It’s well-known that Monarch caterpillars (the larval form of Monarch butterflies) rely on plants in the milkweed family as their sole source of food. But milkweeds actually support many different insects, in addition to Monarchs.
Most notably, this includes two insects in the seed bug family—large milkweed bugs and small milkweed bugs—and two from the order of beetles—red milkweed beetles and swamp milkweed leaf beetles.
You may notice a theme as you look through these five photos of milkweed-loving insects: they’re all dressed in the same colors! They tend to sport eye-catching black-and-orange or black-and-red coloration to warn would-be predators of their toxicity and bitter taste, a defense mechanism called “aposematism”.
Most of these species pick up their toxicity from compounds called “cardiac glycosides” found in the milkweed they eat, but some, like the swamp milkweed leaf beetle, are only faking it—they don’t store the toxins in their bodies, but mimic insects that do in order to capitalize on their predator-repelling powers.
You may have spotted big puffs of cotton-like fluff growing on waist-high stems in a lot of meadows recently. There’s a good chance you’re witnessing the opening of the seed pods of the milkweed plant! In the fall, milkweed pods open up and release their fluffy, downy seeds to drift away on the wind and hopefully produce new plants the following year.
Don’t let the “weed” part of the name fool you: this lovely native plant presents a variety of unique flowers (there are more than 70 species native to the United States!), attracts butterflies, feeds and protects a variety of insects, provides nesting material for goldfinches and orioles, and is amazingly easy to grow. More than 60 different insects need milkweed to complete their life cycle, most notably the beloved monarch butterfly, which feeds almost exclusively on milkweed.