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Life & Death in a Milkweed Patch

7-6-15 milkweed critters 078Monarch Butterflies are not the only insects whose lives are dramatically affected by the current precarious health of the Common Milkweed population. Clockwise, starting middle, top: Yellowjacket worker chewing insect to feed to larvae; White Admiral drinking nectar; Jumping Spider drinking fly innards; deceased butterfly trapped by getting proboscis caught in stigmatic slit ; Small Milkweed Bugs mating; Assassin Bug feeding on ant; Red Milkweed Beetle; Virginia Ctenucha Moth drinking nectar.

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18 responses

  1. Mary, how can I propagate milkweed in my yard? Where do I get the stuff? – Will

    July 6, 2015 at 7:38 am

  2. mona chamberlain

    Mary — I had caught a small mouse (by trap) and left it on a spot in my woodland garden where the crows take such items away! When I went out to check to be sure it was gone, it was still there but being moved by two what looked like Assasin bugs. I had noted a mound of dirt in this area and these beetles were slowing pulling the mouse down a small hole in this mound. I think there must have been some of the beetles underground pulling from that side. It was a slow process. I left but came back and all there was left was the tail, which eventually disappeared. I told this story to friends — they thought I had gone mad!! I later dug up the mound, but there was no sign of bugs or mouse.The beetles were orange and black. and looked exactly like the Assassin bug. Are these small bugs capable of pulling a small mouse??

    I would like to send you a contribution by mail, but d not have your mailing address. I enjoy your postings. I hope to find some milkweed for my gardens — I’ve seen some in the area. Mona Chamberla

    July 6, 2015 at 8:19 am

    • Hi Mona,
      That’s fantastic! I’m pretty sure what you saw were Burying Beetles — see if this description from Wikipedia doesn’t fit – I would give ANYTHING to observe what you did!

      Burying beetles have large club-like antennae equipped with chemoreceptors capable of detecting a dead animal from a long distance. After finding a carcass (most usually that of a small bird or a mouse), beetles fight amongst themselves (males fighting males, females fighting females) until the winning pair (usually the largest) remains. If a lone beetle finds a carcass, it can continue alone and await a partner. Single males attract mates by releasing a pheromone from the tip of their abdomens. Females can raise a brood alone, fertilizing her eggs using sperm stored from previous copulations.

      The carcass must be buried by the beetle(s) to get it out of the way of potential competitors, which are numerous. However, if the carcass is large (i.e. a cow one), hundreds or perhaps thousands of burying beetles labour at it industriously, and it seems to be enough stuff to go around.
      Burying beetle life cycle

      The prospective parents begin to dig a hole below the carcass. While doing so, and after removing all hair from the carcass, the beetles cover the animal with antibacterial and antifungal oral and anal secretions, slowing the decay of the carcass and preventing the smell of rotting flesh from attracting competition. The carcass is formed into a ball and the fur or feathers stripped away and used to line and reinforce the crypt, where the carcass will remain until the flesh has been completely consumed. The burial process can take around 8 hours. Several pairs of beetles may cooperate to bury large carcasses and then raise their broods communally.

      The female burying beetle lays eggs in the soil around the crypt. The larvae hatch after a few days and move into a pit in the carcass which the parents have created. Although the larvae are able to feed themselves, both parents also feed the larvae in response to begging. They digest the flesh and regurgitate liquid food for the larvae to feed on, a form of progressive provisioning. This probably speeds up larval development. It is also thought the parent beetles can produce secretions from head glands that have anti-microbial activity, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and fungi on the vertebrate corpse.

      July 6, 2015 at 8:32 am

    • p.s. My mailing address is 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. Thank you so much!

      July 6, 2015 at 8:51 am

  3. Amy

    I was going to ask a similar question to Will’s. How can I use the few milkweed plants I have to plant a large patch in my meadow? Or is there an online source where to get plugs that are more likely to propagate? Having had some work done in our yard recently, I now have an open field that is nothing but dirt (well….mud…). Would love to make it all milkweed.

    July 6, 2015 at 8:30 am

  4. What a wonderful array of photos catching some of the activity hosted by milkweeds! I’ve been noticing the same thing on the milkweed plants out in our field, which are just beginning to blossoms. I really appreciate having your descriptions and naming of what I’m seeing! (Wish you were here!)

    July 6, 2015 at 8:35 am

  5. Kathryn

    Some of the activity at our milkweeds is human. I LOVE the scent and can’t get enough!

    July 6, 2015 at 10:38 am

  6. Sue Carr

    Hi Mary,

    I appreciated your call the other day, SO much. But reason has reared its practical head and we realize there’s no way we can transfer our tippy canoe to NH and safely paddle with a big camera.

    So, we’re reversing gears and asking if you would be willing to let Elliott, use your photo in his book? Your picture is so perfect, illustrating just what he wants. He has never used other people’s pictures before but as this book (Water birds of the Atlantic Flyway) covers a lot of territory, he might squeeze one of mine into the lineup and would be pleased if he could add yours, as well. It would, of course, have your name with it. This is another loon picture he plans to use:

    If you will give me your address, I will send you a copy of his last book about herring and gulls at a run near our house so you can see what he does.

    All best,

    Sue Carr

    PS After seeing your Milkweed post, I took a picture of our milkweed patch:

    Good old milkweed!

    July 6, 2015 at 10:58 am

    • Hi Sue, So sorry you can’t get to NH for the loons. I would be thrilled to have Elliott use my photos — I have hundreds, if not thousands, of them, if he wants to look at a sampling in case there’s one that better illustrates what he wants to illustrate. My address is 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089.

      July 6, 2015 at 3:14 pm

  7. Mandy A

    I often visit my local milkweed patches to take photos, and I find a lot of little creatures with legs stuck in the blooms. I’ve found that by gently pinching the bloom, it often allows the creature to become un-stuck. Last night I freed a beautiful Virginia Ctenucha moth and took great joy in watching it fly away.

    July 6, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    • I almost included that in my post…if anyone has a desire to feel like a hero, visit a milkweed patch and free all the insects caught in the flowers!

      July 6, 2015 at 3:23 pm

  8. I find the scent of milkweed flowers deliciously intoxicating, but I didn’t realize that they were deadly! I will have to take a closer look next time. Death by entrapment – what a way to go. 😦

    July 6, 2015 at 5:47 pm

  9. denney morton

    I sent in a negative comment based on farmer conversations
    about the perils of fields full of milkweed earlier today..
    and it never got posted..hmmm
    do you only post info which mirrors your stated viewpoint
    or did my comment not reach you ?

    July 6, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    • I do not filter the comments that come in, Denney. In fact, I posted your comment and responded to it (“I’m not sure how to tackle that one, Denny” were my exact words. I’m not sure why you can’t see it.) It is a real dilemma for farmers, but I think that pulling milkweed in order to have hay that is safe for cows is one thing, and the use of pesticides and herbicides, for instance, is another. The use of glyphosate herbicide in conjunction
      with increased planting of genetically modified (GM) glyphosate-tolerant corn has been proven to negatively affect the monarch population, just as one example. Farmers pulling up milkweed is relatively benign and understandable, though unfortunate.

      July 6, 2015 at 7:37 pm

  10. Janet Griffin

    We have milkweed plants in our gardens here in New Hampshsire, but for the past couple of years have seen neither Monarchs or their larvae. Hope for better luck this year.

    July 7, 2015 at 6:10 am

  11. judilindsey

    Wow! Who ever knew a butterfly could die by getting its tongue caught in a flower! Amazing info as always! Judi 🙂

    July 8, 2015 at 8:39 am

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