The Daily Bucket is a nature refuge. We amicably discuss animals, weather, climate, soils, plants, waters and note life’s patterns.
We invite you to note what you are seeing around you in your own part of the world, and to share your observations in the comments below.
Mission Valley, Montana 07/07/21
After hearing reports of a few monarch butterflies showing up in Utah, Oregon, and eastern Washington, I ventured out last week to a few of the largest milkweed patches I know of in the Mission Valley in northwest Montana. My stubborn hope was to see a monarch or two nectaring or laying eggs on the milkweed — a tall order given the spiraling decline of the western monarch population over the last few years. I didn’t see any monarchs (I may be a week or two early), but did find Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) in full bloom and swarming with pollinators.
One of the sites I found last year had thick hedgerows of Showy Milkweed growing along a half-mile stretch of rural road. I was especially excited to revisit this patch this year.
At some point this spring, the county road crew (or perhaps the adjacent farmer) sprayed the entire patch with herbicide and eradicated every last milkweed plant along this section of road. After a long, silent primal scream, I drove away shaking my head at the relentless, undeserved scorn heaped on milkweed by some sectors of the agriculture community.
I drove away thinking…….
What do we expect from a plant named milkweed ???
Maybe the name “milkweed” needs a good rebrand.
Why not rename it to reflect its essential link to the monarch butterfly life cycle?
Let’s call it “Monarch Manna”
In the Bible, “manna” is the food God miraculously provided to the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, “so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:49-50). For us secular folks, “manna” has come to mean divine or spiritual nourishment or an unexpected gift or assistance when it is needed most. Manna is sustenance that ensures survival.
Milkweed is “manna from heaven” to monarchs. It is the only nourishment a monarch caterpillar survives on; milkweed is essential to the continued existence of North American monarchs.
By renaming milkweed to “Monarch Manna” — we might change some of the common negative misperceptions about milkweed:
1. Milkweed is an invasive weed — “Weed” may be in the name, but milkweeds are native, beneficial wildflowers. Of the 73 native milkweeds in the U.S., none are classified as noxious or invasive weeds by state or federal agencies. Yes, some species can spread; so avoid those species that are aggressive clonal reproducers or prolific seed producers.
2. Milkweed is poisonous to livestock, pets, and people — The first half of milkweed’s name refers to its milky latex sap, which contain alkaloids and cardenolides. These complex chemicals are known to be toxic to animals if consumed in large quantities. The good news is milkweed tastes terrible and is avoided by livestock if sufficient forage is available.
According to the USDA, livestock poisoning typically occurs when animals are concentrated in areas of poor forage and abundant milkweed stands. ~Monarch Joint Venture
Milkweed’s bitter, unpalatable taste is enough to deter human consumption, but precautions should be taken when handling the plant (handwashing and avoiding hand-to-eye contact).
3. Monarch caterpillars eat more than milkweed — Fake news, folks. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed exclusively. If monarch eggs are laid on plants other than milkweed, the caterpillars will starve. It’s likely that caterpillar damage by monarch look-alikes is being wrongly attributed to misidentified monarchs.
4. Milkweed is only useful to monarchs — As Joe says, what a bunch of malarkey! Not only are milkweeds the obligate host plants for monarch caterpillars, they also provide food and shelter for a vibrant ecosystem of bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, mantids, and spiders. A review of the pollination systems of Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata) documented 126 different pollinators! Another study in Washington state found substantial beneficial insect attraction to Showy and Narrow-leaved milkweeds, including beneficial insects that play a significant role in suppressing an array of pest insects affecting fruit crops in central Washington.
Rebranding is typically the domain of the business world, involving marketing strategies to make a company or product fresh, new, and relevant to today’s customers. A successful rebranding campaign can be a tool for positive change. It can instill a strong emotional connection with existing and new audiences and inspire others to see a company or product in a new light.
A new ‘Monarch Manna’ brand would give milkweed a more tangible monarch-first identity, thereby enhancing its emotional appeal to a wider audience. It would also better communicate the inextricable link between monarchs and milkweed and build a powerful connection among conservation-minded audiences. Heck, even the ‘manna’ moniker might engage foodies or religious audiences!
Yes, renaming milkweed is a pipe dream. But….in the off chance a savvy branding pro is reading this……
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High of 92 F with a 40% chance of showers & thunderstorms producing frequent lightning. Widespread haze & patchy smoke from Canadian wildfires.
WHAT’S UP IN NATURE IN YOUR AREA TODAY?
By commenter suggestion, I’m adding an update to call attention to the potential risks to monarch butterflies posed by the cultivation of Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), a non-native milkweed.
Tropical Milkweed is attractive and easy to grow, resulting in its wide popularity. It becomes a problem when planted in temperate areas where it does not die back in winter, as do most native North American milkweeds. By remaining evergreen through winter, Tropical Milkweed serves as a reservoir to spread the protozoan parasite of monarchs, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE for short). When native milkweeds die back each fall, OE dies along with them so next year’s foliage is parasite-free.
Monarchs with severe OE infections may not be able to eclose from their chrysalis, or may emerge with malformed wings. High levels of OE in adult monarchs have been linked to lower migration success in the eastern population and reductions in body mass, lifespan, mating success, and flight ability.
Tropical Milkweed can also confuse monarchs into breeding when they should be migrating. Recent research suggests that winter-breeding monarchs have higher mortality rates and lower ability to reproduce due to OE infections, food shortages, and freeze events.
Consider removing Tropical Milkweed entirely and replacing it with native milkweed and nectar plants. If that’s not a viable option, cut it back to the ground in the fall (October/November) and repeatedly throughout winter to mimic native milkweed phenology and break the disease cycle.
For further reading:
Tropical Milkweed—a No-Grow
Potential risks of growing exotic (non-native) milkweeds for monarchs