Queen of the Butterflies

At the beginning of July, the Common Milkweed that I’m allowing to grow more abundantly in my herb garden began to blossom, its hypnotic scent filling the air with an almost honey-like fragrance.

m1a-milkweed flowers

Being close to the Fourth of July in its blooming, the milkweed’s formation reminded me of the fireworks that filled the sky over and over again. I only wish those had been as silent as the milkweed.

m2-ants and honeybees

Then again, it was hardly silent or unnoticed for the bees and ants sought the sugary nectar stored in the shell-shaped structures.

m4-honeybee

So few honeybees have I seen all summer, but as long as the milkweed was in bloom, I noticed four of them probing for the goodness hidden within.

m8-wasp

Visitors were from every ilk, some with striped bodies,

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and others covered in spiky hairs.

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The pollinators included skippers . . .

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and swallowtails.

m5-red milkweed beetle and ant

Upon the plants’ leaves were Red Milkweed Beetles, this one being checked out by an ant. The bright red coloration announced the beetle’s distastefulness for he’s one of the few insects that can feed on the leaves of milkweed, store the plant’s defense chemicals and assure that he won’t be consumed.

m6-ant climbs over red milkweed beetle

The ant apparently discovered the beetle wasn’t worth dealing with and so climbed over it and moved on. Or maybe the beetle had accidentally rubbed against some nectar and the ant was attracted to it–for all of a second.

m10-honeybee

The milkweed flowers in my garden began to die back, but this week I discovered another place where they grow abundantly. And at least one honeybee recognized the same.

m17-red milkweed beetles

As did more long-horned Red Milkweed Beetles, and now rather than finding only one, I’ve noticed there often appear to be two working in unison to ensure a continuation of their species.

m15-monarch on dogbane

 

And much to my delight, I spotted sipping nectar from the Spreading Dogbane that grows beside the milkweed, a Monarch Butterfly.

m14-monarchs fluttering

And it wasn’t just one Monarch. I can’t say how many I saw in total, but I watched them for a while as they floated over the meadow flowers in their flap, flap . . .

m21-monarch and shadow

glide routine, sometimes chasing each other or their own shadow before alighting.

m13-monarch puddling

Like the Clouded Sulphurs I noticed the other day, the Monarchs too sought nutrients from the gravel road, their mouthparts, aka proboscises, extended in search of minerals.

m22-probiscus curled

When not in use, the tubular and flexible straw that serves as a mouth curled inward, retracted as it would be during flight.

m16-viceroy butterfly

Also in the area, because it too likes the nectar of the milkweeds and other flowers offering a sweet meal, was the Monarch mimic, a Viceroy. The differences between the two: Viceroys have a wing span of about 2-3 inches, while Monarchs’ span is 3-4. And Viceroys have a black horizontal stripe that crosses near the bottom of its back wings. Well, actually, it looks more diagonal. And really, who came first? The Monarch or the Viceroy?

m19-silvery checkerspot butterfly

Also present because it too feeds on native milkweeds, a few small Silvery Checkerspot Butterflies, their wing span less than two inches.

m20-silvery checkerspot butterfly

And they also sought those road nutrients, so suffice it to say, its a butterfly habit . . . at least in this neck of the woods.

m24-milweed tussock moth caterpillars

I had to eventually leave the road and meadow behind and run home to grab something, which meant an opportunity to check on my milkweed plants. Those in the kitchen garden hosted some Red Milkweed Beetles, but that was the most interesting thing I saw, besides the fact that the dried flowers were transforming into warty green seedpods. But by the front door, where more milkweed grows, I noticed first a pile of caterpillar scat on a leaf. Getting down on my knees to look underneath, I spotted a mature Milkweed Tussock Moth and its larvae feeding.

m24-tiny monarch caterpillar

And then my heart was still, for I found a tiny Monarch caterpillar.

m25-adult monarch caterpillar

And near it, one that had been very hungry and seemed to have stopped eating. I can’t wait to check again and see if it’s still there–only in a transformed stage.

m26-two monarch caterpillars

As I continued to look, there were more, these two clearly munching away.

m29-munching leaves like an ear of corn

They reminded me of humans eating corn on the cob for it seemed they moved back and forth as they chomped on the plant’s leaves. Monarchs, and other butterflies that feed on the green leaves in their caterpillar form, are like the Red Milkweed Beetle in that they can tolerate the chemicals and it makes them not tasty to predators.

m27-medium-sized monarch caterpillar

Everywhere I looked, I began to see Monarch caterpillars in various stages of growth.

m30-probiscus curlced

My hope is that I’ll discover chrysalises as I continue to search and eventually our yard and flower gardens and the field beyond will be full of the queen of the butterflies:  Monarchs.

 

 

Golden Rulers

In late summer/early fall, a variety of goldenrods shower gardens and fields with their sunshiny flowers.

Unfortunately, they’ve been wrongly blamed as the culprits of hay fever, but by the abundance of pollinating insects that visit them daily, it’s clear that they are insect rather than wind pollinated. (Ragweeds and other hay-fever causing species are wind pollinated.)

And so today, as I have for the past few weeks, I spent time focusing on those pollinating visitors and others who find goldenrods attractive for different reasons. Take a look.

g-assassin-1

What first caught my eye was a bee that dangled upside down. And then I spied the green legs of an assassin bug. What? Yup, an assassin bug.  I believe this one is a nymph. Regardless of age, here’s the scoop: Assassin bugs are proficient at capturing and feeding on a wide variety of prey. Though they are good for the garden, they also sometimes choose the wrong species like this bee. The unsuspecting prey is captured with a quick stab of the bug’s curved proboscis or straw-like mouthpart. Once I saw this, I continued to return for a couple of hours, so stay tuned.

g-honey-2

Fortunately, there were other honeybees on the job of pollinating the flowers.

g-bumblebee

Mighty bumblebees also filled their sacs to the brim.

g-assassin-2

A.B. Take 2–do you see the proboscis stuck into the first bee’s thorax? It fed by sucking out the fluids.

g-hover-fly

Back to the other visitors. One of my favorites was the hover fly. I’m always humbled by its coloration.

g-wasp

And then there were the wasps.

g-wasp-2

Their almost hairless bodies provided contrast beside the bees.

g-assassin-3

A.B. Take 3–The A.B. turned the bee and it appeared that its proboscis became coated with pollen, which would make sense.

g-jumping-spider

Meanwhile, a jumping spider waited patiently for its own prey to come into sight. I felt like all eyes were on me as we came face to face. Thankfully, it didn’t jump and grab me with its jaws.

g-crab-3

Another with a poisonous bite is the crab spider. This one was more active that most that I’ve seen. Usually, they sit and wait, then catch their prey, bite it and again, suck it dry. And while it looks huge in this picture, it is really quite small–about pencil eraser size.

g-spider-web

A third spider species used the goldenrod’s stem and leaves to weave its own structure. It seemed to be more successful than the others at finding a meal.

g-assassin-5

A.B. Take 4–Check out A.B.’s tiny red eyes. And its camouflage–no wonder the poor bee never saw it.

g-caterpillar-2

Not every visitor to the goldenrod knew about camouflage. I don’t know who this is, but saw it on a nearby orange echinacea yesterday. Its mauve color certainly shouted for attention among the yellow sea.

g-caterpillar-blend

A different caterpillar did a better job of blending in–do you see it?

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A.B. Take 5–An hour later and the A.B. was still sucking.

g-assault-2

At the same time, another predator hid among the flowers–an ambush bug.

g-ambush-3

This species is otherworldly at best.

g-ambush-bug

And talented. The ambush bug waits patiently and then snatches prey with its knife-like pincers. All but the outer shell of the prey is consumed. I swear this guy was smiling. Maybe he’d enjoyed a feast and I’d missed it.

g-assassin-victim

A.B. Take 6–About two hours after I’d first observed it, I returned and couldn’t find the bee. Then I noticed a motionless body on a flower branch below. Apparently A.B. had sucked all the life out of it and then let it go.

g-assassin-on-prowl-2

A.B. The Final Take–It had finished taking and went in search of another victim.

What I know for sure: While goldenrod may rule the late garden, it is also ruled by many in a bug-eat-bug world. All of it is worth a wonder.