milkweed Patch

Most of us learned about the special relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants when we were young children — and just about anytime I look in our garden, monarchs sail among the milkweed.  Females lay eggs on the underside of leaves and monarchs of both genders sip the plant’s sweet nectar.  But milkweed isn’t just for monarchs!  It also provides a place for many other creatures:  A few that are immune to its toxicity eat it; others drink its nectar, depend on it for reproduction, watch for a meal, or simply rest. Here’s a sampling of critters living in our backyard milkweed in early August.  What’s in your milkweed patch??

The adult red milkweed beetle (Tertaopes tetrophthalmus) eats milkweed leaves, buds and flowers.

The adult red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) eats milkweed leaves, buds and flowers. Its larvae eat the plant’s roots.

The Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eats the seed pods, stems and leaves of milkweed.

The Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) eats the seed pods, stems and leaves of milkweed.

A hover fly or flower fly (Syrphidae).

A hover fly or flower fly (Syrphidae).

 

An eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons).

An eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) hunts for small insect pests to eat.

A honey bee (Apis millifera).

Honey bees (Apis millifera) favor the sweet milkweed nectar.

Bumble bees (Bombus) of several different species are attracted to milkweed blossoms.

Bumble bees (Bombus) of several different species are attracted to milkweed blossoms.

Red admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) are attracted to the milkweed's nectar.

A red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) sips milkweed nectar.

I never tire of seeing monarchs (Danaus plexipus) nectar on milkweed blossoms.

I never tire of seeing monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectar on milkweed blossoms.

Insects aren't the only critters to favor milkweed nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) frequently drink it, too. Insects aren't the only critters to favor milkweed nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) frequently drink it, too.

Insects aren’t the only critters to favor milkweed nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) frequently drink it, too.

 

Monarchs and Joe-Pye Weed

Monarch butterflies are rare visitors this summer.  In a typical year, they float through the backyard all day.  Over the past week, a solitary monarch visited our patch of spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) each day between 7 and 8 a.m.  Sunlight glowed in its beautiful wings as it sipped the Joe-Pye nectar.

A monarch sips Joe-Pye weed nectar in early-morning sunlight.

A monarch sips Joe-Pye weed nectar in early-morning sunlight.

In the next two weeks, monarch migration through St. Paul, MN, should peak, according to MonarchWatch.org.  To check peak migration in your own area, visit  peak migration.  During the 2011 fall migration peak, 10-to-25 monarchs visited our Joe-Pye patch each afternoon, and often roosted in our apple tree for the night.  I’m interested in comparing this year’s numbers with the 2011 observations.  (Last year, the Joe-Pye blossomed two-to-three weeks earlier than usual, due to the early spring, and as a result, finished blooming ahead of monarch migration.

In addition to the low numbers of monarchs, I’ve only seen one each of black swallowtails, red admirals and mourning cloaks, and only two tiger swallowtails in our garden.  I haven’t found caterpillars of any of the five species.  Read more about the low number of butterflies this year, from the Star Tribune.