Of all the insects I’ve found in milkweed patches over the years, the Hummingbird Clearwing is one of my favorites. It is a species of sphinx moth, named for its habit of hovering at flowers while it gathers nectar with its proboscis in a manner similar to that of hummingbirds. In fact, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. The transparent wings, light brown thorax and dark chestnut abdomen are the field marks to look for. A diurnal moth, the Hummingbird Clearwing can often be found during the day in milkweed patches.
Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )
It’s easy to miss Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), as its flower is only about ½” in diameter and the plant only reaches a height of six to twelve inches. Blue-eyed Grass is a member of the Iris family, not, as its name implies, a member of the Grass family, although it does have stiff, grass-like leaves. Dark lines on its petals and sepals may well serve as nectar guides, leading pollinators to the yellow center. Each blossom is open for only a day at most. Typically you find Blue-eyed grass growing in sunny, wet fields, often on elevated soil — Thoreau noted that if you followed Blue-eyed Grass through a wet meadow,
you could keep your feet dry.
Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia) looks a bit like a miniature orchid, but it is not — it is in the Milkwort family. The structure of its ¾-inch bright magenta-pink blossoms is well-suited for its bumblebee pollinators. The bee lands on the pink fringe at the front of the flower and its weight triggers the white “keel” to drop down. A slit at the keel’s top opens, exposing the reproductive parts of the flower. Pollen from the stamens is rubbed onto the bee’s hairs while it probes deeply into the base of the flower for nectar, while pollen from a previously visited Fringed Polygala is scraped off onto the stigma, where it needs to be in order for fertilization to take place.
If you find a blossoming Trout Lily in the woods it is quite likely that you will also find one of its most common pollinators, the Red-necked False Blister Beetle (Asclera ruficollis), on it. Ardent pollen eaters, this group of beetles obtain their common name because many species cause blisters when pinched or squashed against skin. Adults mate on flower heads during pollen feeding. Both sexes feed on pollen, which acts as an attractant, but the female will not accept the male until her gut is packed full of pollen. She stores the pollen in a special intestinal sack in which an enzyme causes the pollen to partially germinate — this causes the indigestible covering of the pollen grain to rupture. She then digests the contents of the pollen grain, which she uses to manufacture eggs.