Friday 5: Milkweed Predators

A few weeks ago, I helped a coworker do a training workshop for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.  She’s been doing MLMP for multiple years, so she knows more about it than I do, but I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the project since my arrival in North Carolina.  It was a lot of fun teaching the workshop too!  The attendees seemed really happy to be identifying monarch caterpillars in the classroom, then doing it some more outside.  I think everyone went home feeling a sense of accomplishment, so I considered it a success!

The day following the workshop was a Saturday and, since my coworkers and I have to take turns doing weekend shifts, it was my turn to work the weekend.  When it came time to take a break, I did what I never had a chance to do during the workshop: I took my camera down to the milkweed where the attendees had found so many of their monarch larvae and shot some of them.  It was raining a little, but that didn’t deter me!  And I’m glad it didn’t because I saw a ton of great stuff on that milkweed, including several predatory species that were presumably eating the excessively abundant oleander aphids:

Aphids

Oleander aphids galore!

These predators included…

Ladybug

Ladybug

Ladybug eating an aphid

This is THE classic eater o’ aphids, and here you can indeed see one happily munching on an aphid.  It certainly had a lot to choose from!  It’s fun to remember that although so many people think of ladybugs as cute and adorable little beetles, they’re also predators that mercilessly chow down on other insects.  Nom nom nom!

Hover Fly Larva

There were several of these syrphid larvae on the milkweed:

Syrphid larva with aphids

Hover fly larva with aphids

According to our milkweed insect field guide (because what do I know about terrestrial fly larvae?), these flies are predators of aphids.  Go little fly, go!  Eat those aphids!  The more you eat, the more milkweed there is available for hungry little monarchs.  That fly will, as I understand, metamorphose into one of those great little yellow and black flies that hover a few feet above the ground.  I love everything about this larva, including the fact that you can see its digestive tract right through the exoskeleton.  Super cool!

Lacewing Larva No. 1

Lacewing with aphids

Lacewing larva with aphids

This lacewing wasn’t shy about its role as a predator and went scurrying about the leaves in search of aphids to eat.  I saw it catch and eat one, though I was so fascinated that I forgot to take a photo.  Oops!  Just imagine that lacewing with a nice, fat aphid in its mouth as it sucked down the aphid juice.  They’re fantastic little predators!  If you’re a gardener, these insects should become your best friends.

Lacewing Larva No. 2

Lacewing with aphid husks

Lacewing with aphid husk attire

Unlike the lacewing No. 1, lacewing No. 2 apparently felt the need for a disguise. If you look carefully you’ll notice that all that junk up on its back is discarded aphid exoskeletons, aphid husks!  I wasn’t able to find one of them, but some of these lacewings were positively covered in aphid husks so that you would never even expect an insect to be tucked away in the pile.  I am not sure whether these eat the aphids and then throw the husks on their backs (a sort of less permanent prison tattoo indicating the number of inmates this lacewing has killed) or scoop them up off the leaves and chuck them up there.  Either way, this lacewing was meandering more slowly around the leaf as it sought an aphid to eat than the lacewing above.  It was really fun finding two lacewing species with two totally different personalities!

And finally…

Itsy, Bitsy Spider

Spider

This was one of the smallest spiders I’ve ever seen!  It’s smaller than the aphids, and MUCH smaller than my fingers (which look positively enormous in this shot!), but it seemed to be going after the aphids nonetheless.  I can’t tell you anything more about this spider except that it was darling.  Look how tiny it is!  Adorable.

Milkweed is positively crawling with insects!  Apart from the aphids and their predators, I also saw ants herding aphids, a variety of wasps that seemed to be attempting to parasitize the aphids, some predatory flies, and a bunch of true bugs that were eating the milkweed.  Who knew that milkweed was such a battleground where every insect is in a life and death struggle for survival?  If you have milkweed in your area, I encourage you to visit it.  You’re likely to see some really cool things!

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