Milkweed bug bonanza

All it takes is a single (fertilized) female large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) to find a patch of milkweed plants, and a month later — you find a bonanza of developing nymphs cannabalizing the seed in the milkweed pods.

milkweed-bugs-feeding-

These are mostly older nymphs that will soon molt to adults.  Like grasshoppers, cicadas, all true bugs, cockroaches, and even dragonflies, milkweed bugs go through several nymphal stages in which they gradually get larger and develop adult features, such as the black wing pads.

milkweed-bug-nymph-development

Stages of nymphal development in the large milkweed bug (From Maggie’s Science Collection).  The bright orange and black coloration is a warning to predators that these insects are full of the same nasty chemicals that make milkweed sap distasteful and poisonous to most herbivores.

Females lay a clutch of 30 some eggs in a protected crevice in the developing milkweed pods, and the nymphs immediately begin feeding communally on those developing seeds.  She doesn’t stop with just one clutch of eggs, but will continue to lay a batch of eggs every few days, eventually producing 2-3000 of them.  No wonder there are so many nymphs on this stand of milkweed.

Like other true bugs (Hemiptera), milkweed bugs feed by inserting their slender proboscis into the plant, secreting saliva chock-full of digestive enzymes to turn plant proteins and carbohydrates into a nutrient-rich slurry, and then slurping back the digested mixture.

milkweed-bugs-feeding-

It looks too crowded to find a place to stick their slender proboscis down into the pod, but it is actually more efficient to have multiple bugs probing the same site, sharing their saliva, and creating a larger pool of digested seed nutrients.

large milkweed-bug-feeding-

This adult was moving its body up and down as it positioned the stylets in the proboscis to the appropriate depth to feed on the seed.  You can see the slender proboscis just between one of the antennae and the front leg.

large milkweed-bug-feeding-

Another view of the slender proboscis, compared to the much sturdier antennal structure.  Adults can feed on seeds and flowers of other plant species, but the nymphs are obligate milkweed feeders.

The large milkweed bugs I find in my backyard are probably dispersers from more southerly populations, perhaps from neighboring Iowa milkweed patches.  They arrive late in the summer just as the pods are developing, and may not stick around to reproduce here in the fall (since it would be a waste of effort and energy to have eggs and/or nymphs freeze), but will migrate again to more temperate southern areas.  Wherever there is an ample supply of milkweed seed, these bugs can continue to produce new generations year-round.  Those that carry that migratory gene will take off next summer and hopefully recolonize my milkweed patch next year.

8 thoughts on “Milkweed bug bonanza

  1. So, Sue. I notice you end your column with you hope they come back next year. Are these “good” bugs? I have them all over my milkweed!

    • They are not destructive except to milkweed seeds, and who needs even more milkweed growing than is already there? Besides they’re kind of pretty — for bugs!

  2. Beautiful! And how timely. Just yesterday I viewed an interview with Bob Sober on the Practicing Photographer (Lynda.com) that demonstrated his skill, enlarging ‘life-size’ images of a wide variety of insects. You might find it interesting too … Here’s a link, among others: http://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/artsandentertainment/artist-creates-buzz-with-super-close-up-photos-of-insects/article_48439964-e9fa-5842-a855-b1f2e9b71cac.html

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