So here are all these milkweed bugs clustered on a showy milkweed leaf, Asclepias speciosa. It's early morning and the red bugs are a real eye opener.
They're seed eaters, but as Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology says: "They are opportunistic and generalists." They not only eat seeds, but monarch eggs and larvae, as well as the oleander aphids that infest the milkweed.
But wait, one of these is not like the other.
A lady beetle, aka ladybug, photobombs the scene. It sleeps with them and eats (aphids) with them. They are sharing the same food source: oleander aphids.
Milkweed bugs gained the nickname of "seed eaters" for primarily eating the seeds of milkweed.
Actually, they are opportunistic and generalists, says Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
They will eat monarch eggs and larvae (milkweed is the host plant of monarchs), as well as the oleander aphids that infest the milkweed.
We recently watched a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) munch oleander aphids on a narrow-leafed milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Between the milkweed bugs and the lady beetles, aka ladybugs), they absolutely cleaned off all the aphids, the first time in years.
Milkweed without aphids? Unbelievable! That's like macaroni without cheese, a pencil without paper, or a hammer without a nail. It's a "given" that if you grow milkweed, you'll get aphids. Some monarch butterfly enthusiasts kill the aphids with a soapy water mixture (which we've done in the past), but this year, we let biocontrol reign.
It worked wonderfully!
"Milkweed bugs will get protein from wherever they can find it," says Dingle, an insect migration biologist and author of the textbook, Animal Migration: the Biology of Life on the Move. They've been known to feed on insects trapped in the sticky pollen of the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). And on nectar.
Dingle served as a professor at UC Davis Department of Entomology from 1982 to 2002, achieving emeritus status in 2003. National Geographic featured him in its cover story on “Great Migrations” in November 2010. LiveScience interviewed him for its November 2010 piece on“Why Do Animals Migrate?”
A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Animal Behavior Society, Dingle has done research throughout the world, including the UK, Kenya, Thailand, Panama, Germany and Australia.
Dingle is a former secretary of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology and past president of the Animal Behavior Society. He received the Edward A. Dickson Professional Award in 2014 to do research on "Monarchs in the Pacific: Is Contemporary Evolution Occurring on Island Islands? (See news story on Department of Entomology and Nematology website.)
Let's hear it for biocontrol.
You've seen lady beetles, aka ladybugs, preying on aphids.
But have you seen an assassin bug attack a spotted cucumber beetle?
How about a crab spider munching on a stink bug?
All biocontrol, part of integrated pest management (IPM).
If you access the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website or more specifically, this page, you'll learn that "Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a process you can use to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. IPM can be used to manage all kinds of pests anywhere–in urban, agricultural, and wildland or natural areas."
Or, UC IPM's more in-depth definition:
"IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment."
Yesterday we witnessed an incredible case of biocontrol in action.
At Bodega Bay's Doran Regional Park, Sonoma County, we spotted a great blue heron stepping stealthily through a thatch of ice plant in the Jetty campground. It was 6:30 in the morning. As campers slept in their recreational vehicles a few feet away, the great blue heron just kept stepping silently through the ice plant. One step. Another step. And another.
And then it happened. Its long sharp beak speared a rodent. Yes, they eat rodents. It crunched the body from head to toe, breaking the bones, and then swallowed it whole.
Not a pretty picture, but a simple case of biocontrol, compliments of a hungry heron.
Have you ever heard anyone say that when they see the larva of a lady beetle (aka ladybug, family Coccinellidae)?
Unfortunately, it's quite common among non-gardeners and non-insect enthusiasts.
The larvae of lady beetle are mostly black and look like tiny, spiny alligators, but they're beneficial insects just like the adult lady beetles. In the adult and larval stage, they're both predators that prey mainly on aphids, but they'll also eat thrips, spider mites, scale insects, and other soft-bodied insects.
An adult lady beetle can eat as many as 5000 aphids in its lifetime, scientists say. Who knows how many a larva can eat! Who's counting?
"Young lady beetle larvae usually pierce and suck the contents from their prey," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program's website. "Older larvae and adults chew and consume their entire prey. Larvae are active, elongate, have long legs, and resemble tiny alligators."
You've seen lady beetle jewelry and t-shirts and the like (check out the gift shop at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane), but the larvae? They aren't represented.
They're well represented in many gardens, however. In our garden, the adults and larvae are polishing off the oleander aphids on our milkweed plants.
Especially those oleander aphids that suck the very lifeblood out of our milkweed plants that we're struggling to save for monarch butterflies.
Just call aphids "The Enemy of the Gardener" or "The Enemy of the Milkweed."
The University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) describes aphids as "small, soft-bodied insects with long slender mouthparts that they use to pierce stems, leaves, and other tender plant parts and suck out fluids. Almost every plant has one or more aphid species that occasionally feed on it."
"Aphids have soft pear-shaped bodies with long legs and antennae and may be green, yellow, brown, red, or black depending on the species and the plants they feed on," UC IPM tells us. "A few species appear waxy or woolly due to the secretion of a waxy white or gray substance over their body surface. Most species have a pair of tubelike structures called cornicles projecting backward out of the hind end of their body. The presence of cornicles distinguishes aphids from all other insects.
"Generally adult aphids are wingless, but most species also occur in winged forms, especially when populations are high or during spring and fall. The ability to produce winged individuals provides the pest with a way to disperse to other plants when the quality of the food source deteriorates."
Not only do aphids stunt plant growth but they can spread viruses. Plus, they produce that sticky honey dew they that attracts ants and other insects.
Density? We've seen aphids so dense on our milkweed stems that all we see is yellow. (Sometimes we see red!)
We recently saw them magnified on a Leica DVM6 microscope, operated by Lynn Epstein, UC Davis emeritus professor of plant pathology, at a demonstration in Hutchison Hall. (See image below)
In California, most aphids reproduce asexually throughout most of the year, according to UC IPM. Did you know that a single aphid can generate as many as 12 offspring a day--without mating?
Bring on the lady beetles (aka lady bugs), lacewings, and soldier beetles! The larvae of lady beetles and syrphid flies also do their part in gobbling up aphids.
What to do when biological control doesn't work that well? Or when your lady beetles depart? Pinch the aphids; spray them with with water; or spray them with a mixture of 1 tablespoon of dish soap (Castile liquid soap) and one quart of water. Some folks dab aphids with cotton swabs dipped in isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol but that will kill the monarch eggs and larvae as well. We've found that spraying a mixture of sudsy soap and water works best for us.
Lather is the best medicine.