The Joys of Milkweed

This year we officially passed a milestone we have been working towards the entire time we have owned the property. We have observed our very first Monarch caterpillar.

Since purchasing the property we have been working to propagate pollinator friendly wildflowers, preferably native ones.  While a portion of this is due to our honeybees, the main reason we made this a priority is because of the decreasing number of native pollinators. While there has been a overwhelming concern for the decrease of the honey bee they should not be out main concern. The honey bee is considered livestock. Beekeepers work diligently to keep up honey bee numbers. The real concern is the decrease in native pollinator numbers. There are over 4,000 species of native bees in North America, and the honey bee isn’t one of them. The honey bees we know here in America are actually European. They were introduced in the 1700’s and now have wild varieties, but they are not native. Aside from the bees there are also other pollinators like butterflies, moths, bats, etc. These numbers are also in sharp decline.

While I am sure our property is an eyesore to our neighbors it has become a beautiful sanctuary for us. Our 11 acres are covered in thistle, chicory, clovers, black-eyed susans, goldenrod, dandelions,  blackberries, coneflowers, and more! The diversity of insects, birds, and wild animals are even better than the pops of blues, whites, pink, and reds all over the property. We have frogs serenading us at night and frequently watch yellow finches pull thistle fluff for their nests right outside our windows. All if this combined make the seeming disarray of the property well worth it.

However, the crowing jewel of our pollinator sanctuary has been the arrival of the common milkweed. At this time last year we had a few milkweed plants popping up here and there. This year we have whole areas covered in milkweed. The common milkweed has quickly become my favorite flower. It is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a sphere of tiny very intricate flowers that are almost a mauve color, and the smell is divine. It far surpasses the rose and honeysuckle by leaps and bounds. From a ecological standpoint the most amazing characteristic of the common milkweed is that it is it’s own contained ecosystem, mainly due to the poison the plants contain. The sap of milkweed plants contain cardiac glycosides, which are toxic and can cause a decreased heart rate. Ingestion can be fatal, especially to grazing animals, So be careful with milkweed!

We can sit and watch over ten species of insect visit the milkweed in a few minutes, and that’s just what we can see. There are also at least four different insects whose life cycles revolve around the milkweed plant. They do not travel to other plants, the milkweed is their entire ecosystem.

Then there is the monarch. While the monarch travels far and wide they lay their eggs on the milkweed plants, and the caterpillars are one of the few insects that can feed on the plant. This year we saw our first monarch on the property. We were very hopeful that it was able to lay eggs and have been diligently searching. As I was walking the dogs yesterday I spotted the caterpillar on the underside of a leaf and promptly celebrated our success. Hopefully these numbers begin to increase over the years and we can start tagging the monarchs.

Finally, as an added bonus to us, the honey bees love the milkweed as well. They could be seen feeding on the plants in droves, and the honey produced is stunning. It looks like our early summer honey is a clover, blackberry, and milkweed blend, and boy can you taste it! Delicious.

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