When Milkweed Kills

When you think of milkweed, you probably think of the life it supports. The monarch butterfly, for one. As the sole food source for its leaf-eating larvae, monarchs would be a thing of the past if milkweeds disappeared. Numerous other insects feed on its foliage as well, and there are a plethora of organisms that feed on its nectar, including bees, butterflies, beetles, wasps, and other insects, as well as hummingbirds. And speaking of birds, some birds use the silky hairs attached to the seeds to line their nests, while other birds strip stringy fibers from the stems for nest building. And while it is not a major food source for mammals, deer and other animals have been known to sample it. Indeed, milkweed is a veritable life force.

red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes sp.) feeds on milkweed

But it’s also a poisonous plant. The latex sap of milkweed contains cardiac glycosides, among a variety of other toxic chemicals. The plant produces these chemicals to defend itself from herbivory, and so the insects that feed on it have adapted a variety of strategies to avoid being poisoned. Some bite a hole in a leaf vein and wait for the milky sap to drain before proceeding to eat the leaf. Others are able to consume the toxic foliage without being poisoned by it. Some even store the toxic chemicals in their bodies, making themselves poisonous to other organisms that dare consume them.

Aphids on Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis). One species commonly found on milkweed is the oleander aphid (Aphis nerii), an introduced species that feeds on milkweeds and other plants in the dogbane family.

While milkweed is generally found to be unpalatable to most livestock, those that venture to eat it risk being poisoned and even killed. A guide to milkweed written by the Xerces Society states, “sheep and goats are the most likely to be poisoned because they are browsers and often prefer to feed on weeds over other forages.” Weeds of the West calls Utah milkweed (Asclepias labriformis) “the most poisonous of all western milkweeds,” claiming that “as little as one ounce of green leaf material … can kill an adult sheep.” It also lists swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) as “suspected of causing livestock deaths.” To make matters worse, dead and dried milkweed plants retain their toxicity, which is a problem when they end up in animal feed.

Despite their toxicity, humans have been consuming milkweed for centuries. Young shoots and leaves can be eaten after boiling them several times, refreshing the water each time, and a medicinal tea can be made from the roots. While fatal poisonings of humans haven’t been reported, Nancy Turner and Patrick von Aderkas warn in their book The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms that “uncooked shoots and the mature plants should never be consumed”

But milkweed’s toxic sap is not its only method for killing.

In fact, it may not even be its most deadly. And this is where things get interesting. Last month I arrived at work one morning to find a portion of a dried-up milkweed inflorescence on my desk that had been left there by a friend and co-worker. Stuck to the inflorescence were three, dead, dried-up honey bees, their legs trapped in the slotted hoods of the flowers. Apparently this is a common occurrence; one that is mentioned in nearly every resource about milkweeds that I have read now, and yet I had never heard of it nor seen it until this gift was left for me. I then went out to a patch of milkweed to see this for myself. Sure enough, I found a few dead bees trapped in the flowers of showy milkweed.

dead honey bee stuck in the flowers of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Milkweed flowers do not always give up their pollen sacs easily. The slits where the pollinia are found can, on occasion, trap the legs of visiting insects. John Eastman describes this in The Book of Field and Roadside, “insects sometimes become permanently wedged as the fissures trap their feet or the pollinia entangle them, and they die hanging from the flowers.” While milkweed species are native to North America, honey bees are not; they have not evolved alongside the flowers of milkweed, yet they are drawn in, like so many other insects, to the nutritious and abundant nectar.

Native or not, honey bees are not the only insects getting trapped in the flowers. Eastman reports seeing various species of butterflies ensnared as well, and a paper by S.W. Frost lists cluster flies, soldier beetles, and a couple species of moths as unsuspecting victims of these unruly flowers. Frost goes on to observe that, “in spite of the hazards,” bees, wasps, and various other insects “visited the flowers of milkweeds freely.”

In a paper published in 1887, Charles Robertson describes the insect visitors of several different milkweed species. He found an occassional dead insect on the flowers of swamp milkweed, adding that “this occurs only when all or most of the feet are entangled simultaneously, so as to render the insect absolutely helpless.” Observing common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Robertson finds that “even when small and short-legged insects succeed in extracting pollinia and inserting them into the stigmatic chambers, they have great difficulty in breaking the retinacula, and often lose their lives in consequence.”

Honey bees were easily the most common victims observed in Robertson’s study, leading him to quip, “it seems that the flowers are better adapted to kill [honey bees] than to produce fruit through their aid.” And a honey bee’s trouble doesn’t always end when she escapes the grasp of the flowers. Pollinia and its connecting tissues can get so tangled around her legs and other body parts that she can no longer forage, subjecting herself to starvation and predation.

To add insult to injury, dead and dying insects stuck to flowers result in another interesting phenomenon. Robertson writes, “many fall prey to predacious insects. I have seen them while still alive, attacked by ants, spiders and [predatory stink bugs].” Eastman adds daddy longlegs to the list of “scavengers” or “cleanup specialists” that come to feed on “flower trapped insects.” As it turns out, visiting the flowers of milkweed can be a dangerous, even deadly, game.

See Also: Idaho’s Native Milkweeds

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5 thoughts on “When Milkweed Kills

  1. A nice account of some of the less well appreciated natural history of my favourite group of plants 🙂 One minor correction – the pollinia of Asclepias are not sticky (like orchids) – they clip to the insects mechanically.

  2. FAscinating

    I have a question. I noticed that butterfly bush is in the mint family because of it square stock. Why does my mint and my butterfly bush Fleurish from year to year? And my salvia has to be replaced each year? Helen Dean

    • Butterfly bush is actually in the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae). It is, however, in the same order as the mint family (Lamiales). Both butterfly bush and mint are pretty tough plants, even to the point of becoming invasive in some situations.
      Numerous species of salvia are also great for our area and thrive with minimal maintenance. Some species are also annuals or are grown as annuals here because they are not cold hardy. Do you know what species of salvia you are growing? That would help me to further answer your question.

  3. Pingback: Episode 22: Goatheads and Milkweed’s Deadly Side – Boise Biophilia

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