Milkweed: It’s Not Just for Monarchs

Many beekeepers are fond of watching the miracles of monarch development unfold alongside our honey bee colonies. Often recognized as a field weed of sorts, milkweed is a valuable food source to many pollinators. It is slow to emerge in spring, but once established, this native readily returns and multiplies. In our area, milkweed blooms early summer, providing rich nectar to a variety of bees and butterflies, including our beloved honey bees. In fact, my butterfly weed (not to be confused with the less valuable butterfly bush) is currently filled with honey bees finding much needed sustenance post nectar flow.

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Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, filled with honey bees filling up on nectar in my backyard.

Soon, monarchs will come to our area in search of milkweed on which to lay their eggs. Bear in mind that these voracious caterpillars will strip the plants of their leaves, allowing the caterpillars to grow exponentially before mutating into the enchanting black and orange butterflies that so easily represent pollinators everywhere. As such, by end of summer these plants are not as attractive in the flower beds as they are now because they become void of blooms and leaves, however the seed pods left behind add significant interest. If you don’t want them spreading, remove the seed pods. Otherwise, allow the seeds to dry and you’ll have more seeds than you can likely handle.

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The wind easily carries milkweed seeds from opening seed pods to new destinations (here, butterfly weed).  I find the seed pods to be fascinating in all stages, adding interest to the otherwise spent plants.
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Hello, Yellow! butterfly weed with a bumble bee visitor alongside a spent plant dispersing seeds.

As beekeepers, we’ve learned to appreciate the value of many plants deemed lesser such as dandelion, clovers and goldenrod. The intrinsic beauty of milkweed surpasses most ornamental nursery stock as it will have nourished countless pollinators like our honey bees and allowed for the next generation of monarchs who will then travel south for the winter months before repeating the cycle again. That’s something we can all feel good about.

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Tiny monarch caterpillar on a common milkweed leaf.  Look closely, towards the tip of the leaf and you can see another egg.  It’s amazing how quickly these caterpillars grow!
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Filling up on butterfly weed
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Let the games begin!  Hanging in this “J” formation, the caterpillar gathers energy and begins to form a chrysalis.  Note the pale green coloring that will soon encase the caterpillar as it forms a chrysalis.

 

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Fully encased in this lovely chrysalis, the caterpillar will continue to develop.  When the sun hits the gold piping, it literally sparkles, the stuff of fairy tales, or rather, exquisitely, nature.

 

 

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When ready to emerge, the chrysalis becomes clear and the monarch butterfly is visible, folded up within the chrysalis.

 

 

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Upon emerging, their wings dry and they attempt to fly, often landing on unexpected surfaces.

Compact butterfly weed integrates well into my flower beds, alongside New England asters, Joe Pye weed, zinnias and sunflowers because once the monarchs emerge from their chrysalides, nectar from these plants that bloom into fall is available to sustain them on their journeys. In addition, fall bloomers draw the eye away from the bare spots of the eaten milkweed plants a bit. In my garden, long branches of blooming ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod gently bow over spent butterfly weed. I also grow common and swamp milkweed, but I prefer to keep those larger varieties mixed into my big pollinator patch with cosmos, sunflowers, bee balm, hyssop and mountain mint.

 

 

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New England aster and ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod share a bed with butterfly weed, taking over the show as they provide critical food sources for newly emerged monarchs and other pollinators like our honey bees seeking late season food sources.

 

 

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Honey bees appreciate goldenrod too as an important fall food source.

 

 

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The leggy branches of ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod now drape over the spent butterfly weed, attracting attention to their bounty and covering the spent milkweed.

It’s important to keep in mind that planting milkweed should encompass only “native to our area” varieties because the monarchs use the bloom stages as a marker for migration. When blooms fade and become less plentiful, it’s time to move south, avoiding sudden temperature decreases that could kill them. Hence, growing tropical milkweed native to warmer climates is not helpful to the monarchs who may continue to breed on this plant, interfering with proper migration timing.

 

 

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This monarch caterpillar is filling up on common milkweed, defoliating this plant, leaf by leaf.

In Maryland, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), common (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp (Asclepias incarnata) are the native milkweeds that we should grow for best outcomes. You’ll find them in nurseries as plants or you can start from seeds but be careful to follow planting/ seeding instructions as this seed does require cold stratification. A few plants will soon take off, allowing Mother Nature to handle propagation.

 

 

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All pollinators welcome to the table:  a monarch sharing the offerings of New England aster with her kin in pollination, the honey bee.

 

I think of my honey bee colonies as a bit of a living classroom as I watch the pollination process firsthand and marvel at the innate abilities of honey bees to efficiently work in highly functioning teams- nursing, protecting, gathering and storing, all for the greater good of the hive. Growing milkweed is a way to expand our backyard classrooms and feed the bees. We learned about the life stages of caterpillars in school but seeing it firsthand as an adult with greater appreciation for the volatility of it all, is second to none. Besides, July bees are harder to work, so why not add another dimension to your living classroom with milkweed?!

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The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky.   

– Margaret McMillan (c 1925)

 

 

 

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