A Short Documentation of Life on A Milkweed Plant

During one of my forays with the Herbaceous Jellyfish (ie: thistles) on our land I observed one of the most bizarre bugs that I have seen. It had the head of a mantis and a long neck/thorax area that connected to claw like pinchers. From that point the body of the insect became wasp like with wings and a bulbous abdomen. It was orangish-red in color and had stripes. WHAT IS IT?!?! A google search at home by Kass for “bug that looks like wasp and mantis” quickly revealed that I had discovered a mantid fly. Unfortunately, at that time I didn’t have my camera with. So, a couple of days ago I made it a point to bring my camera up to the land and try to document these bugs. I soon found out that they were quite common throughout the thirty acres of pasture, and were obligatorily associated with the milkweed clusters throughout the pasture. Fortunately they were almost fearless and allowed me to get nice and close. So, before I go into my thoughts on these bugs I thought I would throw a few pictures out here first to bring your attention to the uniqueness that I’m talking about.

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Mantid Fly on a Milkweed Plant
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Look at those Mantid Eyes!

 

You’ll notice that it has pinchers just ┬álike a mantis. In an attempt to discover what this bug ate, I skewered a small deer fly on a 12 inch blade of grass and dangled it in front of the mantidfly. It struck out at the dangling fly and continued to back up and run down the stem of the milkweed. He wanted nothing to do with this large insect in front of him! In fact, my prodding caused him to use his wings and flee in flight. I’m assuming based on these results that the mantidfly focus on smaller prey such as fruit flies and aphids. In almost all cases these bugs were tucked underneath leaves or at least close to cover. I think they are afraid of being eaten. After examing many milkweeds I found two cases were a dead mantid fly was tucked against the milkweed stem. It seems they are also very territorial! I can only assume/guess that the carcasses were there because of homicide from another mantidfly. Here another pictures that displays the bizzare figure of this creature.

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However, during my close examination of milkweeds I became fascinated with the number of insects that I observed using the milkweed. I took pictures where the creepy crawlies allowed me to demonstrate just how important milkweed is. One of the things I saw were these aphids clinging to a leaf. They numbered in the hundreds if not thousands.

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Aphids clustered up for “farming” on a milkweed.

These aphids would be an easy snack for the predatory lady bug. It was hunkered just above them. I’m sure that he was sitting there after just having his big feast of tender, juicy bugs. I almost felt sorry the aphids, however, they were not without armor and defense!

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This lady bug is looking for an easy aphid snack. I bet it’s an easy dinner!

Ants, which covered the milkweed were defending the aphids and caring for them. I saw them interact with the lady bug several times and each time the lady bug recoiled from the ants. I don’t think the ants are able to hurt the lady bug, however, they can still help defend the aphids. So why, you might ask, would the ants defend the aphids? They would be a great, easy meal for the ants as well! However, ants and aphids are symbiotic and actually help each other! The Ants take care of the aphids in turn for the sugary liquid that is expelled from the aphid’s butt. You can see the liquid being expelled for collecting below! Also pictured are the number of aphids that covered the milkweed as well as the number of ants.

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This ant is reaping the benefit of taking care of its defenseless aphids (sheperd and sheep). He’s sucking the energy rich excretion from the aphid.
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There are a lot of aphids and ants on one milkweed flower!

 

I also saw many examples of spiders that inhabit the leaves and flowers a milkweed, however, only a couple of them hung around for pictures. Here is another example of life and death on the milkweek plant. This crab-spider has caught and is chowing down on an ant. I’m sure he has no problem catching as many as he needs.

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It’s dinner time for this unknown species of grab spider. Ants for breakfast, supper and lunch!

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I also saw several examples of this black-spotted red bug. If you happen to know the name of this one let me know! They are pretty unique.

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I’m unsure of the species of these red bugs, but they were fairly common throughout the milkweed patches.

On of the great things to see was the amount of honey-bee activity happening around all of the milkweed patches. We have bee hives on our land and our pasture is a reliable source for the bees to get pollen, and they do us a favor by pollinating our flowers. The bees can be a bit aggressive however. I was stung on the day I took these pictures while standing 60 feet from the hives. I’m not sure what inspired the bee to jab himself into my back, but I was glad none of his friends follow suit.

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Our land has hives on it and the milkweed were a predominant source for the bees at this time of year. There many flitting around each flower. One thing that was interesting was there were also many dead ones on the flower. I’m not sure if that’s a bad sign from inside the hive, or a natural process.

Another one of the insects to inhabit the milkweed patch were the dragonflies. There were several varieties ranging in colors of black to yellow and orange. And, in size from 1.5 inches to 3 inches. There were some really huge dragonflies. I have seen the large dragonflies take bumblebees before and I’m convinced that a large dragonfly will also cannibalize his smaller cousins and fellow species. While walking through pasture I felt one smack into the back of my head, picking a deer fly away from there in the process. The one pictured below is actually a different deer-fly kill than that one! Based on this evidence of two kills I think the take of deer flies by dragon flies must be pretty large! I hope it’s painful for the deerfly – they earned it. Note, this one wasn’t on a milkweed plant, but he was juxtaposed directly to a patch.

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Redemption! I was thrilled to see this dragonfly happily munching on this deerfly.

One last random insect on the plants was this great/blue bottlefly.

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Of course the one thing I haven’t hit on here at all was the number of butterflies that were using the milkweeds. There were many, but my lens didn’t have enough zoom to do many of them justice as they were skiddish and flighty.

The pictures here show a one hour glimpse of life on milkweeds. It’s amazing when you start to focus on the small things around you the details you will pick up, and there are many that you miss! Be sure to stay observant to your surroundings, and that means more than the physical. There are tiny details in the commons places of our world and personal relationships to entertain, teach and humble.

4 thoughts on “A Short Documentation of Life on A Milkweed Plant”

  1. Ian, As always the pictures and commentary are great. Keep it up.
    I didn’t notice any black flies! Phil

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