The Milkweed Gang

Here’s your last reminder of our Platte River Prairies field day this Saturday (July 9). The weather looks great and it should be a fun day. I hope to see some of you out there!

A couple weeks ago, I found myself at a recreational area in Omaha described very accurately on its website as “a 250-acre lake surrounded by 940 acres of trees and grasses”. When Kim signed up for a long trail race there, I’d hoped I’d be able to find some prairie to wander around in while she ran all day. No such luck. Most of the grasses turned out to be smooth brome or reed canarygrass and both the grassland and woodland areas were heavily infested with autumn olive and other invasive shrubs and trees. Undaunted, I found a draw between the race path and the lake where a large patch of common milkweed had embedded itself within a matrix of invasive grasses.

My role for the day was to be available to Kim at the end of every three mile lap so I had some time between laps to explore with my camera. The light was decent for the first couple hours of the day, so I conducted an informal survey of the fauna hanging out in the island of milkweed flowers within a matrix of yuck. I was really curious to see how many insects would be able to find their way to the isolated milkweed patch, especially those species that are milkweed specialists.

Most people associate milkweed with monarch butterflies, but there are lots of invertebrates that take advantage of milkweed nectar and a surprising number that can also feed on the leaves, despite the toxic white latex inside. I did see an adult monarch nectaring in the patch (didn’t get a photo) but didn’t find any monarch caterpillars. There probably were some, I just didn’t happen across any. Lots of other insects were present, though, which was a pleasant surprise.

Common milkweed in a patch of reed canarygrass and smooth brome.
A stilt-legged fly feeds on nectar.

The nectar produced by milkweed flowers attracted a number of small hungry animals, though not many bees or butterflies. Soldier beetles were, by far, the most abundant of those, crawling around the flowers and picking up pollinia (little gel packs of pollen) on their feet. If you aren’t aware of the fascinating story of milkweed pollination, you can read this older post I wrote on that subject. It’s a story worth knowing. Briefly, milkweed pollen is transferred when insects accidentally slide their leg into flower slits, pull out milkweed pollinia, and then slide the same leg and pollinia into the slit of a different flower to complete the process. It shouldn’t work but it does.

A soldier beetle looking like it didn’t particularly want a photographer in its face.
You can see pollinia stuck to the back leg of this soldier beetle.

A few honey bees were visiting the flowers, but I didn’t see many native bee species. Honey bees probably do a pretty good job of milkweed pollination because their legs are big enough to pick up and deposit pollen. However, they sometimes have trouble extracting their legs from the flower slits. I found one individual that appeared to have died after getting stuck in that exact way. I’m no fan of honey bees but I didn’t celebrate its death. It was an unfortunate and accidental victim of milkweed’s weird sex game.

A honey bee with pollinia stuck to multiple legs feeds on nectar.
A tiny fly surveys the body of a honey bee that died after apparently being unable to yank its leg out of a flower.
A lightning bug joined the other insects drawn to nectar.

Because milkweed flowers draw lots of insects to feed on them, they also host predators that hunt those hungry visitors. I saw a couple crab spiders, but none that were particularly photogenic. I did manage to photograph one of the many small long-legged flies that were hunting even more tiny invertebrates on milkweed leaves. They looked like tiny emeralds with wings.

A long-legged fly.

The remaining insects I photographed were members of the exclusive club that have variously evolved strategies for feeding on a plant that is toxic to most others. Monarch caterpillars are in the club but I didn’t find any on this particular day. I did, however, find lots of red milkweed beetles, as well as some milkweed stem weevils and a few milkweed leaf beetle larvae. It’s fun to think about how those insects ended up on this milkweed ‘island’. I assume of the individuals I saw were born right there, but at some point, their ancestors must have struck out on a cross-country trip that ended up leading them to this isolated patch of food plants.

Red milkweed beetle.
Milkweed leaf beetle larva.
Milkweed stem weevil.

Before too long, the sun broke out of the diffused clouds that had moderated the temperature for a few hours and had provided decent light. At that point, I retreated to the shade and found other ways to entertain myself while Kim and a bunch of other crackerjack runners completed as many three mile loops as they could during the 12 hour-long race. People have funny ways of entertaining themselves, huh? (…is what those runners thought as they glanced down at the weirdo kneeling with his camera among the milkweed plants near their race track.)

Common milkweed flowers.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

9 thoughts on “The Milkweed Gang

  1. Have an Amtrak reservation to Lincoln NE for Friday July 22 . Should arrive sometime after midnight-mid morning Saturday July 23. Looking forward to the conference in Marquette.

    Live long and prosper


  2. It was a joy to see your photos of the thriving milkweeds and the communities that find them. I have a sadder story and a question — what eats whole milkweed flower heads? Last year I had a successful burn in my pastures in Boyd County, and afterwards there were thriving milkweed colonies — some fairly large. I saw them come back this spring — but the flowers are gone, the plants are stunted or dying. There have been cows out there, but it’s my understanding that cows won’t eat them. The milkweeds along the gravel county road, however, all have intact blooms. I’m attaching a few photos. Do you know what might be happening this year? Thanks for any suggestions….

    Pat James

    • Hi Pat,
      Cows definitely eat milkweed, especially common and showy milkweeds. They’ll eat the flowers for sure, but if they have access to milkweed in May and June, especially, they’ll often take them right to the ground. I’m actually working on research with Tim Dickson of UNO to study this more and to try to understand what kind of grazing and rest regimes are needed to allow milkweed to flower and flourish. It’s definitely possible to maintain milkweed populations in grazed areas, but it requires some periods of rest so those plants can grow during the May-July period every few years.

  3. Very nice photography, Chris! Years ago, for my first book, Dinosaurs in the Garden, I wrote a chapter called “The Milkweed Universe” and painted an illustration I now use on my website to introduce my natural history illustrations. (See

    By the way, I was so inspired by your blog about the goldenrod galls that I wrote a piece for Colorado Gardener magazine and featured your blog and your discovery. I’ll send you a link when it is published.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. Very interesting post. And great pictures. I think milkweed blooms are beautiful while others think they are just “weeds”! I also think dandelions are beautiful while my neighbors spend a lot of time and money killing them out of their green lawns.


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