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Posts Tagged ‘milkweed’

Over the years I have developed the habit of checking milkweed plants carefully whenever I spot them. Milkweed plants host an extensive cast of colorful characters including ladybugs, milkweed beetles, and Monarch butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus). Though I have been keeping an eye out for them for the last couple of months, I was unsuccessful in spotting a Monarch caterpillar until this past Sunday when I finally spotted one at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

This Monarch appears to be in one of its final phases of development as a caterpillar, when fattening up seems to be a priority before forming a chrysalis. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the edges of the leaves in this photo have been gnawed on by the caterpillar. This caterpillar seems to be a little late calendar-wise in its path to becoming a butterfly, but I did spot several Monarchs yesterday, so it seems that the Monarch migration has not yet taken place, or at least not in its entirety.

 

Monarch caterpillar

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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This seems to be the prime season for butterflies and I have been seeing lots of them this past week. I spotted this spectacular Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) as I was exploring Occoquan Regional Park last Thursday. It was attracted to a pink flowering plant that I think is some kind of milkweed—I am a whole lot more confident in identifying butterflies than plants.

I am happy with both shots, but must that I particularly like the background in the first image.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was really struck  by the contrast in color and texture between this cluster of large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and the milkweed on which they were perched at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge during a visit earlier this week.

The color combination seems appropriate for a Christmas card, though the subject matter would be considered untraditional, to say the least, and might not be met with enthusiasm by all recipients.

milkweed bugs

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Everyone knows that Monarch butterflies love milkweed, but if you move in closer to the plants, you’ll discover a world of fascinating little creatures, like this Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) that I spotted this past weekend at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia.

Almost three years ago I did a posting in which I acknowledged that I had become obsessed with shooting Red Milkweed Beetles. This weekend I realized that that my initial fascination with my colorful little friends has not diminished much over time when I saw this beetle in a small stand of swamp milkweed. I’m not sure if it is the long antennae or the bold pattern or the bright color that attracts me most—I just know that I love seeing them in all of their developmental forms (they go through several interesting instars as they grow).

The next time you see some milkweed, stop for a moment, examine it closely, and prepare to enter a fascinating little world as the scent of the flowers envelops you.

 

Red Milkweed Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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The few Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that I observed earlier this season were all in gardens, so I was especially happy when I spotted one this past weekend in the wild, feeding on some Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) at my local marsh.

The little patch of Swamp Milkweed was a pretty good distance away, so I had to use the long end of my 70-300mm zoom for these shots. It looks like many of the flowers of the milkweed had not yet opened, but the butterfly obviously found it to be attractive enough to stop for a moment.

Monarch Butterfly Huntley MeadowsMonarch Butterfly Swamp Milkweed

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Two years ago in a posting, I confessed to being obsessed with photographing Red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus). Inexorably I kept finding myself being drawn back to these bright red beetles.

I thought I had outgrown my obsession, until I encountered several of my little red friend this past weekend at Green Spring Gardens. I immediately reverted to my old behavior and began to stalk them like a paparazzo, trying to get a good shot or any shot at all.

My obsession continues.

Red Milkweed BeetleRed Milkweed BeetleRed Milkweed Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

 

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This bee might argue that it’s just the camera angle, but my initial impression of this bee was that he looked chubby—I don’t think that I have ever encountered a bee with such a round face. He reminds me of a sumo wrestler at the start of a match.

The bee pretty much ignored me, though, and seemed to really get into his work, literally, gathering pollen from some kind of milkweed plant, perhaps swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

chubby_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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If you ever get invited to dinner by a Monarch caterpillar, you know what will be on the menu—milkweed. Monarch caterpillars consume amazing quantities of milkweed (and nothing else), growing over 2,000 times their original mass during this 14-day phase of their lives, according to Rick Steinau.

Almost everything you read emphasizes that milkweed is toxic to humans (and to animals), but scienceviews.com notes that native peoples all over the United States and southern Canada used milkweed for fiber, food, and medicine. The article warns that milkweed may be toxic “when taken internally without sufficient preparation.” It is especially fascinating to read of the medicinal uses of the plant. It was used to treat backaches and bee stings, to induce postpartum milk flow, and to deal with a variety of stomach problems. The Meskwaki tribe, according to the article cited above, even used milkweed as a contraceptive, that worked by producing temporary sterility.

Milkweed, however, contains cardiac glycosides that are poisonous to humans and livestock, but also may account for its medicinal effect.  Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides include dullness, weakness, bloating, inability to stand or walk, high body temperature, rapid and weak pulse, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, spasms, and coma. (It sounds a lot like being in love!)

I don’t care how well Monarch caterpillars can prepare milkweed, if they invite me over for dinner, I think I’ll probably refrain from eating and just watch them eat (as I did this past weekend). I love Monarch butterflies in all their forms. Nevertheless, I would take my cue from the artist Meat Loaf, who sang, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.”

Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The day before I left for my recent trip I managed to get some photos of Monarch caterpillars with my macro lens. It was the first time that I had seen them live. Not surprisingly they were on milkweed plants and seemed to be chomping away with great appetite. I noted too that some of the milkweed plants were full of aphids (and some of them had lots of ladybugs too). I checked a number of sources on-line and they all suggest that the aphids are not directly harmful to the Monarch caterpillars during the two-week stage when they are caterpillars. I looked around today to see if I could see any chrysalis, the next stage of development, or more caterpillars, but found neither. I’ll keep looking!

Monarch caterpillar (click to see more details)

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of my earlier post identified my obsession with the red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus). As I hang around the milkweed plants, it’s hard not to notice another really colorful creature, especially because this seems to be its prime mating season. After a little research I’ve started to become better acquainted with the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus). Wikipedia provided me with some good information to start and BugGuide added some additional details. I am still getting used to shooting with my macro lens so I apologize in advance that not all of the photos are super sharp. I think they help, though, in explaining some of the traits of these fascinating bugs.

It has been relatively easy to get shots of the mating milkweed bugs and my research identified why. Milkweed bugs while mating can remain connected for up to 10 hours, according to Wikipedia. Yikes! I guess those television commercials about seeing your doctor after four hours don’t apply to these bugs.

What happens after mating? An article from the Life Sciences Depart at the University of Illinois at Urbana noted that a female lays about 30 eggs a day and 2,000 during her lifetime. Egg-laying begins 1 to 15 days after mating and peaks at about 20 days.

A few days ago I came across this group of milkweed bugs. The photo is technically lacking (it was hard to get the needed depth of field) but it gives you an idea of what the large milkweed bug looks like in various stages of development. As a “true” bug, milkweed bugs undergo incomplete metamorphosis. They go through a series of nymph stages, known as instars. For the large milkweed bug there are five instars. Buzzle has an article that explains the bug’s life cycle.

At each stage the bug is covered by an inflexible exoskeleton that constrains its growth. Periodically he bursts out of the exoskeleton and can grow to twice his size in minutes as the new exoskeleton develops and hardens, according to the Buzzle article. Here’s a shot of a bug in one of the earlier nymph stages.

As the milkweed bugs get older the wing pads increase in size in each molt. In the next three photos the wing pads are visible but not yet really prominent.

The wings on this nymph are much more prominent, leading me to think he might almost be an adult. The Buzzle article noted that the entire process of metamorphosis, from egg to adult takes 4-8 weeks, depending on the temperature of the habitat.

Once the large milkweed bug has become and adult (as shown in the last couple of photos) mating begins 5 to 12 days after the last molt for females and two to three days for males, according to the University of Illinois article. And the circle of life continues.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Focus on the eyes! That’s one of the first tips that I was given to improve my shots and I tried to follow that advice when photographing this red milkweed beetle. (One of my earlier blogs chronicled my obsession with these little creatures.)

I like the way the antennae turned out in this photo. They remind me of a Texas longhorn steer’s horns which, according to Wikipedia, can extend to 7 feet (2.1 meters) tip to tip.

Can you imagine a red milkweed beetle with an equivalent antenna span?

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Do you find yourself being drawn back inexorably to photographing the same subjects over and over again?

Last month my friend and mentor Cindy D. “outed” me in a wonderful posting on her blog. She confessed that “we’ve become a little obsessed with photographing Red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus).” (She also published some interesting facts about the beetles in another blog posting.) She’s right, of course, in her assessment of me, but I might quibble with her on one point. Is it possible to be only a “little” obsessed?

What are the symptoms of my obsession? After work today, in between thunder and rain storms, I rushed to Green Spring Gardens to take some photos. I shot a few flowers but I couldn’t resist the pull of the milkweed plants. I know exactly  where they are located in the gardens and I know if I look hard enough on the milkweed plants I will find the cute little beetles.

By the time I found my beloved beetles the light was starting to fade. How bad was the light? Despite shooting at ISO 800, I needed exposures around 1/5 of a second at F11. Fortunately the beetles were willing to pose and I had my tripod with me. I managed to get a few nice shots with beautiful color saturation in the late day, overcast light. Here is one photo (out of many) of the object of my obsession—a red milkweed beetle.

Is there a twelve-step program for people with this problem?

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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