You planted milkweed because you wanted to help monarch butterflies. But now you're seeing all sorts of bugs on your plants. And you're not sure how you feel about it or what to do.
I know this because so many people come up to me after I give talks, a little self-conscious, and ask me if this is a problem. They feel protective and proud of their efforts and their "cats" (they pull out their phones and show me pictures of their caterpillars) but a bit worried that the other bugs will eat all the food — or spread to other parts of the garden.
You're not alone. There's been a big push for this pollinator-friendly plant — the sole source of food for monarch butterfly babies — resulting in it being planted in more home landscapes and small gardens, vs. roomier native prairies or meadows. Now those home gardeners are discovering that milkweed isn't just for monarchs.
You might even say that milkweed makes a village; it comes with a sizable surrounding population of invertebrates, amphibians, birds and other fauna. Growing milkweed is not for the fainthearted — the plant hosts an ongoing drama featuring gluttony, violence, gore and romantic escapades. There's always something to see, so be sure to visit and observe at different times of the day and season.
Depending on their needs, these "bugs" and other creatures that make up this food web will consume different parts of milkweed directly as food. Others will act as predators and eat those bugs, while still others will clean up after them all. Occasionally, some bugs just like to hang around the area.
This is especially the case if you planted common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, the preferred host plant of 90 percent of Mexico-bound monarchs. You might say it's where the action is.
Here are just a few of the fascinating characters, in addition to monarch caterpillars, that you may find in the milkweed community:
Milkweed longhorn beetles: Elongated reddish-orange beetles with black spots and long antennae. I found a few of these the other day; they are the guys eating small holes in the tips of the leaves. Since I plant milkweed to be eaten, I'm not worried about this minimal damage.
Milkweed tussock moths: These resemble a black and white and orange tufty pipe cleaner. The moth larvae roam in groups and can defoliate a plant. If I see more than a few, I remove them by (gloved) hand.
Milkweed aphids: Tiny oval yellow insects. You aren't the only one who finds the aphids repulsive, as they cluster on stems and leaves. They are capable of damaging the plant since they feed by sucking its juices. You can hose or wipe them off. I find that just when I might get around to that, ladybug larvae known as ant lions show up and devour them.
Ants: Ants take the "honeydew" secreted by the aphids back to their colonies. They are said to "farm" the aphids as they protect them from predators, in a symbiotic relationship. Better they stay busy on milkweed than your kitchen counter.
Daddy long-legs: A member of the spider family, although they don't produce silk or venom. You'll see them wandering around the leaves hunting for aphids and flies or snacking on dead plant matter. Leave them be to do their thing.
Milkweed beetles: Large, rounded orange and black beetles. They show up in June, feeding and mating upon the leaves and buds. Striking appearance but not too worrisome.
Milkweed bugs: Elongated orange bodies with a distinctive black shield pattern. Showing up in August, they eat milkweed seeds as they ripen. Nothing to be concerned about.
On a more enjoyable note, once milkweed blooms, the flowers attract nectar-seeking honeybees, native bees, numerous species of butterflies and even hummingbirds. Further up the food chain, you'll notice frogs and birds feasting upon the abundant offerings of the milkweed buffet of "bugs." It never hurts to have more of them in your garden.
Final word, don't fret or freak out about your milkweed or the bugs that call it home. Rather, enjoy the fragrant, colorful flowers, view the compelling plant and animal interactions happening upon and around them, and know that you are indeed helping the beloved monarch butterfly by growing milkweed in your garden.
Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of "Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators," available at Amazon.com.