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Milkweed: It’s Not Just for Monarchs

Jul 07, 2015


  • Conservation Stories

By Candy Sarikonda, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist and Wild Ones Ohio member.

With every educational program I do, I try to emphasize the fact that milkweed is not just a host plant for monarchs.  Milkweed is an incredible nectar source for many pollinators, and a preferred nectar source in my home garden.  I can tell people this a million times, but nothing says it better than a photo.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  So for a few evenings this late June, I set out to document the visitors in my milkweed patch using my camera.

The common milkweed and swamp milkweed were blooming heavily in my yard, and covered with bees.  I enjoyed listening to the constant buzzing that alerted me to their presence.  I wished for the expertise to identify every one of them.  Carpenter bees, bumblebees, honeybees, syrphid flies and more.  But I especially enjoyed documenting the butterflies that more rarely reveal themselves in my yard, enticed to my garden by the blooming milkweed.

Candy Sarikonda - Banded Hairstreak Nectaring on Milkweed A banded hairstreak caught my eye, resting on a common milkweed leaf.  As I watched it closely, it rubbed its two hindwings together.  I chuckled.  This behavior is designed to fool predators.  Banded Hairstreaks have two projections at the tip of their hindwings, called tails, that give the appearance of short antennae.  Next to these projections are usually an “eye spot” of red, orange or blue.  As the butterfly rubs its hindwings together--thereby moving the tail projections--it gives the appearance of a head with moving antennae.  So predators bite the wrong end of the butterfly, missing the butterfly’s actual head!  Pretty sneaky, I thought to myself.  But even more interesting to me was how this hairstreak fed from the common milkweed.  Some of the blossoms hung down, and the hairstreak landed at the base of each blossom and slowly and carefully crawled down the flower stalks.  Once the butterfly reached a point where its short proboscis could reach the nectar in the flower’s crown, it began to nectar.  It seemed to me that the hairstreak was deliberately trying to avoid getting its feet caught in the slit of the flower.

Red admirals, by contrast, walked all over the flowers, hanging from the flower surfaces and feeding with abandon.  Their feet were covered in pollinia, the bright orange sacs that are produced by the milkweed plant and contain the pollen.  I found the red admirals resting on several occasions, and photographed the orange pollinia attached to their feet.  My husband and young son were quite enchanted with the red admirals, which boldly landed on my son’s head, my husband’s shoulder, and my chest.  Their fast erratic flight made it tough to follow them, but their bold behavior made them a favorite in our yard this early summer.

I finally saw the first monarch in our yard on June 22.  A beautiful, fresh-looking female.  She was most likely a newly emerged Generation 2 monarch.  She arrived one evening, feeding heavily from the common milkweed for a few minutes, then quickly flew off in the direction of the creek behind our home.  I searched for 3 days after she left, but I did not find any eggs.  Sigh.  Perhaps her eggs were not mature, perhaps she had not yet found a mate.  But I sure hoped she would return to lay eggs in our yard. 

My biggest thrill was a visit by a Mourning Cloak.  I had tried many times in the past to get a good photo of this butterfly species, but I had never been successful.  That all changed this June 24, as a cloak darted out of the milkweed patch one morning.  I could not get my camera in time, but luckily it returned that evening and spent over an hour feeding from the common milkweed clone by our garage!  What a treat!  I could not believe the length of time it visited, and how it fed with its wings wide open, showing off its unique coloration.  This butterfly species is known for feeding on tree sap or animal scat.  One of the few butterflies that overwinters in our area as an adult, it can emerge on a warm, sunny late winter day.  Flowers are not around at that time, and rotting fruit or animal dung may be the only thing available. Skittish by nature, and not often seen at flowers, it was an honor to have this Mourning Cloak nectaring in our milkweed patch for such an extended length of time.

Many other pollinators have been in our yard this month.  A juvenile male Widow Skimmer dragonfly visited us and claimed a territory near our mailbox, often perching on a dried milkweed stem in the center of our curbside garden.  Summer azures, an American snout, and numerous bees visited our linden tree.  My neighbors have come over, inquiring about the butterflies in our yard, and searching for the source of the heavenly scent wafting from our yard.  After pointing out the common milkweed, I make sure to send them on their way with the OH DNR butterfly ID booklet in hand.  I have begun posting photos to our neighborhood google group, and gotten very positive feedback.  Butterfly watching most certainly brings people together!  After a cool wet spring and early summer, our yard has come abuzz with activity.  Stop and smell the milkweed in a habitat near you.  You may be delighted to see who joins you—pollinator and human alike.


The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.