For the Birds classic: Monarchs and milkweed

Here’s an old summer For the Birds column originally published in 2008, reprinted just because …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A monarch caterpillar eats a milkweed leaf.

Keep at something long enough and eventually you will succeed.

I learned several years ago that monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed. Since that time I’ve inspected every milkweed patch I’ve come across in my wanderings in search of monarch caterpillars. That’s a lot of inspecting considering the proliferation of milkweed. It grows in wild places, it grows in gardens, it grows through cracks in the cement.

In fact, a largely overgrown and overlooked stretch of pavement near The Hour’s parking lot is filled with milkweed. One day I noticed a maintenance worker about to weed-whack the entire patch to the ground. I asked the president of The Hour to intercede and he graciously allowed the patch to grow wild, despite its unsightliness (to an untrained eye, anyway.) For the rest of that summer the ugly, often ignored patch of weeds was dubbed “The Chris Bosak Monarch Refuge.” A makeshift sign made by co-workers marked it as so.

The sign is long gone, but the milkweed remains. Every day I drive by the weeds and never once have I seen a monarch caterpillar. In fact, never had I found a monarch caterpillar on any milkweed, no matter the location. I was zero-for-six million in terms of finding a monarch caterpillar. Not a very good average.

Before I go on, let me explain my desire to find a monarch caterpillar. Simply put, they’re cool looking. They’re large, colorful, exquisitely decorated.

Finally, as if you haven’t guessed already, I found one. I wasn’t necessarily looking for it, which is to say I wasn’t inspecting the plant, but I did look at the milkweed as it has become a habit over the years. These days I just look at milkweed without even thinking about it.

Turns out there was no careful inspection necessary to find this caterpillar. I just looked and there it was — blatantly obvious in all its yellow, white and black glory. The caterpillar was busy doing what monarch caterpillars do: eating milkweed.

Why milkweed? Monarchs use these plants exclusively for egg-laying purposes because the eating milkweed renders the caterpillars poisonous and foul-tasting to predators such as birds. Even when the caterpillar eventually changes into a butterfly, it is still poisonous to predators.

It’s interesting how caterpillars instinctively know to eat milkweed and predators instinctively know not to eat them. Survival in nature. (It’s also interesting to note that the viceroy butterfly is not poisonous to predators, but the viceroy mimics the look of the monarch so predators don’t touch them either.)

Finding that caterpillar was the icing on the cake of an enjoyable walk I took during vacation a few weeks ago. We found various butterflies, moths, dragonflies, cicadas, and (another highlight) about half a dozen large garden spiders.

Alas, the walk was cut short because Andrew, my five-year-old, had had enough of the incessant attacks by yet another insect: the deer fly. They were absolutely brutal and relentless (as deer flies tend to be), so we abandoned the search for more insects.

Returning home a few days later we had a greater appreciation for the loud chorus of insects that enrich our warm summer nights.


2 thoughts on “For the Birds classic: Monarchs and milkweed

  1. I collected some seed pods from milkweed when they had gone there season. Six plants have come back for several years. I enjoy watching the butterfly visitors each year in my yard.

    Liked by 1 person

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