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,

m9-tachinid fly

and others covered in spiky hairs.

m7-skipper

The pollinators included skippers . . .

m1-swallowtail butterfly

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.

 

 

Moments of Awe

The garden hum slowed significantly in the last few days, with bee buzz overpowered by cricket chirps. But still they come.

i6-spotted cucumber beetle

The first insect I focused on wasn’t a bee at all, but a spotted cucumber beetle who paid a surprise visit. It’s been years since I grew cucumbers and I can only imagine that it was a couple of houses shy of my neighbor’s garden. Instead, it made do with the mint.

i1-hoverfly, haltere

A second glimpse wasn’t at a bee either. But I must admit that I’m forever mesmerized by  the tiny hover flies that frequent the flowers. Hover flies are true flies, so while they may look a bit bee like, they don’t sting. And they take time to enjoy the nectar. My, what big eyes they have–taking up most of their head space. And such short antennae.

i1-hoverfly-haltere

Since I was paying attention, I also realized that hover flies don’t have hindwings per say. Rather, as dipterous insects, they have halteres, which are a modified form of a hindwing. The halteres help with balance and guidance while in flight and are situated behind the forewings on the thorax or middle section of the body. Remember–head, thorax, abdomen. Here’s another tip: two wings fun, four wings run. Well, don’t exactly run, but get out of the way.

i2-sweat bee

One of my favorites in the garden mix, the jewel-like sweat bees with their metallic green heads and thoraxes, plus yellow and black striped abdomens.

i7-sweat bee

“Sweat bee” doesn’t strike me as the most romantic name for such a beautiful specimen, but they are so called because they’ve been known to land on us in search of a salty sip as we perspire. They will sting if annoyed.

i3-bumblebee face

But their sting isn’t as pronounced as that of the bumblebee; I thought about that as I  carefully greeted one face to face while he sucked with his straw-like proboscis. The bumbles were in constant motion today. Though they’ve been in a collection tizzy all summer, I had to wonder, do they sense the end is near? And still, they perform their job.

i4-honey bee, leg parts1

Taking its time in the collection process was a honeybee. Perhaps it knows the end is coming for it was much calmer than has been the norm and stayed in the same spot for several minutes, ever so slowly only moving its head.

i5-honeybee 2

All the better for me to take a closer look, including at the segments of its leg. I’m fascinated by the claws at the base of the tarsus.

Each day, the sweet offerings diminish as do the number of pollinators. Long ago I swore I didn’t like insects, but the more I look, the more in awe I am. Even though I know there will be other things to focus on, I’m going to miss these moments of wonder.