Milkweed Morning

It was a dark and steamy morning…The clouds offered conflicting gifts. Limited light made photography a challenge. On the other hand, with dew points in the 70s, the absence of the blazing sun was a relief. There was a dense layer of mist hovering over the surface of the creek, and the woods were cool. But my destination this morning was the meadows where patches of milkweed could be found.

In the last few months, I have rediscovered the wonders of a nearby Natural Lands Preserve. The old farm offers a diverse mix of habitat – woods, creek, meadows, even a serpentine outcropping. A landscape in transition, habitat in the preserve is being actively restored. Trees have been planted to create a riparian barrier along the creek. But for now, it’s a savanna, with young trees sharing the space with grasses, plants and lots of milkweed.

The prior week, I had been awed by the extensive patch of common milkweed here.

Milkweed is famous for being the primary food source of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars. Monarchs are beautiful and amazing creatures, so I was happy to see so much milkweed.

What I didn’t realize is how wonderful the flowers smell, especially when one is surrounded by many blooms on a warm day. Surely any flower that smells that sweetly must attract lots of critters!

Except…milkweed produces substances that are toxic to many animals. In spite of that more than 450 insects, including beetles, flies, ants, butterflies and bees, are known to feed on some part of the plant without issue. Many actually use the toxins as a defense against predation.

I came back to see just who I might find in this patch.

I found a Red Milkweed Beetle looking back at me, with more eyes than seemed the norm. This beetle’s scientific name, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus, means “four-eyed.” But it doesn’t really have four eyes! Like most longhorn beetles, the antennas are close to the eyes. In the red milkweed beetle, they actually bisect the eye, making one eye look like two, and two eyes look like four.

Most of the Red Milkweed Beetles I saw – and there were many – were too busy canoodling to look at me, with any number of eyes.

Another beetle named after the marvelous milkweed was tucked into a nearby dandelion. This is a Small Milkweed Bug. Notice the red X on a black background; that differentiates it from the spots of the red milkweed beetle. Nature uses red and black coloring as a warning to potential predators: Don’t eat me, I’m toxic!

Other critters than insects were hanging out in the milkweed patch. Common European Ambersnails were everywhere. As their name implies, they’re not from around here, but they’re so darn cute!

If there’s flowers, there must be bees. Eastern Bumblebee, hard at work gathering nectar.

My dad loved lady bugs, properly known as lady beetles. It’s easy to see why. Beautiful, and useful! Lady beetles eat aphids, and there were plenty of bright yellow aphids on the milkweed to be eaten.

FUN FACT: Common milkweed’s scientific name is Asclepias syriaca. The genus Asclepiasis named for the Greek god of medicine Asklepios. Why? Some milkweed species have medicinal uses. A toxic plant can also be medicinal? Yes, when prepared properly. Don’t try this at home!

A Long-Legged Fly pondered the good and bad properties of milkweed while showing off its iridescent colors.

Nearby, a Margined Leatherwing Beetle perched in the shade.

I like to know the names of the plants and animals I see. However, I didn’t know who most of these critters were when I first met them.

I use an app called iNaturalist that helps me identify everything in nature, from plants and trees to birds to bugs. Upload a picture, and iNaturalist suggests an identification. A large community of users helps narrow identifications down.

Check it out here.

Needless to say, the iNaturalist app on my phone was getting as much of a workout as my camera on this morning!

Butterflyweed – Asclepia tuberosa – is in the milkweed family. Like its name suggests, its flame-colored flowers attract butterflies. Not today, though.

I had expected more butterflies here, and maybe caterpillars. Of the latter I saw none; of the former only Cabbage White butterflies and this Little Wood Satyr. Who did not want his picture taken.

Someone that did want his portrait made was this Eastern Chipmunk. The little fellow was surprisingly still on his perch and let me get close. Chipmunks are usually very skittish, and disappear into the underbrush at the hint of a human. Guess it was too early in the morning for all that effort.

Back in the milkweed patch, another milkweed bug gave me the stink eye.

It’s a big world out there when you’re a tiny snail. The milkweed patch seems endless, and endlessly full of life. Here there is room to spare for all of Nature’s creatures.

As the day begins, there’s time to gather oneself for a moment.

In the quiet of a milkweed morning.