It's one of the most recognizable of all insects--if you can find it.
Ever had someone poke you and point toward a plant: "Look, there's a praying mantis?"
"Right there. See it?"
"No. Where is it?
"Right there. It's right there. Can't you see it?"
People aren't the only ones who can't see it. Neither can their prey, including honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, long-horned bees and assorted butterflies. Praying mantids are so camouflaged that they look like part of the plant.
We recently spotted a praying mantis clinging to our broad-leafed milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. The milkweed is meant for monarchs, their host plant, but it's also occupied by many guests, including lady beetles (aka ladybugs), lacewings, aphids, carpenter bees, honey bees, milkweed bugs, moths and spiders.
The praying mantis checked out the milkweed as people would a restaurant menu. It crawled along in the shadows, emerged into the sunshine, and crawled back into the shadows again, before summitting the plant.
It caught no prey. But it did look. A monarch circled the milkweed and fluttered off, heading toward a narrow-leafed milkweed. A lady beetle scurried down a leaf. A milkweed bug slipped behind a leaf.
And the aphids, well, they kept on eating.
The ever-patient praying mantis, with its elongated body, spiked forelegs, long antennae, and triangular head, complete with bulging compound eyes, is like no other insect. It's an ambush predator, totally equipped to be a predator and snag prey in a split second. Thankfully, it's not interested in us!
If you engage in a mini-monarch conservation project, you know the joy of watching the egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-adult transformation. It's one of Nature's miracles.
Then when you release the monarchs and watch them soar high, awkwardly fluttering their wings in new-found freedom, that's another high.
But there comes a day when you realize that Nature isn't perfect--not that you ever thought it was or ever will be.
In fact, Nature can be a little cruel.
Take the case of several caterpillars we reared in an enclosed habitat to protect them from predators. The 'cats ate the milkweed, and then, they formed chrysalids, just like they're supposed to do. Perfectly formed green-jade chrysalids dotted in gold.
They all looked normal, except one. Apparently a very hungry caterpillar chomped on one of the chrysalids instead of its milkweed. It knawed and knashed until it cratered it.
"This is it!" we figured. All done. No more left to eclose. But today, a monarch eclosed from the damaged chrysalis. A monarch with a deformed wing.
It was a girl. It still is.
We placed her on a broadleaf milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), where she sunned herself and warmed her flight muscles--flight muscles she'll never use because she cannot fly. She sipped some sugar-water and a chunk of juicy watermelon.
She may even attract a mate and give us the next generation.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Nature is not always nice.
So here's this tattered old worker bee seeking some nectar from the broadleaf milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. She looks as if she's not only been around the block a few times but around the county several dozen times. Her wings look too ragged to support her flight back to her colony. She'll probably live just a few more days. Worker bees live only four to six weeks in the peak season, and this is the peak season.
She bends her head and sips nectar, only to realize she is not alone. She encounters long antennae...the long antennae of a monarch caterpillar munching on a blossom. Whose plant is this? The bee wants the nectar. The monarch caterpillar wants the entire plant. This is the larval host plant of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. The caterpillars turn into veritable eating machines, devouring the leaves, flowers and some of the stems. Without milkweed, no monarchs. It's a matter of survival.
The tattered old bee touches antennae with the hungry caterpillar--Well, hello, there, dining companion!--and she backs off. There will be another blossom--if she moves quickly to claim it.
Another bee, this one much younger than the senior citizen bee, buzzes over to nearby blossom while another caterpillar, partially hidden, munches away. The bee gets stuck in the sticky mass of gold pollinia and struggles to free herself, just as another bee flies off with some of that gooey "winged" substance, anchoring her flight. She will remove it. She will return. The nectar is too enticing.
Just another chapter in the Saga of the Milkweed, the Bee and the Caterpillar...
Bees--and other pollinators--gravitate toward the enticing aroma of the milkweed, too.
The milkweed is widely known as the larval host plant of the monarch butterflies--and a nectar source for the adults--but they have to share.
The broadleaf milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, in our pollinator garden draws everything from honey bees to leafcutter bees to carpenter bees.
It's almost like "Take a number." And it's especially noticeable during National Pollinator Week, a week set aside to celebrate the pollinators and to do what we can to protect them.
Recent visitors to the milkweed have included:
- A male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, a green-eyed blond
- A female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, solid black
- Honey bee, Apis mellifera
- Male leafcutter bee, Megachile sp.
And, of course, the monarchs (Danaus plexippus)!
If you grow milkweed in your yard, you probably have some very special tenants, monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). As just about every kindergarten student knows, milkweed (Asclepias spp,) is their larval host plant. Without milkweed, no monarchs.
Carl Linnaeus named the genus for the Greek god of healing, Asciepius. The son of Apollo, Asciepius was a hero and god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology, according to Wikipedia.
For the past week, we've been watching a male monarch loop around our pollinator garden in search of females. Yes, it "floats" just like the late Muhammad Ali said a butterfly does. Several loops later and it needs more flight fuel. It zip-zags down, sips some nectar from the six-foot-high broadleaf milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), or drops down to the lower elevation of a Jupiter's Beard. Then it's off again.
It's like watching a work of art--an exquisite stained glass window--take flight, touch down, and feed. The adults will feed on many nectar plants but their caterpillars will feed only on milkweed.
Like to help the monarchs and plant milkweed? See the Xerces Society's Project Milkweed.