I’m glad I asked the farmer’s son not to cut the humble stand of milkweed along the barbed wire fence. Twice a summer, the local dairy farmers hay the field for cow feed and bedding. If the weather’s right and the field’s growing well, they might just get a third cut in.
But the honeybees have been so enjoying the 207 milkweed plants (yes, I counted them), that when I heard the tractor coming up the road for the second haying of summer, I ran outside to intercept. I pointed to the purple flowers and asked the driver—the farmer’s 12-year-old son—to please spare them. The kid visibly recoiled when I explained that I’d started beekeeping and that the bees really loved those flowers. Thanks to his kind compliance in mowing around the milkweed-populated edge of the field (probably in large part to avoid the dreaded bees), the frenzied action on the milkweed blossoms has continued unabated for more than two weeks now.Along with the pleasure of watching dozens of honeybees visit the milkweed blossoms, there is the delight of listening to the satisfied work-sound of the proverbial busy bees. Several times a day, I find myself drawn up the hill to the milkweed stand to receive a dose of "happy buzz" therapy. The bees softly rising and landing on the blossoms, the hazy-sweet aroma permeating the area, and the concerted hum of bees fulfilling their life’s mission are quintessential expressions of summertime—the place I want to be.
The bees have drawn me to the milkweed, but the milkweed has turned out to hold a fascination all its own. Its a pollinator-magnet, hosting a kaleidoscopic array of life forms so fascinating I’m seriously considering a mid-life career shift to entomology.
Milkweed also has a nefarious side, as we'll see in a moment. But first let's walk on the sunny side of the Milkweed Street and say howdy to some of the many denizens of and visitors to this remarkable plant.
Many of us know milkweed as the host plant for the famed monarch butterfly, which (unfortunately) has proven too nimble and elusive for this paparazzo. I have been able to catch the monarch in its caterpillar form: an unparalleled example of the marriage of style and substance.
Other, less camera shy butterflies have been enjoying the milkweed as well.
The Great Spangled Frittilary
The Eastern Comma (At least I think it's a comma. If there are any serious bug people reading this, please feel free to correct this or any other inaccurate IDs.)
Some kind of Hairstreak (possibly Edwards)
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Some type of skipper.
Some other kind of skipper.
There have also been many moths, including one of my day-flying faves, the Virginia Ctenuchid Moth.
But the real revelation was going to visit these plants at night. Hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of moths gather there, making the daytime scene look subdued by comparison. My night shots aren't so hot, but you get the idea.
The cast of characters seen during the day also includes...The Small Eastern Milkweed Bug
The leafcutting bee (I think that's what it is)
A drone fly.
A bee-like fly?
Golden Northern Bumblebee (I think—in any case, it's adorable!)
Green Stinkbug (Note that the lower part of the insect's left leg is missing. Also note the little yellow "droplet" adhering to its right leg. The story behind all this will soon be revealed.)
An unidentified dragonfly.
A beetle and an ant.
Some kind of bumblebee?
Hornets and wasps of various kinds.
Now let's turn our attention to the aforementioned "nefarious" side of milkweed. WARNING: Some of these images are of a graphic nature (pun intended)—and may upset small children or exceedingly sheltered adults.
Some weeks ago, much to my horror, I began to notice honeybees entering the hive with tiny bright yellow "spokes" attached to their feet, giving the appearance of some kind of deformity. These bees were "limping" into the hive, dragging their feet in a most disturbing manner. In most cases, the deformity appeared on one or both of the hind feet, but sometimes it was apparent on the front feet as well, as in the case of this poor bee.Needless to say, I freaked. I then proceeded to spend a quiet, anxiety-filled evening Googling variations on the terms honeybee foot deformity, honeybee foot anomaly, honeybee foot anatomy, honeybee foot fungus, honeybee medical conditions, and honeybee disease. Like a first-year medical student studying malady after malady, it wasn't long before I started experiencing symptoms of the many horrid honeybee diseases out there. However, nothing I found resembled the strange foot disorder.
Luckily, my Organic Beekeeping listserv once again came to the rescue. Someone on the list explained that if milkweed was blooming in my area (and it was), the foot "deformity" might actually be little pieces of milkweed pollen that had gotten stuck on the bees' feet. Sure enough, the very next day while perusing the milkweed I found a dead bee with these bits of pollen stuck to both her hind feet and forefeet. During the same visit, I got this photo of a bee working the milkweed blossoms with this strange botanical material attached to her feet and proboscis.
I also began to notice that various insects, including honeybees, flies, and moths, were becoming "stuck" to the blossoms. Here, a fly struggles to extricate its foot.
It seems the milkweed plant extracts a price for access to its alluring nectar. According to a delightful book published in the 1920s called Honey Plants of North America:
"Milkweed flowers are called pinch-trap flowers because they possess a remarkable clip-mechanism found in no other family of plants. Two club-shaped masses of pollen are attached by flexible bands to a small, dry, triangular disc placed midway between them. In this membraneous disc there is a wedge-shaped slit at one end. In its effort to obtain a foothold on the smooth flowers an insect is likely to thrust a claw, leg, antennae, or tongue into one of the slits. If one of these organs is drawn upward in the slit, the dry disc becomes tightly clamped to it. When the insect flies away it carries with it the disc and the two masses of pollen strapped to it. Exposed to the air, the strap-like stalks dry and draw the pollinia close together. As the insect alights on another flower, they are easily thrust between two anther wings, where they come in contact with the stigma; but, once inserted and pulled upward, they can not again be withdrawn. The insect can obtain its liberty only by breaking the connecting bands. If it cannot do this, it perishes slowly of starvation. Disc after disc may thus become attached to an insect until it is crippled or helpless."
Here's a closer look at the "ball and chain" structure in question. Note the tiny black string of "beads" attached to the bee's feet, as well as the bright yellow pollen.
A captive moth struggling to escape. Milkweed Street is rich in colorful characters, but not without its sad dramas.
A moth that didn't make it. Note the moth-dust on the three surrounding buds: evidence of a frantic, protracted struggle.
A limb sacrificed for the greater good.
After my psychodrama with Google, I felt a little less alone when I read the remainder of the entry in the Honey Plants book:
"Not a season passes that inquiries are not received from beekeepers requesting information in regard to these peculiar appendages; and many explanations of them have been given by persons not familiar with the flowers of the milkweed. Some regard them as a fungus, others as a protuberance growing on the bee's leg, and still others as a winged insect-enemy of the bee."And here's what it's all about: once pollinated, the flower morphs into a tiny pod that grows to become the familiar, canoe-shaped milkweed pod that cracks open in fall and spreads its silky-topped seed pods through wind dispersal.
The milkweed—its pedestrian, somewhat demeaning name notwithstanding—turns out to be a rather exciting plant: sweet-smelling and good-looking enough to attract a dazzling array of pollinators, unique in its role as the sole host plant for the glorious monarch butterfly, and clever enough to have evolved a form of pollination insurance unique in the plant world.
The humble stand of milkweed at the edge of the field has turned out to be a most intriguing spot to hang out this summer. Like I said, I'm glad the farmer didn't cut it down.
A weathered old honeybee with tattered wings works the milkweed blossom.