Milkweed Bugs (1)

Gardeners know how nature works. We choose a specific plant, add it to our garden, tend that baby, and wait for the showy display or the fruit or whatever. And more often than not we discover that nature’s arsenal includes a bug which for some reason loves the taste of that plant above all others or perhaps loves that plant to the exclusion of all others. Suddenly our prized specimen is under attack as evidenced by holey or withering leaves, drooping stems, or dropping fruit.

How do we respond? My loving wife does harm to no one yet when the Japanese beetles invade the roses she urges me to seek and kill with extreme prejudice. Left unchecked those maniacal munchers can turn a healthy rose into a graveyard in days. She prefers the lovely blossoms over feeding the hungry hoard.

Monarch on Milkweed 8_25_2017We’re focusing a portion of our garden on the needs of butterflies (and bees of course), specifically the mystical Monarch. Who can learn about the annual migration of that species to Mexico and not come away astounded? Once I understood the plight of the butterflies as they migrate over vast expanses of today’s urban mono-culture landscapes I grabbed the shovel and got to work. Certainly I would like to foster the butterfly population.

To support Monarchs I needed the correct plants in the garden. Consider these important points: “Monarch butterflies cannot survive without milkweed; their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), and monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. With shifting land management practices, we have lost much milkweed from the landscape.[1]

Milkweed varieties may prove hard to find for home gardeners. As the plight of the Monarchs becomes more widely known and urban gardeners step up to help then perhaps the garden centers will adjust to the demand. I am happy to report that I see some milkweed offerings in the local garden shops and especially at some specialty plant breeders who operate booths at the farmers market. I’ve added three varieties to my garden.


  • Milkweed asclepias tuberosa. This is commonly known as butterfly weed (not butterfly bush which is a different plant). The variety has been offered through mail order and in garden shops for years. Butterfly weed grows in the wild also, but be a good steward about retrieving plants from nature. My original plant came from a landowner’s field before he mowed the weeds.

Asclepias curassavica 2018

  • Milkweed asclepias curassavica. A tropical plant that is being introduced in many gardens. I purchased a plant at the farmer’s market last year and marveled as the Monarch caterpillars devoured the leaves in days. The mother ship dropped seeds and volunteer plants sprang up this season. I also started plants indoors from seeds I purchased online. By the time the Monarchs arrived in late July the volunteers and the seed-started plants were equal in size. From zone 7 northward this plant will die back in winter but in warmer climates the plant continues to grow and that abundant supply of food may trick the monarchs into delaying migration. The web offers plenty of sites that analyze the issue.

Common Milkweed (1)

  • Milkweed asclepias syriaca. There are several varieties of common milkweed, the kind many of us discovered growing along fields when we were children. I’ve seen stalks reaching above six feet, and the plant can be invasive so many gardeners do not consider it for the butterfly garden. I started plants from seed last season, and though I never had blooms or pods the plants are healthy and new stalks have arisen from the spreading roots. Shawn is experimenting by cutting the plants early in the season to see if we can curtail the height and increase branching. The monarch caterpillars did not care about the height of the plants and munched away at the leaves.

Happy Monarch Caterpillar

I’ve enlisted help from neighborhood children who gladly carried caterpillars and milkweed indoors to protect the creatures from Hurricane Florence. Gardeners, as stewards we must involve the next generation and nurture a love for botany in those tiny hearts. I watched from an upstairs window as one elementary-aged girl led her friends on a tour of the garden, and I know she shared her knowledge as they explored. Gardening is not just about the plants.

Milkweed Bugs (7)

The butterfly garden is taking shape, but alas, we have an invader. A bug has moved in, and like the Monarch it munches milkweed blossoms, leaves, stems, and seed pods. In short time these bugs covered several of my plants.

Spraying with a pesticide is out of the question. Recall the reasons I introduced milkweed to the garden in the first place. I want to host my Monarch caterpillars on free-range organic milkweed.

My research identifies these bugs as Oncopeltus fasciatus or milkweed bugs. The kind folks at the Missouri Botanical Garden offer a description.[2]

  • Nymphs are mainly red with black markings
  • Adults have full-grown wings
  • Female milkweed bugs can lay up to 2k eggs in one month
  • These bugs damage milkweed by eating milkweed seeds and tissue from the plants.

But are they a problem? The Missouri Botanical Garden advises that I “leave them if you have enough milkweed plants to sustain them. They are harmless…”

What happens as the milkweed bugs devour the plants? They effectively curtail the somewhat invasive nature of the milkweed. Those pods forming all over the plants generate winged seeds that float with the breeze to begin new colonies. The milkweed bugs siphon the sap right out of the pods and ground those squadrons before they launch.

Sweet! I can enjoy the milkweed, watch the transformation of the monarchs from eggs to adult butterflies, and know that the helpful milkweed bugs will arrive in time to keep the spread of my plants in check. That is a win-win for a gardener with a small urban plot.

In this lesson from nature I learned something about our awesome Creator. I motor along planning life, making decisions, doing the right things as best I can, and suddenly looming before me are problems I cannot handle. I have no solutions. Why would God allow that adversity?

Consider the milkweed bug. I panicked when I saw the damage they inflict. I saw them as a problem to be removed, resolved, and rectified right now. God had another plan. He designed milkweed bugs with a purpose. When they fulfill their purpose my milkweed crop does not spread uncontrolled across the landscape.

Now what about my life? Do I believe I am here for a purpose? Yes, God has a purpose for my life, and with thoughtfulness and intention He sends the challenges my way.  Let’s see how some Bible writers explain the purpose behind adversity.

Job summed up his myriad trials in this way:

But He knows the way I take; When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold. Job 23:10

Jeremiah penned this message from God:

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

Paul explained the purpose of tribulations to his Roman readers:

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:3-5

And James tacked on his understanding of the benefits of testing:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

God designed a pair of insects, the milkweed bug and the Monarch, to concentrate on milkweed plants with different purposes. God can do that. Instead of looking at my troubles as nuisance bugs maybe I ought to start counting them as blessings and recognize the maturity I gain from them.

The garden has so much to teach if I take the time to pay attention.


[1], accessed 9/27/2018

[2] Accessed 9/27/2018