We all know that monarch larvae eat milkweed plants, but what about the other insects that share a food source with Monarchs?
Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus)
Native range: Their range matches the distribution of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), basically the Northeast quadrant of North America
Harmful to Monarch caterpillars/eggs? No. They are herbivores and only eat milkweed. They are harmless to monarch larvae and eggs so you can leave them on your milkweed plant if you have enough to go around.
Identification: Red/orange in color with oval spots all over body and un-ringed antennae.
Life Cycle: Eggs laid on stems near ground or just below surface; larvae bore into stems, overwinter in roots, and pupate in spring; adults emerge in early summer
Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii)
Native range: Throughout US and Southern Canada
Harmful to Monarch caterpillars/eggs? Sometimes. They are mostly herbaceous and will suck nectar from flowers and sometimes feed on milkweed seeds. However, they have been reported to be predators, especially in spring when milkweed seeds are scarce. They have been reported feeding on honey bees, monarch caterpillars and pupae, and dogbane beetles, among others (Root 1986). The best method to remove the bugs from your milkweed plant is to grab them and throw them into a bucket of soapy water.
They adult is black with a broad orange/red band on forewing, forming an "X" shape. Their head is black with a dull red spot on top. In eastern specimens, forewings are all black, but in western specimens they have large white spots. (Bugguide.net)
Eggs are laid on milkweed in spring. One or more generations per year. Adults overwinter.
Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus)
Native range: Throughout North America and from Central America through Mexico and the Caribbean to southern areas in Canada.
Harmful to Monarch caterpillars/eggs? No, they do not feed on Monarch larvae or eggs so they are harmless and play a role in the ecosystem. However, they do feed on the seeds, leaves and stems of milkweeds (Asclepias). Damage to the plants can deplete resources for Monarch caterpillars. Planting more milkweed will ensure that they both have enough to eat.
Identification: Adults are overall black and orange- with black band in the middle and two large black spots in front and back. Nymphs are bright orange and develop black spots late.
Life Cycle: Eggs are laid in milkweed seed pods or in crevices between pods. About 30 eggs are laid a day, and about 2,000 over a female's lifespan, which lasts about a month during the summer. One or more generations per year. They can't survive cold winters, so they migrate south in the fall. They overwinter in the southern Atlantic and Gulf coast states where they feed and breed and gradually migrate north again in the spring and summer. (bugguide.net)
Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis)
Native range: Widespread in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, south to northern Mexico (Riley et al. 2003)
Harmful to Monarch caterpillars/eggs? Technically, no, because they are herbaceous. However they do feed on milkweeds, especially Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), but also Common Milkweed (A. syriaca). To control populations from eating all of your milkweed, you can pick them off and put them in a soapy bucket of water.
Life Cycle: They often overwinter as adults among leaves such as mullein (Verbascum). Adults mate on or around milkweed. Eggs are cemented to the underside of leaves. Larvae feed on leaves, and drop to ground to pupate (National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders)
Note: Unlike the Monarch, larvae and adults of the milkweed leaf beetle are not thought to sequester cardiac glycosides from their milkweed host.
Large Milkweed Bug Profile
Missouri Botanical Garden
Milne, Lorus and Margery. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders
Red Milkweed Beetle Profile
Small Milkweed Bug Profile
1. The surface of a Monarch's wing is covered with thousands of tiny, colorful scales. Loss of these scales is what causes Monarchs to lose their color!
Have you seen a tattered and faded Monarch? After flying for a long period of time, these scales will fall off and the Monarch's wings will appear faded or even clear. You can generally tell the age of a Monarch this way!
The tiny scales on the wings of Monarchs have been studied by biologists and aerospace engineers alike to better understand how they affect flight. (Source)
2. The Monarch caterpillar is a voracious eater and they can gain about 2700 times their original weight!
Monarchs must consume A LOT of food in a short amount of time in order to have enough food stored to go through metamorphosis. Monarchs literally outgrow their skin FIVE times. These sheds or molts are called "instars". Once the caterpillar has reached their fifth instar, they will find a place to pupate.
3. Two black spots on the inside surface of their hind wings distinguish male Monarch butterflies from the females.
It is helpful to know how to identify a male from a female Monarch when gardening to attract butterflies. If you notice a female on a milkweed plant, they are most likely laying their eggs there. You can then bring those leaves inside to raise your own Monarchs! Male and female Monarch butterflies are easily distinguishable. The females generally have thicker veins on their wings and they do not have black spots on their hind wings (which are actually specialized scales). In the case of most butterflies, these scales release hormones to attract females but they aren't sure that this is the case with Monarchs as well.
It can be a little more difficult to tell the Monarch's sex when their wings are closed but if you look VERY closely you can still see the black dot that indicates a male even when the wings are closed.
4. Monarch and Viceroy butterflies utilize Müllerian mimicry in order to mutually co-mimic each other and warn predators of their toxicity.
It was long believed that the Viceroy used Batesian mimicry- “mimicry in which an edible animal is protected by its resemblance to a noxious one that is avoided by predators.” However, it was found that the Viceroy feeds on Willow species (cottonwood, willow, poplar trees) which contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin and make them taste bitter to birds and other prey.
5. One female Monarch butterfly can lay an average of 300 and 500 eggs in the wild. Captive monarch butterflies average about 700 eggs per female over 2 to 5 weeks of egg laying, with a record of 1179 eggs in captivity!
According to a study done by Karen Oberhauser (1997), the average amount of eggs laid in 1994 was 715 (range 290–1179). It is difficult to know exactly how many eggs Monarch butterflies lay during their lives in the wild, but the average is estimated to be between 300 and 500.
Monarch females usually lay a single egg on a milkweed plant, often on the bottom of a leaf near the top of the plant. Eggs are only about the size of a pencil tip and are off-white or yellow, characterized by longitudinal ridges that run from the tip to the base. The eggs hatch about four days after they are laid (University of Minnesota, Monarch Lab).
6. Monarchs that emerge in the warmer months will become sexually mature within 5 days. However, migrating monarchs will emerge in reproductive diapause (suspension of reproductive development) and will not reproduce until Spring.
Environmental factors play a role in triggering this physiological response. These factors include day length, temperature, and host plant quality (University of Minnesota, Monarch Lab). Monarchs that overwinter in Florida and California, however, may not emerge in reproductive diapause because they do not migrate to Mexico. Migrating monarchs emerging in cooler temperatures will pause their reproductive duties until they return to warmer, more favorable conditions.
7. The Monarch's studded gold chrysalises are created by the coupling of a carotenoid pigment and a hill-like structure that reflects light from the peaks. They get the carotenoids from their diet of milkweed.
Monarch chrysalises shimmer in the sunlight like golden studded enclosures. In fact, word ¨chrysalis¨is derived from the Greek word ¨chrysos¨ meaning ¨gold.¨ What is the purpose of this beautiful feat of nature? Fred Urquhart was the first to study the gold spots on Monarchs in the 1970s. Interestingly enough, all danaine butterflies (monarchs and their relatives) have metallic spots on their chrysalises but how do they do this?
In monarch butterflies and a few others the gold is created by a coupling of a carotenoid pigment and a hill-like structure that reflects light from the peaks. They get the carotenoids from their diet of milkweed. If the caterpillars are fed an artificial diet lacking carotenoids then the would-be golden crown develops as silver in the chrysalis.
Here are some hypotheses for the reasons that Monarchs have metallic-looking spots on their pupae:
8. Monarch butterflies smell and taste with their antennae and legs which are covered with sensory cells called chemoreceptors. These chemoreceptors help Monarchs find milkweed to lay their eggs on.
Like Monarchs, when we smell and taste we are actually sensing chemicals in our environment. We also have chemoreceptors, which are concentrated on our tongue as tastebuds and in our nose. Monarchs use sensing chemicals in order to find their host plant, milkweed, quickly and accurately.
Dr. Bill Calvert describes what he observes in the field: "The female flits over the field and, when she stops on a plant, she drums the surface with her forelegs." She is basically putting tiny cuts into the plant in order for the chemicals to be released and for her to tell if it is indeed milkweed.
"Monarchs use a combination of visual and chemical cues to find milkweed," says monarch scientist Dr. Karen Oberhauser. "Once they land on a plant, they use sensory organs on their feet and heads to tell them if it is a milkweed, and probably the quality of the milkweed." (Journey North)
9. An overwintering Monarch typically lives 7-8 months compared to other generations that only live 2-6 weeks.
During the summer breeding season, monarchs live for only 2-6 weeks. But the monarchs that migrate to Mexico in the fall are different: They are born in late summer, stay alive all winter, and migrate north the following spring.
10. Milkweed contains toxins called cardiac glycosides and Monarch caterpillars will ingest and store these toxins to make themselves toxic to predators such as birds.
The bright colors on a monarch caterpillar serve as a warning sign to predators that they may be poisonous. The toxic effect on vertebrates depends on the level of intake and most birds will throw up these toxins but will learn not to eat them again.
Journey North. How Do Monarchs Find Milkweed?
Oberhauser, KS. 1997. Fecundity, lifespan and egg mass in butterflies: effects of male-derived nutrients and female size. Functional Ecology 11: 166-175 https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1046/j.1365-2435.1997.00074.x
Rothschild M, Gardnier B, Mummery R. 1978. The role of carotenoids in the “golden glance” of danaid pupae (Insecta: Lepidoptera). Journal of Zoology 186: 351-358.
University of Minnesota Monarch Lab
Did you know that Milkweed is one of the most useful and versatile plants in the world? Not only is it a vital plant-food for Monarchs, it is extremely useful for us as a source of food, medicine and fiber.
Boris Berkman. “Milkweed: A War Strategic Material and a Potential Industrial Crop for Sub-Marginal Lands in the United States.” Economic Botany, vol. 3, no. 3, 1949, pp. 223–239. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4251941.
Harry-O'kuru, R.E., Mojtahedi H., Vaughn S.F, Dowd, P.F.,...Abbott, T.P. "Milkweed seedmeal: a control for Meloidogyne chitwoodi on potatoes." Industrial Crops and Products 9, 1999, pp. 145-150. USDA. 'https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/25487/PDF'
Kindscher, K. 1992. Medicinal wild plants of the prairie. An ethnobotanical guide. University Press of Kansas. pp. 54-58.
Lohmiller, G., Lohmiller, B. "Common Milkweed Uses and Natural Remedies." The Old Farmer's Almanac. 'https://www.almanac.com/content/common-milkweed-uses-and-natural-remedies'
Gilmore, M.R. 1977. Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri River region. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 55-57.
Nehring, J. "The potential of milkweed floss as a natural fiber in the textile industry." Journal of Undergraduate Research. 2014. University of Kansas. 'https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/bitstream/handle/1808/15034/Nehring_jur14.pdf;sequence=1'
Shakyawar, D. B., Dagur, R. S., & Gupta, N. P. (1999). Studies on milkweed fibres. Chicago
The Xerces Society recently released a Western Monarch Call to Action plan.
Cold stratification is simply exposing the seed to a period of cold treatment. It is a pre-treatment method you can use to break the seed's dormancy and increase it's ability to germinate. This is something that occurs in nature and what we call "Winter".
There are a various different methods to cold stratify seeds. I am going to explain the Outdoor Methods or, as I like to call them, "Mother Nature's Way". In my opinion, these are the easiest methods but they do take patience.
The methods I will be explaining are very old ways of cold stratifying seeds that people have been using for hundreds of years. Although using a refrigerator to cold stratify seeds has become more popular in recent times, this is the way our ancestors have always done it.
The "Fall Planting Method"
1. Choose an area where you want to grow your Milkweed plants. Make sure it has proper sunlight and is in a slightly protected area.
If planting in pots, make sure they are protected (i.e. against the side of a building or next to straw bales). Make sure the pots are not in the drip-line of the building so that they could potentially fill with water and then freeze. However, snow-melt is an important part of the process so do allow snow to cover the pot.
2. Sprinkle the seeds on the soil and mulch with a couple inches of straw or leaves.
Note: Do not pack the mulch down as it is important to have a bit of air flow to deter mold and fungus from growing.
3. Sprinkle water over the seed bed if soil is dry.
4. Mark the area so you don't forget where you planted.
5. Be patient. They will not germinate and start sprouting until Spring and sprouting will not occur all at the same time as with most cultivated varieties of plants. These are wild plants that will have more genetic variation and will be more likely to survive once they have become established.
The "Winter Planting Method"
During the winter after a heavy snow, broadcast your seeds out on the snow. Believe it or not, many of them will come up in the spring! The moisture will soften their seed coats and essentially wake them up.
Make sure it is in an area that you want the plants to grow and will have plenty of sunlight in the Spring and Summer.
Save Our Monarchs recently released our Pandora Monarch Butterfly Charm and we went behind the scenes to see how they were made!
Each glass color is layered separately onto a mandrel beginning with black. The glass that is used is call borosilicate which is what Pyrex is made from and is extremely break-resistant.
Next, the unique "Monarch Orange" glass color is layered on.
Now for the distinctive white spots that we recognize on our Monarch friends.
Lastly, a clear layer of glass is added in order to magnify the image and they are put into a kiln.
Meet the Artist
Matthew Losee, of Lincoln, Nebraska, has been blowing glass for 14 years and worked for 5 years with the Conservation Corps and US Forest Service to help conserve wilderness areas. His passion for environmental conservation and art spurred him to create a bead in the image of the Monarch. Save Our Monarchs was happy to combine forces in order to promote local art, conservation and the love of the Monarch butterfly.
How do you use your Monarch bead? Please post in the comments ways in which you use yours!
Where should I collect? You can collect Milkweed pods on private lands (with permission of course), public right of ways and road sides.
What if I'm not sure how if it's a Milkweed plant? All milkweed species develop a seed pod and they look very similar. Refer to the Milkweed Identification blog if you're not sure how to identify Milkweed.
How much should I collect? The rule of thumb for harvesting wild plants is to leave at least 2/3rds of the plant to ensure that the wild population will continue to thrive.
Step 1: Collecting the Milkweed Pods
If the pod is brown and has already popped open releasing their silky fluff, also called coma, you know that they are ready and you can harvest them and remove the fluff later.
However, if you want to avoid the fluff and be able to take the seeds off neatly and easily, here is a little trick.
I look for green seed pods and the first thing I do is squeeze the seed pod. If I hear a gentle pop and see that the pod has split at the suture, then I look inside. If the seeds are a nice coffee brown then I know they are mature and I can collect the pod. However, If the seeds are white or tan, I don’t collect them and let them continue to mature on the plant.
Milkweed seeds can mold easily so I like to use a paper bag or cardboard box when I'm out collecting.
Step 2- Removing the Seeds from the Husk
To see a video of this process click here.
Step 3- Drying
Step 4- Storage
You Can Donate Your Seeds To Save Our Monarchs Foundation
1) Donate it to Save our Monarchs via postal mail
Save Our Monarchs Foundation
P.O. Box #390135
Minneapolis, MN 55439
2) Scatter the seed in public areas, including city and state parks, schools, lakes, rivers, bike trails, golf courses (with permission).
Garden Educator, Naturalist and Ethnobotanist