Milkweed, Monarchs, and More

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It’s the perfect time to look for monarch butterflies. In a few more months you’ll hear about them migrating long distances. And you’ll probably see lots of butterflies. But you won’t be able to spend time with them as they’re fluttering by.

Right now many monarchs aren’t even butterflies: they’re still caterpillars! They’re munching on milkweed, fattening up for the trip to come. That means you can watch them easily, handle them—carefully!—and later watch their awesome transformation into butterflies.

So take these pages, head outside to a park or field, and begin your hunt for milkweed, monarchs, and more small wonders of creation.

Got Milkweed?
Got a milkweed plant? Good. Don’t pick it—just look at it. Look at one of its flowers. See how one blossom is really lots of tiny flowers bunched together? That makes the blossom visible to flying bugs. If they’re looking for nectar, they’ll see this flower and come in for a drink.

Take a closer look at one tiny flower in that blossom. It’s made up of four nectar cups. Can you see them? Insects “know” there’s nectar in those cups. They’ll straddle a cup, stick their straw-like mouthpart into it, and suck the sweet juice.
Now look very closely at the sides of those cups. Can you see small slits in the blossom? That’s where the insects place their feet when they straddle a cup.

Inside those slits are tiny bags of pollen tied to tiny springs; two pollen bags on each spring. When a bug leg slips into a slit, the pollen bags clamp onto the leg. Each drinking bug leaves the milkweed blossom carrying pollen bags on its legs. When it visits the next blossom, it drops off the bags and picks up more. The clamping and unclamping of the springs is very complicated. Scientists write long papers about it. It’s just one of creation’s small wonders.

Got Milk?
Ever wonder how milkweed got its name? There are two reasons:
1. Many people consider this plant a weed. A weed is something that grows where it’s not wanted. To monarch caterpillars, this plant is not a weed!
2. The milkweed plant has a milky juice inside the stem. That’s part of its defense, so be careful. That juice is poisonous. If you ate this plant, it would make you sick!

But the juice isn’t poisonous to all creatures. Take a glance at the rest of the plant. Do you see other bugs on it? Some of them are eating, aren’t they? So milkweed juice doesn’t harm them. But it’s not good for humans and some other creatures.

That’s why many creatures that eat milkweed are colored red and black. In creation, red and black shouts, “I’m poisonous, don’t mess with me!” Even orange and black—like the monarch—is a warning to predators.

Young Monarchs
Now check the plant for monarch caterpillars. They’re yellow, black, and white striped, and they have black antennae. And—biggest clue—they’re munching on milkweed leaves.

Watching monarch caterpillars eat is not very exciting. But you can keep track of them from day to day and watch them grow. They’ll stay on the milkweed, so once you’ve found them you can visit them again.

The really cool part of watching the caterpillars every day comes later when you find a chrysalis. A chrysalis is a butterfly’s cocoon. It hangs from milkweed branch. It’s a beautiful light green. The shell is almost-transparent, and it has tiny gold dots “painted” around the top.

If the milkweed is nearby, you can go outside daily and keep track of the chrysalis.

Or you can carefully cut off the milkweed stem with the chrysalis attached and put it into a jar. Set it someplace where you can keep close track of it. If you’re around when the butterfly hatches, you can watch it pump blood into its wrinkled wings and prepare for flight. That’s a sight no one forgets!

More to Explore
If you’ve found milkweed but not monarchs, don’t worry. Your trip is not in vain. There are usually lots of interesting residents on a milkweed plant. The bugs that feed on milkweed are usually orange and black—you know why. There also should be bugs that prey on bugs that feed on milkweed.

Milkweed bugs are small, and they’re orange and black. Look closely at their wings folded over their bodies. The very back end of each wing is soft and black. Together they make a black triangle on an orange-and-black back. They eat milkweed.

Green lacewings are flimsy green insects that fly slowly. They look fragile but are actually fierce predators. They eat other flying insects that have come for nectar.

Wasps and hornets are easy to identify by their hairless yellow and black bodies. Like the lacewing, they prey on other insects. Often they eat part of an insect and then take part back to the nest to feed their young larvae. In that way they act like birds feeding their young.

Other butterflies visit milkweed because it has so much nectar. Most butterflies are nectar feeders, so milkweed is a rich feast for them.

There are many more insects than those listed here. There’s also much more action at a milkweed. So go outside, find a milkweed, and enjoy some of the small wonders of God’s creation.

About the Author

Joanne De Jonge is a freelance writer and a former U.S. National Park Ranger. She attends West Valley Christian Fellowship in Phoenix, Ariz.