Many people consider milkweed to be nothing more than just that – a weed. However, this flowering plant is a powerful attractant for a huge variety of insect species ranging from butterflies to bees. Many of the bugs that feed, breed and live on milkweed are beneficial to have around your garden, either because of the role they play as pollinators or as predators of other pest species.
Unfortunately, not every insect that sets up home on your milkweed will benefit the health of your garden. Read on to learn more about milkweed, which types of bugs it attracts, and whether or not you should let them stay!
What is milkweed?
The Common Milkweed (or Asclepius syriaca, to call it by its scientific name) is a species of flowering plant that is widespread in North America. The long, hairy stems of the milkweed flower can reach 6.5 feet in height and are capped with large, round clusters of trumpet-shaped pink and white flowers. Historically, these striking plants have played an integral role in the lives of people throughout North America and have been used for their fibers and as medicine for centuries.
But milkweed has another interesting property, and that’s the wide array of bugs it attracts! Also known as the butterfly flower, Common Milkweed plays host to a plethora of insects, from bees to aphids and beetles.
While some of these insects are a joy to have around your garden, others are less welcome and may infest other plants. Read on to find out which milkweed insects you’re most likely to encounter!
What bugs are attracted to milkweed?
Beneficial insect species
Milkweed is known for its ability to attract a whole host of beneficial insect species into your garden. This can not only improve pollination and biodiversity around your flowerbeds, but predatory insects may also keep other, more harmful, bugs at bay.
Let’s start with the insect that gave milkweed its fondest nickname – the butterfly! Common milkweed attracts a wide variety of butterfly species and is the only host plant of the Monarch butterfly in North America. This makes milkweed critically important for the survival of this butterfly species, by providing a food source for both adult butterflies and their larvae.
With populations of Monarch Butterflies declining rapidly in the states, milkweed habitats are more important than ever if these insects are to make a comeback.
Aside from the aesthetic quality they lend to your garden, butterflies are also pollinators. This means that a healthy butterfly population can benefit the reproductive health of many other flowering plants around your home, whether ornamental or fruit-bearing.
Another insect that’s irresistibly attracted to milkweed is the honeybee. One study found these insects to be the number one pollinator of milkweed, so planting milkweed is a sure way to encourage bees into your garden.
Why is this something you’d want? Well, bees are important pollinators for a wide range of flowering plants, not just milkweed. This is great news for any flowers, fruits or vegetables you happen to be growing around your home, ensuring that they are able to grow to their full potential.
Parasitic wasps are found abundantly on certain types of milkweed and can be a very useful insect to have around. These tiny bugs prey on other, herbivorous insect species (such as aphids), which helps to keep their populations low. By planting milkweed in your garden, you can provide a habitat for beneficial predatory insects such as these and, in doing so, help to preserve the overall health of your garden.
Unfortunately, not every milkweed bug is beneficial. Certain species can spread to and damage other plants in your garden or may out-compete other, more welcome insects.
Aphids are a common garden pest, and your milkweed is not immune to them!
Keep in mind!
Although a small number of aphids is unlikely to cause significant damage (and may even encourage the presence of parasitoid wasps), large infestations can be a problem.
Aphids are piercing-sucking insects that use their highly specialized mouthparts to drill into plant tissues and suck out the sap. In large numbers, they can cause damage to the plant, rendering it unsuitable as a butterfly habitat. If you planted your milkweed to encourage beneficial insect species into your garden, step away from the insecticide! Instead, squish any aphids you see or, in the case of heavy infestations, remove the most severely affected branches and plants.
There are two types of beetle commonly found on milkweed; these are the Red Milkweed Beetle and the Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle. These brightly colored bugs can both be recognized by their striking red and black bodies, and both are prevalent throughout spring and summer.
Milkweed beetles are voracious eaters and both the adults and larvae will chew their way through leaves, flowers, and buds. If your beetle infestation is significant, this can cause serious damage to the plant and may render it uninhabitable for the insects you’re trying to attract.
Fortunately, milkweed beetle removal is pretty easy. These distinctively-patterned bugs are easy to find, and they don’t bite or sting, so getting rid of them is as easy as picking them off your plants and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water.
Given its reputation as a weed, you may not consider milkweed worthy of a spot in your garden. However, this tall, flowering plant attracts a wide variety of beneficial insects such as butterflies, bees and parasitic wasps. These bugs can help to keep other pest species at bay, boost pollination and increase the overall biodiversity and health of your garden. Plant milkweed to provide a food source and habitat for important pollinators and predatory insects, and to beautify the area around your home!