Wild times at the Milkweed

The milkweed’s a humble plant

Irridescent blue in sunlight

Arizona queen caterpillar

Mantis awaits

Last week my young neighbor Schuyler invited me down to see some bugs. We wandered over to another neighbor’s milkweed plant, and holy moly….lots of bugs. Schuyler was most interested in a large blue black wasp which turns out to be a tarantula hawk wasp. The life story of this insect would make a terrific horror film. The female of the species hunts tarantulas; sometimes coaxing them from their burrows, other times sweeping down from above to deliver a paralyzing sting, after which she drags the still struggling spider into a burrow, often the very home of the spider itself. Once inside, she lays a single egg on the tarantula’s abdomen and leaves, sealing the burrow closed. When the egg hatches the larva pierces the abdomen and drinks fluids from the still living spider until it grows large enough to finally finish off the poor tarantula. Then it pupates until spring when it will emerge, one big wasp. The male tarantula hawk wasps (often eaten by the females after or during mating) are not hunters, but seem to enjoy nectar from the milkweed plant and are closely associated with them.
Also feeding on the plant that afternoon were a great many orange and black milkweed bugs. The milkweed plant contains a toxic chemical which the milkweed bug sequesters to protect it from predators. Schuyler and I also saw bunches of tiny orange nymphs clustered on the plant, eating and growing until they too become milkweed bugs.
Today, colorful caterpillars crept along the plant stalks, larvae of the beautiful queen butterfly. The queen is closely related to the monarch and both feed exclusively on various plants in the milkweed family. This caterpillar will grow through six instars before pupating and also uses the milkweed toxicity for self protection.
I was leaning in for a picture of a queen caterpillar when I noticed a three inch praying mantis peering at me through a bulging eye. Another predatorial insect, he’s waiting to snatch a tarantula hawk wasp with his lightning fast front legs.
What a vibrant community of fantastical creatures attracted by this one plant. I guess it often happens that the more you open your eyes, the more interesting things get.


4 responses to “Wild times at the Milkweed

  1. If it weren’t all so cool, I would be thinking of nightmares, but I join you in your fascination for bugs…..an endless and interesting topic…..you can have all of the robotic monsters….give me the bugeyed monsters any time….nice job on introducing your readers to a continually wonderful world.


    Wow!! What a lot to see in one outing. I’ll bet Schuyler was thrilled to be part of all this discovery and fun for you to have such a good audience. Spurred you on also, I’m sure. Can’t remember where you milk weed plant is located in yard. Front?

    Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2012 18:47:17 +0000 To: danjoan545@msn.com

  3. wow! so interesting, thanks Gail !


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