Oct 29, 2011

Outdoor Hour Challenge: Milkweed!

I love milkweed. I love what milkweed represents: monarch butterflies, the warmest days of summer, weeks at the lake, time spent at the Conservancy Cabin. So I couldn't wait for us to study milkweed with the More Nature Study with the Outdoor Hour Challenge Autumn 2011 .

Go here for more info on Monarch Caterpillars
We are fortunate to live on the edge of the countryside and had no trouble finding specimens for study. Sometimes we find them sprouting right in our flower beds and then I have to wrestle with my conscience  about treating them as "unwanted weeds" because I know they are the ONLY food for hungry Monarch caterpillars.  The highway department works hard enough at eradicating them along the roadsides; should I  jump on the bandwagon? Especially when Monarchs have taken such a hit in the last few years with some record cold in Mexico that killed off so many during their hibernation? But for our study time they were going to seed along a section of horse fencing owned by our neighbors.
Following the questions in the study guide we looked for insects on them and were rewarded (if finding bugs is your idea of a reward; it was ours) by locating Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus)   all over. They were not sure about being photographed. It took several "sneak attacks" to catch them before they scooted to the other side of a pod or simply dropped off into the weeds. BugGuide.net had these interesting remarks about the bugs:
" Eggs are laid in milkweed seed pods or in crevices between pods. About 30 eggs are laid a day, and about 2,000 over a female's lifespan. In the course of feeding, these bugs accumulate toxins from the milkweed, which can potentially sicken any predators foolish enough to ignore the bright colors which warn of their toxicity."
We then investigated the "milk" of the milkweed. By breaking the weed at any place on its stem, we observed a stream of white juice. The Handbook of Nature Study explains that this milk aids in the healing of the plant wounds.

We experimented with spreading the stuff on our fingers and, sure enough, it dried into a rubbery film that would NOT wash off. A little research on the origins of rubber would be a logical next step. And when tasted, there's no wondering why caterpillars full of it would be noxious to birds!
Mei added drawings of the pod and seed balloon to her notebook page.
 It took a few weeks to find the pods beginning to open. Thankfully the milkweed that we had chosen is along our usual dog-walking route so we could easily keep tabs on it. Here it is a month later. Aren't the silky threads beautiful in the sun?

Inside the pods, we could see the neatly arranged rows of the hundreds of seeds. Hopefully, many of them will find friendly homes to repopulate our roadsides next summer and beckon the Monarchs that love them!



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