Milk of paradise

monarch caterpillar 4

The last blossoms have faded and fallen at the milkweed patch, so things aren’t quite as frantic there now as they were a month ago. But it’s a still a pretty happening place. Whereas in July the patch was like a saloon, serving everyone who came, now it’s more like a walled garden, unapproachable to all but the few species that are adapted to feed on milkweed — and the things that feed on them. When I stopped by on Sunday, every other plant seemed to host a monarch caterpillar.

monarch caterpillar 3

Judging by their size, they must be about ready to pupate. I did see one monarch butterfly with very tattered wings going around laying eggs on the leaves, but I wonder whether her offspring will have enough time to complete metamorphosis before frost.

dead monarch caterpillar

I also found a dead monarch caterpillar — a grim reminder of the fact that, while the monarch’s ingestion of milkweed’s potent alkaloids makes it poisonous to birds, that doesn’t mean it’s safe from all predators.

wheel bug with wasp

Wheel bugs still stalked the patch. I found one busy feeding on a wasp. A second wheel bug sat on a leaf a foot below it, and I wondered briefly whether they might be male and female, but I didn’t have the time to stick around and see if any interaction would take place. They seemed perilously close to the nearest monarch caterpillars. I thought of Coleridge:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

milkweed bugs 3

. . . For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The milkweed bugs are as gregarious as the wheel bugs are solitary. I found several milkweed pods that looked from a distance almost like ripening tomatoes, so covered were they by the bright orange-red bugs. A closer look revealed that most of the insects were busy feeding, their long beaks piercing the skin of the pod to get at the ripening seeds beneath. Milkweed bugs go through five larval instars, each of which appears progressively more like the adult form, and most stages seemed to be represented at each of their feeding pods.

milkweed tiger moth

I also discovered a couple caterpillars of the milkweed tiger moth — yet another milkweed obligate, as its name suggests. They too had bright warning colors, notwithstanding which they seemed to prefer feeding on the undersides of leaves. With all the wheel bugs around, that seemed like a good idea.

Argiope aurantia

In the middle of the patch, an Argiope spider sat motionless on her web with its characteristic zigzag line stretching away from her like some sort of ornamental garden path. This feature has earned Argiope aurantia one of its common names — writing spider. But not surprisingly, such an eye-catching and frequently encountered spider has more than one common name: around here, people tend to call them banjo spiders, for some reason.

By far the most widespread name, however, is garden spider. For me, as for her, a garden can found almost anywhere, if you’re willing to take the time to really look.

See my growing milkweed patch photo set for more photos. See also Burning Silo blog for frequent updates on Bev’s captive monarch caterpillar rearing project, including such fascinating posts as today’s feature on a prominent predator — stink bugs.

6 Replies to “Milk of paradise”

  1. As ever, fabulous photos & engaging commentary. That first picture is almost a poem in itself – the ominous shadow & the hole in the green revealing blue… Damn, I may go off & write it myself!

  2. As usual, you teach me something – I never knew that Argiope was called “writing spider”, not did I know that that particular caterpilar was from the milkweed tiger moth, though I’ve seen many of them. I’ve reared a lot of monarchs, and can’t walk past a patch this time of year without checking out the activity – so the posts and the photos are welcome fare.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I typed one in here yesterday myself, in response to Dick and Beth, but somehow it has disappeared.

    Dick – Please do! I’d be honored.

    Beth – Taking pictures and blogging them has forced me to learn a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise bother to look up. I didn’t know that about “writing spider” and the milkweed tiger moth either before Sunday.

    Thanks, patry. The camera lens is a great teacher.

  4. Very nice photos! I especially liked the wheel bug eating a wasp, calmly sucking up liquified innards. And that first one with the fragment of sky and silhouetted caterpillar…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.