Something I learned from entomologist Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home is that most insects specialize. Ninety percent of herbivorous insects depend for food and shelter on a few plants they coevolved with. This insight is directing me toward different plant choices.
I used to think that leaf-eating insects ate any leaves they could get. Tallamy explains that, on the contrary, over the millennia insects have survived by tailoring their behavior and physiology to be able to sense and locate a few plant species.
|Not just any leaf will do for food|
They’ve synchronized their life cycles with the plants’. They’ve developed ways to get around the plants’ defenses. As they’ve invested in these food sources, they’ve become less able to live off others. That’s why most need plants from their local region and can’t eat plants from other parts of the world.
|North American native insects can't eat plants that originated in Asia|
This year I’ve expanded my collection of milkweeds for monarch butterflies, the poster children of insect specialization. Monarch caterpillars have evolved to be able to eat milkweed leaves, which contain defensive chemicals called cardenolides that make the caterpillars and adult butterflies poisonous for other animals.
|A monarch on showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)|
When eggs laid on milkweeds hatch, the caterpillars have the food they need to grow and metamorphose into another generation of beautiful adult monarchs.
Monarchs are now under great stress. They need to fly from their winter home in Mexico to summer habitat in the US.
|Wintering in Mexico-photo Steve Bridger|
Here they find less and less milkweed because of herbicides such as Roundup (glyphosate) that are widely used in industrial agriculture. Organic farmers make a point of leaving weed strips around their fields for the sake of pollinators, including butterflies. Until that becomes universal practice, home gardeners are encouraged to grow some milkweed for the monarchs.
I started with swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which turned out to be quite easy to grow. Swamp milkweed’s dusty pink flowers are clearly an insect magnet. Not only the monarchs benefit.
|Swamp milkweed attracts lots of pollinators|
This year I tried butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) again. I’d planted this species twice before, only to see it dwindle without flowering. With a sunnier spot and plenty of rain this spring and summer, it didn’t flower, but it seemed to take hold. I’m optimistic about seeing some of the orange flowers next summer.
|Butterfly weed, not as easy as I'd hoped.|
I also started seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus) and planted a couple of seedlings. This could turn out to be a mistake, because the plant is reputed to be quite a spreader. I like the seed pods and the seeds with their parachutes of white fleece, though, and I’m hoping to see some monarch caterpillars on the leaves.
|Common milkweed seed pods opening in fall|
As an experiment, I laid a half-open common milkweed pod that I found in the neighborhood on the ground in an open area near some new shrubs. Maybe the wind will pick up some seeds and sow them as it would in the wild.
I spotted just one monarch butterfly in the yard this summer. I hope she or he will send friends.