We gardeners plant milkweed because it serves as the primary food source for the Monarch caterpillar. However, the beautiful blooms and lush leaves of the milkweed also attracts a hoard of fascinating pollinators. Today’s post focuses on two tools that will really enrich your visits to the milkweed patch: the Milkweed, Monarchs, and More field guide and a pair of Pentax Papilio close-focus binoculars.
Last fall, after Monarch caterpillars appeared on my Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plants, I ordered a book called “The Enlarged and Updated Second Edition of Milkweed, Monarchs, and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community in the Milkweed Patch” by Ba Rea, Karen Oberhauser, and Michael A. Quinn (Bas Relief Publishing, 2010, $16.95). I’ll refer to it as MMM, for short.
In terms of field guides, this book rates right up there with the very best. It features beautiful illustrations; an easy-to-use layout that includes a gallery of milkweed; detailed descriptions of the insects and arachnids you’ll find in the milkweed patch; and a nice glossary, reference section, and index.
The book’s color-coded system identifies members of the milkweed community by herbivore; herbivore that eats milkweed; nectivore; predator; parasite; decomposer or scavenger; and passerby. This came in quite handy during my gawking sessions in the milkweed patch. It also woke me up to the fact that Monarch butterflies have more to fear in this world than the disturbing loss of milkweed plants available for their reproduction. Adult butterflies and their eggs and larva also face annihilation by predators such as spiders, parasitic flies, and Praying Mantids.
This came as a surprise to me as I always thought the toxic cardiac glycoside in the milkweed’s sap protected the Monarch by making them poisonous to most predators. As the field guide points out, “Grazing mammals avoid eating milkweed except when there are no other available green plants.” Over the eons, the Monarch took advantage of the plentiful supply of a plant that so many other critters avoided. They became “specialists,” by evolving larva that could digest milkweed as a primary food source. Once Monarch larva evolved to process the milkweed toxins, the adult Monarchs benefited by becoming toxic to other critters. A bird only has to taste one Monarch to learn to avoid it as food.
Now I know that plenty of other insects have adapted to the toxin as well and consider the Monarch eggs, larva and adult butterfly itself a delicious meal.
This fall, I enjoyed taking my book out into the milkweed patch after work and identifying the fascinating visitors buzzing, hopping and crawling around the plants. I went out with a high-powered flashlight at night as well and watched as a world previously invisible to me went about its business right under my nose.
This brings me to a very important recommendation. If you have the nature bug, then you MUST get a pair of Pentax Papilio 8.5×21 binoculars. These inexpensive magnifiers work fine as regular binoculars but they excel at close-range viewing. In fact, they’re better than having a microscope in the field due to their light weight.
I learned about them through my work at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville. Nowadays, I never go hiking, botanizing, or vacationing without them. [I first bought my Papilios after taking a class about lichens, the complex organisms composed of a fungus in symbiotic union with an alga. Lichens form on trees and rocks and come in various hues of green, gray, yellow, brown, and black. Examining lichens through the Papilios reminds me of looking at coral during a snorkeling expedition! It’s a beautiful experience.]
You can get a pair of Papilios from B&H Photo online for about $112 and worth every penny.
In my next post, I’ll tell you how my “Milkweeds, Monarchs, and More” book helped me with a Monarch chrysalis forensic investigation on the porch last fall. Cheers, Heather