The World of Milkweed

Monarch Caterpillar Battling Swump Milkweed Leaf Beetle - (c) 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

          When you pass a stand of common milkweed, stop and lean closer to observe the bees and butterflies buzzing and fluttering among the flowers.  You will see that milkweed is not just a plant:  it is a world, a microcosm in which an intricate ecosystem interweaves the lives of plants and pollinators.  Lean in a little closer, and you'll notice that pale pink milkweed has a heavenly, intoxicating scent, as alluring to humans as it is to butterflies.


        Rockefeller State Park Preserve is home to three different species of milkweed -- common milkweed, orange butterfly weed and swamp milkweed.  The leaves of these plants provide sustenance for a variety of small creatures. Red milkweed longhorn beetles and milkweed bugs evolved in tandem with milkweed and feed exclusively on its leaves.  Gaily-colored swamp milkweed leaf beetles specialize in eating the leaves of swamp milkweed. Milkweed sap is toxic to many mammals and birds, but some butterflies, such as monarchs, benefit from this fact:  the milkweed-leaf diet of monarch caterpillars makes the adult butterflies noxious to birds, who avoid eating them.  Thus milkweed provides enduring protection to a butterfly that needs to elude predators as it migrates thousands of miles each year.


      When milkweed blooms, many species of bees, butterflies and other insects feed on the nectar of the flowers and gather their pollen.  After milkweed blossoms, its pods produce fine seeds attached to cottony fibers that catch the wind, spreading the seeds far and wide.  Bees and birds gather the fibers for nesting materials, and milkweed bugs make homes in the silky linings of milkweed pods. 


      We hope that you enjoy the bug's-eye view of the world of a milkweed shown in these photographs.

A red-belted bumblebee flying among milkweed blossoms

A monarch caterpillar and swamp milkweed leaf beetle battle on a milkweed stem.

Red milkweed longhorn beetles nestle together on a milkweed blossom.

A green June beetle hangs upside-down, hiding in a milkweed blossom.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly soars over a forest of milkweed flowers.

A swamp milkweed leaf beetle balances on a milkweed leaf.

A tiger swallowtail alights on a milkweed blossom.

A honey bee forages for nectar while a yellow jacket zips by.

A great gold digger wasp drinks nectar from swamp milkweed blossoms.

A red milkweed longhorn beetle prepares for takeoff on the tip of a milkweed leaf.

A webworm moth drinks nectar from a milkweed blossom.

A milkweed leaf shelters a cache of spiny soldier bug eggs.

A firefly sleeps on a milkweed leaf.

An eastern black swallowtail sips nectar from orange butterfly milkweed.

After zooming through a milkweed grove for half an hour, upsetting bees and butterflies, a Mydas fly with a two-inch wing span perches on the edge of a milkweed flower.

Two bumblebees feed together with a green June beetle on a milkweed blossom

A hummingbird clearwing moth sips milkweed nectar.

A monarch feeds on an annual milkweed.

Milkweed bugs scamper across a row of milkweed buds.

Milkweed bugs gather inside a milkweed seed pod.

All Photos & text Copyright 2014-2015 Paula Sharp & Ross Eatman.  For use of photos, see  Permissions.