Brighton is ready for the Monarchs

July 2nd, 2015     0 comments     permalink

Large globes of flowers are blooming on the milkweed plants at the millpondBrighton’s city workers mowed down the shoreline vegetation at the north extreme of the millpond which has increased the opportunity for the Common Milkweed to thrive in the hot sun. At least 50 4′ tall plants are in full bloom now. The globes of dark pink flowers drip with sweet nectar and emit a fragrance almost as pungent as lilacs in the still evening air.

Monarch butterflies are in decline nationwide. Hopefully some of the fourth generation butterflies born this year with discover these plants when they arrive near the northern boundary of their territory. They can lay their eggs here so their caterpillars can grow strong. The butterflies that emerge must make the long journey back to Mexico in late August where they will winter in the cool mountains. Last year, only one Monarch caterpillar was found in this patch. Hopefully more will locate it this July. The plants are ready to greet them.

You’ll surely see more posts featuring these plants. Each year they host a number of insects I enjoy photographing.

Final homage to milkweed, 2014

November 12th, 2014     5 comments     permalink

The end of the cycle of 2014's milkweed

I’ve said all I can say about milkweed this year, but still had this well lit image I wanted to share. It wasn’t the plants’ best year, but as you can see by the number of seeds generated by this cluster of pods, the species can rest knowing Monarchs and other critters will have food and shelter in the summer of 2015. In the greater scope of things, that’s all that matters.

Last of the milkweed critters

November 9th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

Before wind disturbs them, the seeds are perfectly aligned in their milkweed pods

Dried and open, the milkweed seeds are ready to flyOctober 22: Colder nights and a frost or two have wiped out the majority of the bugs populating the Milkweed pods at the north end of the Brighton millpond. Unlike past years, I didn’t see an adult Milkweed Bug or a Milkweed Beetle. There were plenty of young ones but predators must have gobbled them before they could reach adulthood.

Most pods have dried and popped open. Winds have carried some of the seeds away, but there are still many with seeds tucked in orderly rows waiting for wind to rouse them. Some pods missed the right moment. The floss became matted together during downpours so it can’t ever transport seeds no matter how strong the winds become.

AS the seeds set sail, small bugs still remain on the podsThe fate of bugs still clinging to pods is uncertain. Maybe they burrow into the ground to withstand winter or are transformed into tasty freeze-dried bugcicles birds consume mid-winter. Nothing goes to waste in nature.

The pods shown at right had a healthy insect community in mid-October. I haven’t checked them recently to see if they are still alive. A close up of the same pods at maximum resolution of my camera, below, shows the thriving community.

A spider waits for a meal

A spider waits for a meal

Close up of the predator on the milkweed podsPods less advanced are slowly revealing their bounty of seeds (above), and they have a sentry on duty. Do you see it?

An inch-long spider with a feeble web strung between the pods (left) hides in the shadows below them. He looks like he’s been a successful hunter this year, but his choices have surely dwindled with the lower temperatures.

Milkweed critters

October 19th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

Insects on Milkweed #4

Detail of Insects on Milkweed #4It’s an odd year for the Brighton millpond’s stand of milkweed at the north end. In past years, adult Milkweed Bugs have appeared in mid-October. I can’t find any on the plants this year. I still see young instars and lots of other tiny insects, but none of the large red and black adults. I think the predators that feast on the young ones have been inordinately successful in stripping the pods of the bugs before they can reach adulthood.

So here are photos of the wee critters I’ve found roaming the pods. There are images of pods with an accompanying close up of bugs upon them. Photographing small creatures is beyond my camera’s capabilities so the close ups tend to be fuzz. You can click on the images showing the full pods to see them larger, but the close ups are at the full resolution of my camera so they don’t link to larger images.

Detail of Insect on Milkweed #2

Insects on Milkweed #2Insects on Milkweed #3I cannot identify the insects shown within these shots. Maybe a future reader can identify them for all of us.

You might find it fun to look at the close ups first and then click on the other shots to se if you can find the bugs on them.

The close up, above, relates to the image to the left. The close up, below, relates to the one on the right. At the top of this post, the close up is directly below the shot relating to it. At the bottom of this post, the two images are side-by-side.

I’ve been rather obsessed with milkweed plants this year. I visit them nearly every time I visit the pond. They have been overrun with invasive Virginia Creeper and Wild Grape vines. I plan to ask the city if I may trim those vines early next year to encourage more Monarchs to visit them.

Detail of Insects on Milkweed #3

The two orange and black bugs in the above shot are Milkweed Bug instars, one is a stage or two older than the other one. There are at least three other insects in the same image. Below, some of the insects look like granules of dirt, but if you look closely, you can see they have legs.

Detail of Insects on Milkweed #1 Insects on Milkweed #1

Meanwhile, back at the pods …

October 7th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

At least two instars of milkweed bugs are on this pod

At least 100 milkweed bugs reside on this milkweed pod clusterI try to visit the stand of milkweed pods at the north end of the millpond on each of my visits. Each instar stage of growth of milkweed bugs is supposed to take about six days to mature, but it seems to me it’s taking longer this year. It might be a result of our colder than normal temperatures.

I’m not convinced any of the young insects will grow to maturity this year due to the fast-approaching winter. Nature has ways of compensating for disastrous events. We’ll have to wait to see what happens.

Milkweed bugs tend to remain static instead of wiggling around Up close, more than just milkweed bugs are evident

Milkweed Metropolis

October 2nd, 2014     0 comments     permalink

These pods host an entire community of milkweed bugs

This is one of the nicest shots I’ve taken showing the heavy population of young milkweed bugs on just one stem. I like the lighting and composition. It’s curious how one stem might have scores of the insects while another only a foot away has none. They seem to congregate on the undersides. It might be to avoid predation, but they also hang out on the vertical stems where they are easy pickings. They are toxic to most critters so maybe their visibility doesn’t influence where they gather. After all, once they become adults they “advertise” their presence with bright color markings. There is “safety in numbers.” Maybe staying close to each other is like the flocking behavior of ducks.

Hunters and the hunted on milkweed

October 1st, 2014     0 comments     permalink

You'll have to click the image to see it larger to spot the spider waiting for a meal to walk within range

Colder nights reduce the insect activity on the milkweed pods, but I still see some action. Above, a spider lurks waiting for something delicious to make the mistake of visiting this particular pod. He seems to be doing a good job of critter control. No other bugs were inhabiting this particular milkweed stem.

Toxins keep some creatures away from milkweed but their spiny pods also deters hungry beastsPhotography Note: Shooting at night, I’m limited to flashes attached to my camera. Consequently, the photos are often “flat” — the light slams into the front of the objects. Thanks to a friend, I received a more powerful external flash last year. It has extended my night shooting abilities by a magnitude of ten. While it has remote flash capabilities, my camera is too old to have the necessary firmware to trigger it.

The external flash can rotate upward to bounce light off of ceilings, but the night sky (of course) refuses to bounce anything back. I’ve discovered  a way to overcome this problem. Some of these photos are my first attempts. I usually have white 3×5 cards in my pocket to write down my blog URL for people I meet. If I fan a few of them in my left hand above the bounced flash, the light becomes less harsh and color isn’t bleached out shooting extreme close ups (left). Light also appears to come from above the objects. You’ll notice photos lit this way in the future.

Milkweed pods with young milkweed bugsMilkweed bugs Milkweed pods with young milkweed bugspopulate this milkweed stem (left & right). Click the images to see them. There’s also a predator sticking around for easy access to its next happy meal of wee bugs. Can you spot the ladybug?

Insects aren’t the only profiteers at this prolific stand of millpond milkweed. Songbirds have visited some pods. Below, seeds have been snapped off their floss before having a chance to fly on stiff autumn breezes.

Missing seeds on milkweed floss is evidence a songbird has been munching

Miniature wolves and hyenas

September 17th, 2014     2 comments     permalink

Ladybug beetles mate near a gaggle of milkweed bugs on a nearby pod

Predators are drawn to concentrations of any animal species. Great herds of wildebeests in africa are followed by prides of lions during migration. We have the same phenomena happening at the millpond but on a smaller scale. All of the insects pictured in this post are hovering around the milkweed plants at the millpond now to either grab a milkweed bug whenever they’re hungry or prey on other insects looking for an easy meal.

Ladybug beetles within eyesight of a colony of milkweed bugsLadybugs are cute little beetles unless you’re an aphid. They view them as wolves. Farmers of certain crops buy ladybugs by the pound to populate fields to rid them of insects damaging their crops. No need to buy them to insure a millpond presence. They’re quite capable of reproducing enough of themselves to beat back the insects they prey upon (left).

Solitary wasps wait on the nearby plants for a chance to catch a meal (below left). Hornets (two are pictured, below right) have set up house in the underbrush. Several are loitering on vines twining around the stand of milkweed. I’m not willing to chance being stung to search for it.

A wasp waits for prey species to wander or fly by him Hornet lie in wait for dinner to arrive

A Spined Soldier Bug grabs its prey on a milkweed leafSpined Soldier Bug (I think) was digesting a recent catch on a milkweed leaf when I found it (left and below). It’s a species of dubious value to agriculture. It eats several pest species but can cause some crop damage.

All of these species (and more) keep “herds” of milkweed bugs in check as they grow through five instar stages. It’s difficult to fathom the intricate balance of predators and prey throughout the natural world.

Many of the stink bug family are pests but this one is beneficial because it eats many agricultural pests

Moving rust on milkweed pods

September 17th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

Milkweed pods appear covered in soot and rustI’m sure drivers racing past me on Grand River wonder if I’m confused or lost. They see an old man standing in the grass near the Border Cantina restaurant intensely staring at weeds beside the Brighton millpond. The weeds are a tangle of milkweed plants and other wildflowers brimming with insects at this time of year.

The milkweed plants are in rough shape after a summer full of insects feasting on their flowers and leaves. They’ve been battered by several storms and are coated with soot from thousands of vehicles zooming past them each day. But the milkweed pods are still intact after summer’s assaults and near their peak development. Some have already started to dry. The "dirt" on the pods is aliveSoon, each pod will split as it dries and release hundreds of seeds into autumn’s stiff breezes. A few of them will sprout new plants when spring rolls around again.

Some pods appear covered in rust or orange lichen (above), but if you look closely, you’ll realize the rust has legs and moves. The first and second instars of Milkweed Bugs have hatched along with other young insects. These first generations are orange but, by the time they reach their adulthood, they will be brightly colored in black and red to ward off potential predators by advertising they are toxic. Their diet of milkweed sap makes them unpalatable.

Expect to see more posts about milkweed bugs as autumn moves along. The changes they go through on their way to adulthood is fascinating.

Several insects inhabit the milkweed pods

Meanwhile, in the milkweed nursery …

July 29th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

larva_4293_200The importance of milkweed as a host for many insects is well known. I check the stands of the plants often to see what I can find on them. So far this year, I haven’t found any evidence of visits from Monarch butterflies or their munching caterpillars, sad to say. I did find this larva eating the dried up flowers on a recent night. The shape of its head suggests it’s a Milkweed Beetle, but I don’t know enough about them to provide a definitive answer. Whatever it is, may it thrive at the millpond as Nature intended.

Gems in swamps

July 29th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

“Swamp Milkweed” (Asclepias incarnata) is now in bloom at the Brighton millpond

Three years ago, a milkweed fan named Austin stopped by this blog and identified one of my photos as “Swamp Milkweed” (Asclepias incarnata). Before that, I wasn’t aware there were 140 species in the plant’s family. I also didn’t realize its historical important beyond being the prime food source for Monarch caterpillars. Native Americans collected its nectar to use as a sweetener, South Americans used it toxins to cover arrows with poison, and the down on the seeds was collected as a substitute for kapok during WWII, 11 million pounds of it!

From an aesthetic point of view, this species is daintier than Common Milkweed. The leaves are thin and the stalks tall so the flower clusters are more prominent than those on its common cousin. They are in full bloom right now. Each flower is the same rich magenta, beautiful and complex gems in every wetland where it flourishes.

The plants grow well on the shore of the millpond

Spectacular milkweed

June 27th, 2014     0 comments     permalink

More than 100 plants stand as high as 5' tall

Each flower cluster is 4-5" in diameter. As the flowers grow larger, their weight makes them droopThe Common Milkweed plants at the north end of the millpond beside the sidewalk on Grand River Avenue are incredible this year. There are probably 100 plants and some are 5′ tall and loaded with flower clusters measuring 4-5″ in diameter.

This shoreline is often mowed during the summer so visit them soon so you don’t miss seeing them. They will play host to allsorts of insects this summer, the most important being the Monarch caterpillars that should begin to munch on them by mid-July.

Form a top view, you can see clusters of flowers in various stages of development

The ladybug is a distraction

October 16th, 2013     0 comments     permalink

Ignore the beautiful lady on the left

Its eye-catching black-spotted dome is distracting because it grabs your attention, but ignore the Asian Ladybug beetle (top) even though the whole family is very interesting. Instead, study the picture a little. See anything else? Don’t read on until you look around. Click the image to see it larger.

An adult Milkweed Bug tours his domainThose itty bitty orange jobbies are recently hatched nymph Milkweed Bugs, first “instars.” These bugs go through four instars before reaching adulthood. The milkweed pods have entire tribes in different stages on them now. Weeks ago, I could find only a few and was concerned the insects weren’t coming to the millpond’s stand of plants at the north end this year.

Ah, such a nice feathery bedBecause of their distinct developmental stages, Milkweed Bugs are often raised in science classes. There are online sources to purchase them. They move slowly most of the time so they’re easy for kids to study. They’re harmless to humans but, since they ingest fluids from the plants, they contain the plant’s toxins so birds spit them out.

Their value in the ecosystem is to limit the unbridled spread of milkweed plants, but I haven’t discovered what limits THEM! Maybe the Milkweed Assassin Bug which aren’t here but resides in Texas? Something must chomp on them or we’d be up to our rumps in orange and black bugs. Our northern climate might be their downfall – they reproduce with enthusiasm but then most get walloped by subfreezing temperatures.

Below, a single milkweed stalk hosts four tiers of bug development, three instars (1, 3 and 4, I think) plus the adults. Don’t miss the tiniest family members on the right side of the picture. See past photos and posts about milkweed and their insects on this blog here.

An entire tirbe of Milkweed Bugs inhabit this one stalk

Unpopulated Pods

September 27th, 2013     0 comments     permalink

A close up of adult Large Milkweed Bugs

Adult Milkweed Bugs drink sap from the Milkweed podsShoreline weeds thrive at the northern edge of the Brighton millpond through benign neglect. At least 50 Common Milkweed plants grow there along with a second species, Swamp Milkweed. I’ll post pictures of the Swamp variety in a day or so so you can see the difference.

I count on finding lots of insects feasting on Common Milkweed during summer and fall. Not this year. I couldn’t find a single Monarch caterpillar and Large Milkweed Bugs (top and right) didn’t become visible until this past week. Our cold, wet August is probably responsible. Most insects are more active when high temperatures rev their metabolism. I didn’t see a Monarch Butterfly this summer. Perhaps fewer migrated to Michigan this year (although I’ve never heard of that happening before).

A lone earwig visits a milkweed pod for a meal on its sapInsects often seen on pods include Earwigs (Forficula auricularia). I’ve only found one, but he was a handsome representative of his species with his metallic sheen if you ignore the eeeek! factor (left). Most years, they are abundant in our region.

Only three plants are now hosting Milkweeed bugs. Most were adults but fifth instars inhabited one plant (below) and a third instar is in the close up if you squint to see him (top). Each instar is distinctly different. The ones below are identified by their large wing nubs. They will morph into full fledged flying adults in the weeks to come. Adults roam plants seeking irresistibly attractive mates to create little instars of their own. They won’t live to supervise their development, but that has its advantages. Cocky teenagers annoy adults in most species.

The wings are large and almost ready for flight on this fifth instar Large Milkweed Bug

Milkweed bugs move slowly while they explore Milkweek podsMore Milkweed bugs might materialize on warm autumn days. We’ll surely have some in the high 70s, a few in the 80s. I’ll revisit the plants then to see if large colonies emerge. Pods can host a flash mob of the critters at various stages of development.

Milkweed bugs are easy to see if they are on plants you inspect. They don’t wear camo. In fact they advertise their presence with dramatic red and black markings. It signals birds they aren’t edible. If birds have made that mistake before, the are reminded the bugs are toxic due to the milkweed sap they consume.

Morning: Summer colors

July 19th, 2013     0 comments     permalink

July 13: Here are more images from my dawn visit to the Brighton millpond. There are no harsh shadows in early morning so berries hidden in shade by midday are in full view and look luscious.

Honeysuckle berries and young crabapples share the spotlight beside the millpond, Brighton, Michigan

The red berries of this honeysuckle sure look yummy, but it’s best to leave them for wildlife. An online source says some varieties of Honeysuckle berries are edible while others are “mildly poisonous.” I’m not gastronomically adventurous. I find abdominal cramps and projectile vomiting ruins an otherwise beautiful day, but if you have the stomach of a test pilot, you’re welcome to let me know your results. The green crabapples could probably be made into jelly once they ripen. The combination of both fruits in one image is a great portrait of “summer abundance” don’t you think?

"Swamp Milkweed" grows on the "point" in front of Stillwater Grill in Brighton, Michigan

In 2011, a reader named Austin introduced me to the millpond’s “Swamp Milkweed,” a species quite different from the common variety. Above, its glorious shoreline blooms are spectacular against the blue-gray pond in early light. Below, one of the pond’s most prolific plants has berries in all stages of ripeness, summer through fall. During past years, there has been discuss about what species this woody shrub is. Nanina, a frequent reader, suggests it’s Chokeberry, but the jury is still out.

Chokeberries in all stages of ripeness can be seen on every branch

Time to sail away

October 12th, 2012     1 comment     permalink

There’s a grove of several dozen milkweed plants on a gentle slope at Little Worden Lake. They are 4′ tall. Most of the leaves have fallen from the stalks and the pods have matured, dried, and cracked open. A few milkweed bugs saunter on the stems and pods. These plants are riper than the milkweeds at the millpond. They’re in well-drained soil and subject to more sun and drying breezes. The pods at the pond are smaller, still green, and closed.

The milkweed seeds are fully grown with long filaments that are ready to catch strong winds when they arrive in the fields. In the meantime, they were great subjects for me in the slightly overcast sun that evenly lit them. The hard, sculptural pods are coated in velvet like deer antlers in summer. Inside, their soft, feathery contents delights my eyes. I seek out milkweed plants every autumn and they never disappoint me no matter if I photograph them in bright sunshine or in the dark.

Milkweed Bugs: Instars of the show

October 1st, 2012     2 comments     permalink

I wrote about Large Milkweed Bugs last year so I won’t repeat myself now. These bugs go through 5 instar stages before becoming adults with functional wings. I believe these are third instar nymphs so they still have a couple of weeks to go before they are airborne adults.

In the meantime, they spend their time injecting enzymes into milkweed seeds to extract the contents in liquid form. Because milkweed plants produce toxic latex-like sap, birds don’t eat the bugs that consume it. The bright red color of these bugs tells birds, “Leave me alone. I don’t taste good!” The tactic must work. I see groups of the bugs every year at the north end of the Brighton millpond where there are stands of both common and swamp milkweed.

Ready for the Wind

November 15th, 2011     4 comments     permalink

I can’t think of another plant near the millpond that has drawn my attention as often as Milkweed. The flowers are large and showy, the plants attract a slew of insects, the pods are dramatic living sculptures, and then, when the pods open, autumn’s grand finale includes a certain degree of magic.

Like the clown car at the circus, each pod produces more seeds and their “wings” than one can imagine in such a small wrapper. The shape of the pod itself necessitates its opening as it dries. I wonder if there is a loud “pop” when it happens. Unlike Cleome that scatters its seeds when it pops, milkweed seeds wait for the inevitable winds that will come in a week or a month.

While waiting for the winds, the seeds are joined by a mult-generational mix of milkweed bugs seeking shelter during the colder nights. The fibers on the seeds are perfect insulation. Since taking these photographs in the first days of November, the winds and rain have come and gone. I’ll post photos taken since in the near future.

Tongue of a Bumble Bee

September 7th, 2011     2 comments     permalink

The surprises I find when I look at my images on my computer at home. I thought I had just photographed a bumble bee sleeping on a milkweed pod at night (above). When I got home, I realized it had its proboscis inserted in the pod! Apparently, it drinks the sap? Then, when I looked at the next photo, I saw its tongue extended! That’s something you don’t see every day. Milkweed plays host to many insects while it blooms as well as during the time it’s growing its pods. It won’t be long before the pods will dry, snap open, and expel their seeds in the autumn breezes.

Milkweed Bugs

September 3rd, 2011     2 comments     permalink

Some people call all insects “bugs,” but only a few of them are actually in that classification. Milkweed Bugs are “true bugs” in the order Hemiptera/Heteroptera. There are two types of milkweed bugs, Small and Large; both advertise they aren’t good to eat by their bright red and black markings. If birds and other predators eat them, they will get sick since the bugs suck the toxic sap from their host plants. The ones shown here are Large Milkweed Bugs. To confound identification, there are also red and black Milkweed BEETLES, but I haven’t seen any this year.

Seems like milkweed bugs spend the majority of their time mating as shown above. Below is one milkweed pod with three “generations.” The adult (lower left) is photographed at an odd angle. It actually looks like the one at the top of this post. The clump of bright red bugs contains two generations of young ones. They go through five “instars” on their way to adulthood. These are probably the third and fourth instars. Later instars show more prominent wing nubs. Each instar lasts about a week. Mike Quinn’s site has photographs of all the milkweed instars.

Another three generations are visible in the lower left photograph: The mating pair, a tiny second instar (lower center) and a couple of fifth instars (upper right) in the shadows. While no bugs are showing on the picture (below right), this was a good time to show the pods on Swamp Milkweed so you can see how different they are. They grow vertically and remain slim instead of becoming fat like the ones on Common Milkweed. These plants grow within feet of each other at the north end of the Brighton millpond where several dozen wildflower species grow without human interference.

If you’re fascinated with milkweed bugs, you can start your own colony to watch them go through their developmental stages. Carolina Biological Supply is a source for milkweed bug eggs.

Pods and Opossums

August 5th, 2011     1 comment     permalink

Common milkweed pods that were thumb-sized on July 12th have reached full size in just three weeks. They will start to dry in the heat of summer then snap open to allow their seeds to take flight in autumn winds.

Searching the same milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars at the end of June, another park resident joined me (right). There was a deep ravine beside the sidewalk on which I was standing. He climbed out of it within two feet of my shoes. I slowly rotated my body so I could point my camera at him without him realizing a human was so close. I managed to take three photos. None are great. It’s times like this when I wish my camera was faster. The opossum came up on the sidewalk, gazed at Grand River Avenue for a moment, turned and descended into the ravine again, all within 20 seconds. I rarely see opossums in the millpond park. They’re around, but move with more stealth than noisy raccoons. In 2009, I had almost nightly encounters with a young one for a couple of weeks.

Another flavor of milkweed

July 27th, 2011     3 comments     permalink

Thanks to a blog reader named Austin, I’ve become familiar with a second species of milkweed. I’ve posted pictures of it before but they were taken in a garden maintained by the Brighton Garden Club so I didn’t realize it was a wild/cultivated milkweed species. Austin tells me it’s “Swamp Milkweed” (Asclepias incarnata). I’ve now found it growing wild within a few feet of the Common Milkweed I recently posted. It’s showier and blooms more profusely as shown below. The plants are 48″ talk and seems to be quite happy at the north edge of the millpond. The pods on this variety are slender and upright. I’m sure to photograph them later in the fall.

Milkweed Watching

July 11th, 2011     0 comments     permalink

Because of my success finding monarch caterpillars this year, I’ve visited the “grove” of Common Milkweed plants near the headwaters of the Brighton millpond almost nightly. The blooms have been spectacular. I’m not sure why but the conditions must have been perfect for them with our extended rains and cool temperatures this spring. They are fading now, but I want to memorialize them here. The shape of the flowers is so interesting and sculptural.

Some of the plants have deep rose blooms (above) while others are a soft pinkish-mauve (below). Each flowerhead matures as a unit. The early buds begin as fuzzy light green spheres, but soon begin to show color. Once the buds pop open, the weight of the flowers tends to make the make them point downward. Ants have a great view while humans have to crouch to share it.

Below is an image showing milkweed flowers in all stages of development. Click the image to download a 712 KB version of it that’s 1920×1200 pixels, large enough to enjoy as your computer’s desktop wallpaper. You’ll see all of the glorious detail.

More Monarch Caterpillars

July 5th, 2011     3 comments     permalink

For the past week, I’ve paid daily visits to the milkweed plants near the north end of the Brighton millpond to search for monarch caterpillars. The one originally photographed (above and below) is growing bigger by the day as he voraciously munches on milkweed leaves. A fifth instar caterpillar can eat a large milkweed leaf in a day’s time. Upon reading this free 1.7MB PDF field guide, I learned he’s a “fifth instar” caterpillar and will soon wander as much as 50 feet from his current host plant to find a safe place to form its chrysalis to pupate. Then, after about 8-12 days, he’ll become a butterfly and start his winged venture living only 2-6 weeks. Click each of these images to see larger versions.

I’ve found another one about half the original’s size, a fourth instar caterpillar (below). Each monarch caterpillar goes through five instars, the name for its shedding of skin (molting). Each instar has different characteristics including changes in the head structure, coloration, and size. The specific changes are detailed in the field guide mentioned above. It’s fascinating. For general information, this US Forest Service web page summarizes the Monarch’s unique life cycle and habits. I’ll be posting more photos of milkweed in bloom soon.

A monarch in the making

June 29th, 2011     2 comments     permalink

Sometimes photographers get lucky. What are the chances of coming upon a late instar Monarch caterpillar perfectly positioned on an almost perfect milkweed leaf beside perfect flower clusters in various states of bloom?

I take most of my shots at night. I often plan to go earlier, but I dawdle until the sun is going down. I’ve discovered my dawdling enhances my plant photography. Even though the millpond is surrounded by city buildings, streets, and parking lots, those distracting elements disappear into the dark beyond the reach of my flash as shown in these images. Click the photo on the left to see it larger. It’s one of my best ever images.

You can’t tell this milkweed plant is within 10 feet of Grand River Avenue, a noisy 5-lane thoroughfare. The top photo is rotated 90 degrees to allow a close up of the caterpillar as it chews holes into the leaf. I visited the same plant the following evening to find the caterpillar hadn’t moved more than a few inches but had chewed the leaf’s stem so it hung downward (below). This photo is rotated counter-clockwise to fit the blog’s format. The black, yellow, and white striped monarch caterpillars stay on the underside of milkweed leaves to avoid being seen by birds that may try to eat them.

In the Blink of an Eye

August 3rd, 2010     5 comments     permalink

A Milkweed Grove

Two events happened within the past two days that are tied together in a rather depressing way:

Last night, on the corner of West and North Streets, I photographed what I would call a grove of 50 milkweed plants. Some were almost five feet high in this sunny corner lot where a vacant house awaits its fate. The plants were vigorous and sported a multitude of pods. When photographed with my flash, the undersides of the leaves appear the same color as the still-green pods. It’s a dark corner, and I planned to return during the day to see if any monarch butterfly caterpillars had found these plants. It’s their prime food source and place to form their chrysalises before the next generation leaves for its wintering grounds in Mexico.

I posted a “glamor shot” of the pond’s only all black duck last February that hinted at her beauty. But she’s had a hard time of it since. In early spring, she developed a limp. She’s a large duck so it made it difficult for her to waddle. Then I noticed the back of her neck was defeathered, a clear sign drakes had mated with her and ripped them out, a rather violent courtship ritual I don’t understand. No nesting took place afterward but her limping stopped. Now mid-summer, the sun has bleached her beautiful black coat to brown. She’s molting and looks bedraggled (below) with broken feathers.

The Black Duck

A Black Duckling

Two nights ago, I found the black duck had a newborn duckling at her side! The duckling was so small I didn’t get too close because it would stress mom. Consequently, my shots are blurry. I watched her share parenting with another hen. Each took turns guarding the little fellow, not typical duck behavior. I attributed it to her being an inexperienced, first time mom. I looked forward to watching this black duckling with a brown chest grow up. His unique coloration makes him easy to identify.

The grove of milkweeds were mowed down today. Only two of the plants were left to grow. The black duck doesn’t have the little duckling following her anymore. I suspect a turtle got him although there’s a slight chance he was duckknapped by another hen. That sometimes happens. I’ll check around the pond for him. Within the blink of an eye, these events happened and probably no one is aware except the readers of this blog. They’re minor events in the grander scope of Life, but they have an impact here. Now.

Milkweed Pods, Inside and Out

April 11th, 2010     0 comments     permalink

Milkweed Pods: Inside and OutThe wispy seeds have all flown away since the milkweed pods snapped open last fall, but the pods have endured winter’s winds and harsh temperatures. On this early April day, they are one of the few objects suspended on two foot stalks in the fields of Timberland Swamp in Oakland County, Michigan, a 245 acre sanctuary created by the nonprofit Michigan Nature Association. The outside of them has turned gray and feels velvety soft while the inside is smooth and golden, quite a contrast.

Close up of a Milkweed Pod in spring


Murder on Milkweed

February 20th, 2010     0 comments     permalink

Murder on a Milkweed Plant

Nature may often be beautiful, but its beauty masks a savage world. By mid-summer, I start to explore milkweed plants to see if the caterpillars of monarch butterflies are feasting on them. I arrived a few minutes late at this one. A marauding yellow jacket beat me. Here it dines on a monarch butterfly caterpillar that won’t make the winter migration to Mexico. Its fluids coat the milkweed leaf. There is no larger version of this image. Sorry.

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