Milkweed is such an important plant. Its leaves are the only thing monarch caterpillars will eat, and its flowers attract all kinds of pollinators. So it’s exciting to see several kinds of milkweeds taking off in my yard this year.

The whorled milkweed is the big winner. For several years I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t grow, even though I bought six-packs of plugs in two different years. And then we put up a rabbit fence, which has made all the difference. There are so many individual plants now that I lose track when counting.

I could tell, right when it first started coming up, that there would be more this year — notice the old stems next to the new shoots.

Closeup of several small green plants next to three tall brown stems.

Now it seems like there are more and more whorled stems every day.

Dozens of plants with narrow leaves, in varying heights.

Poke milkweed is such a fun variety. This year it nearly quadrupled.

Three brown stems, each with multiple one-inch plants nearby.
Bright-green hairless plant with large leaves and many green bud clusters.

Swamp milkweed doubled…

Two old stems in the background, four short new shoots in front.

…and it’s looking really good.

Three tall green plants with wet leaves. The fourth plant is not visible.

The common milkweed always shows up by the dozens, so I can’t honestly say that there are more than ever. But there are a lot, and that is good enough.

The edge of a garden, with a half dozen one-foot milkweeds in front of other types of native plants.

The prairie milkweed has never done much, but the two plants are back, so I’m happy.

One milkweed plant with leaves standing nearly straight up.

So far, I’ve seen less butterfly weed than before. But it is always a late bloomer compared to the others, so maybe there’s still time for more to pop up.

Four short, light-green, hairy plants.

Added together, there are hundreds of milkweeds in the front and back garden, which makes for great habitat for monarchs.

Now it’s caterpillar season. My garden has been fortunate to host possibly two dozen (or more) from this first generation of 2019. Even the whorled milkweed, with its skinny leaves, has four residents.

Spring is right around the corner, so I’d better quickly document what happened in the garden last year.

The jack-in-the-pulpit is becoming established! Many are growing now:

3 jack-in-the-pulpits blooming.

Whorled milkweed wasn’t new to my garden this year, but it really took off after we put up chicken-wire fence to keep out the snacking rabbits. A few of the dozens of plants even bloomed!

Blurry image of small white flowers.

The teeny-tiny whorled milkweed flowers turned into teeny-tiny seedpods:

A hand holding 3 long, thin pods that are starting to open.

Similarly, poke milkweed isn’t new, but this was the first year it flowered. Such interesting, claw-like blooms! This flower didn’t produce any seeds.

Closeup of a cluster of white flowers that hang down.

Common milkweed covered in ants (this was the only time I saw this behavior, and it was only on this one flower cluster):

Cluster of pink flowers with dozens of tiny ants.

A candy-stripe spider with its prey, a Japanese beetle, in a shelter created from a milkweed leaf:

View through the end of a curved leaf, with an upside-down spider in front of an upside-down beetle.

Our two-toned butterfly weed changed this year, due to street maintenance that dug a big hole in the front yard. When the soil was returned, the plant came back, but rotated! Previously, the dark orange half was on the left, and the light orange half was on the right.

One plant with orange flowers, light on the top and dark on the bottom.

I didn’t know that native false indigo is a shrub until I added one to my yard in 2017. The plant is several feet across and has woody stems. One flower spike appeared in 2018:

Zoomed in on a dark-purple spike of flowers.

This tiger lily was a surprise. I didn’t even know the plant was there until it looked like this. I must have planted bulbs, but that would have been years ago.

One bright-orange flower in the middle of tall green plants.

New critters

Long-horned bees sleeping under a black-eyed susan:

4 black bees with thin white stripes, hanging upside-down on the underside of orange petals.

This little hitchhiker ended up on my capris after I strolled through the garden one evening. I decided to upload it to iNaturalist to see if anyone could help identify it — and I didn’t even have to wait for a live person because iNaturalist automagically suggested a name, genista broom moth. Sure enough, a host plant is baptisia, which I would have passed on my walk through the flowers.

A long, thin greenish-yellow caterpillar. It has hairs sticking out of black-and-white spots along both sides of the length of its body.

That was the only one I saw for awhile, but soon there were dozens, spinning webs and eating the leaves and, well, pooping a lot, as caterpillars do.

Caterpillar on a chewed leaf that is tied to two other leaves with dozens of thin silk strands.

Later I found these two cocoons — one on the plant (I accidentally snapped off this leaf but then carefully tucked it back in) and one in a towel that was drying after wiping condensation from car windows. Not sure if either is from these caterpillars.

It took awhile to find what was eating the joe-pye weed leaves, since the culprit blends in so well. It’s a plume moth caterpillar, and the joe-pye weed bloomed just fine despite the holey leaves.

Small, light-green caterpillar resting on a leaf, with a larger leaf nearby with many large holes.

“Yellow woolly bear” caterpillar, larva of the Virginia tiger moth:

A short caterpillar with segments that look like bubbles, and lots of hairs that look sharp.

We’ve had goldenrods for a few years, but this was the first time I noticed a gall where an insect, cleverly named a goldenrod gall fly, created shelter. There were about a dozen of these in our garden:

Closeup of a large, green globe shape growing out of a stem, with small leaves growing out the top.

A well-camouflaged leafhopper:

A semicircle shape on the stem of a hyssop plant. Its body appears to have veins like a leaf.

A beautiful wasp:

A black insect with a long, thin body hanging below a goldenrod.

A red-belted bumble bee (Bombus rufocinctus):

A been on a joe-pye weed bloom, facing away from the camera, with bright-orange bottom segments.

A tiny snail:

A black body poking out of a small, round brown shell.

A spider camped out on the poke milkweed:

A large brown spider with white bands on its legs, appearing to hover in front of a milkweed plant.

A hummingbird moth:

A large insect at the edge of a monarda blossom.

But wait — did you notice something else in that photo? The hummingbird moth had been caught by an ambush bug:

Same image as the previous one, but with most blurred to focus on a round, flat, green insect with a brown stripe, at the top of the hummingbird moth.

And this surprise, sitting at my eye level on a joe-pye weed leaf, not acknowledging my existence but letting me take its photo:

Side view of a green-and-gray frog.

Previous garden recaps

On July 13 in the mass of black-eyed susans, I spotted more than a dozen different kinds of insects. The coolest was this one, which I believe is a camouflaged looper inchworm. Its destiny was to turn into a wavy-lined emerald moth.

Black-eyed susan with a small caterpillar at the top of the center disk, with lots of dark brown spikes sticking off its body.

This caterpillar chews off parts of plants and then attaches them to itself as a disguise.

Flower from above, with a caterpillar looped on the left side and several brown clumps attached to its body.

It was concealed so well against the flower’s dark-brown center disk, I’m not sure how I even spotted it at first!

Angled view of a flower, with a small brown clump on the opposite side of the center disk.

Though after I saw it once, I could easily find it again later the same day, and even the next day. (The accumulating quantity of frass also helped locate it.)

Caterpillar with its front end raised above the center disk.

Making its way around the ring of tiny flowers in the center disk of the black-eyed susan:

Side view of the flower, with a caterpillar on the right side, the back half of the center disk's flowers missing.

Almost finished the next day:

Side view again, caterpillar on the left side, no center disk flowers visible, but the caterpillar still appears to be eating.

I saw it crawling around a bit but unfortunately didn’t get to see any of the actual “gluing.”

Watch video on YouTube

Two more videos:

I kept checking back for this inchworm every day for a week and saw it many more times.

Top view of the flower, with the inchworm 'inched' at the top.

Top view showing two thick layers of camouflage:

Only the very top of the caterpillar showing, with two distinct ridges of material on its body.

Sometimes it was resting on a petal, and in these cases it looked nothing like a caterpillar.

Black-eyed susan with a small brown clump on one of the petals on the right, lots of frass around the center disk.

Once I thought it was gone, but then found it again on a nearby flower. This time it looked different after it apparently re-covered itself with new material.

Flower in shade apparently underneath another flower, with the caterpillar 'inched' and some lighter brown or yellow material on its body in addition to the dark brown.

And this time I saw it eating the petals, too.

Caterpillar on a petal that's curving down, reaching out to the edge.

But after that, I didn’t see it anymore. Hopefully it made its way safely to its next stage as a cocoon.

More about camouflaged looper inchworms:

On August 15 I found something in our box elder tree that is definitely not a box elder bug.

black insect perched on a leaf, with a slender abdomen longer than its body protruding from the back and curved under

A quick Google image search (“mn fly with scorpion tail”) identified it as a wasp, American Pelecinid, that looks intimidating but doesn’t have a stinger. It uses its long abdomen to dig into the ground until it finds the grub of a June beetle, and there it lays an egg that will feed on the grub.

It would be nice if it would look for Japanese beetle grubs, too.

Two weeks later, at a seed collection event, one of these insects landed on another volunteer. No one else knew anything about it, and I was so excited to share what I know about this wasp, including that it’s harmless. However, I couldn’t remember its name, and so I looked it up on my Instagram feed.

In my excitement to share, I called it a PELICAN-id wasp. It wasn’t until about five minutes later that I realized it’s probably pronounced “pell-i-SIN-id” instead. (And yes, according to a Google search, that second version is true.) I was embarrassed the rest of the event, and I don’t think I’ll forget the name again.

More about pelecinid wasps

I could watch bees crawl in and out of turtlehead flowers all day. Mostly it’s just bumblebees and honeybees that do this, because they’re big enough to open the flowers. And I see more bumblebees than honeybees here.

bumblebee that is almost all the way out of a dark-pink flower, viewing almost straight into the flower's opening

They force their way into the “mouth” of the “turtle” and rustle around inside for quite awhile, then exit and find another flower to repeat the process.

Video of a bumblebee from a few years ago:

Sometimes they need to stop and regroup after they exit, brushing the pollen off their antennae or eyes, I assume.

bumblebee with a small yellow pollen basket, holding on to a light-pink flower with a leg up near its eyes, viewed from the side

This flower has a honeybee inside, barely visible.

looking straight into the 'mouth' of a dark-pink flower, the bee is not distinguishable but the back of the flower is dark

This year, at first, I thought I had noticed a difference – bumblebees climb out backwards, while honeybees turn around and climb out face-first – but then I saw a bumblebee turn around, too. (And the video above shows a bumblebee that turns around, so I had seen that before.) In fact, I don’t seem to have any photos of bumblebees backing out. So much for that theory.

just the head of a bumblebee emerging from a light-pink flower

same bee a fraction of a second later, with its front two legs and its body visible to the thorax

This one is my favorite: looks like it was quite the effort to squeeze out of this blossom.

three light-pink blossoms, with a honeybee emerging from the lower right flower horizontally and tilted, looks like it's pulling itself out with its front two legs

Only a little hint of the insect inside.

one bumblebee leg sticking out of a light-pink blossom

Black-eyed susans that are opening look like they’re sleepy and having a hard time waking up.

bright yellow flower just starting to open, the petals somewhat swirled to the right, in bright sunlight

My hair is a bit wild in the morning, too.

another flower farther along, the petals on the left sticking straight up, and the petals on the right starting to fall into place

One last stretch, and then this one will be ready.

closeup on a nearly-open flower with 13 petals flat, while 2 on the left and 5 in the back are sticking up, with several other flowers blurred in the background

At the end of the day, this one looks like it’s ready for sleep.

stem hanging down with a reddish rudbeckia just starting to unfurl

All tucked in for the night. This doesn’t look comfy to me, but what do I know? I’m not a bee.

completely open flower that is just starting to fade, with a long-horned bee holding onto the top of a petal with two legs while its body hangs underneath

If I were giving out an award for the most social flower of the year, black-eyed susan would win. One fun day, I spent the morning checking and rechecking on them, noticing and admiring the diversity of insects that were attracted to the blossoms. About two-thirds of these photos are from that one day alone.

Bees:

likely a bumblebee on the right side of the center disk, facing downward

metallic green been in the same position

unidentified smaller bee on the left of the center disk, curled and facing downward

possibly a megachile, on top of the center disk, with legs full of orange pollen

Flies:

really big fly with hairs, possibly a tachinid, on top of the center disk

long-legged fly standing out on one of the petals

Flies that look like bees:

bee mimic with a wide abdomen

much smaller bee mimic, or hoverfly, hovering to the left of the center disk

Butterflies:

tattered monarch sitting on the right side of the flower

Eastern tiger swallowtail with wings outstretched, tilted toward the camera, on the right side of the flower

Bees and butterflies:

gray butterfly, possibly a hairstreak, on the left side, and a long-horned bee on the right, their antennae crossing in the middle

Lacewing:

sitting on a petal in the front of the picture, facing downward

Aphids:

a blurred stem with two large red aphids and several smaller red aphids, in front of a black-eyed susan

Beetle:

beetle perpendicular to a tall center disk, with a dark red body and wing shells that blend in with the flower disk

Japanese beetle doing the splits:

beetle on the petals facing up

Leafhopper:

small green insect tucked into the fold where the petal meets the flower's center

I don’t know what this is:

patterned brown insect with long antennae, climbing up a tall center disk

Inchworm:

skinny green caterpillar holding onto a petal with its head hidden behind the center disk

And my favorite find, a camouflaged looper inchworm:

curved brown caterpillar hanging off the right side of the center disk

(More about this camouflaged looper caterpillar.)

There was also this gruesome find — one dead bee on a petal, with two dead bees and one dead fly suspended below — but then again, a spider’s gotta eat, too. (I assume that’s what created this scene.)

tall image of a flower with four dead insects, three hanging below the flower but no visible spiderwebs

I thought that the Japanese beetle outbreak wasn’t so bad this year (compared to previous years).

one Japanese beetle facing the camera on common milkweed, as if posing

I was wrong.

one beetle climbing downward on fleabane

They started out slowly, with just one or two showing up seemingly randomly on basically every kind of plant in the yard — no surprise, since there is a list of about 300 plants that they like. But then they found the grapevine

about a dozen beetles on two grapevine leaves, not much damage yet

and the purple giant hyssop

dozens of hyssop stems, the closest two each with many beetles

and on both of those plants, they really cluster.

two dozen beetles on one grapevine leaf, with holes chewed in about half

Japanese beetles are an invasive species that arrived on the east coast of the United States just over 100 years ago, and they’ve been moving westward ever since.

beetle climbing off a pearly everlasting bud onto the leaf

They are considered a major agricultural pest, destroying turf grass (which, sorry, I don’t care for anyway) and defoliating shrubs and trees.

beetle upright in the cone of a black-eyed susan

They’re actually quite attractive bugs, with their metallic coloring…

beetle in the center of an unopened purple coneflower

and maybe they’re even a little cute, with their “eyelashes.”

beetle clutching pearly everlasting leaves, with its antennae clearly visible

My current method of control is to walk around the garden with a small container of soapy water and to knock the beetles into the container, where they drown. This is mostly but not completely effective because some will fly away, and it is even a little bit fun (but only because it’s an invasive species) as long as the beetles don’t end up in my hair, which happens at least once a night. I sometimes find them there hours later, which is rarely a happy event.

clear-plastic container with several dead Japanese beetles floating in clear water, viewed from above

With the large size of my garden, this collecting activity leads to some pretty full, and pretty yucky, containers.

similar container with several layers dead Japanese beetles floating in dark, murky water, viewed from the side

These ones were pretty smart in picking a super-sharp thistle, where I’m not about to go after them.

four beetles deep in the heart of a thistle

I have heard from a couple of in-person and Instagram friends that chickens love these beetles, but unfortunately I do not have access to chickens. And Japanese beetles don’t have enough natural predators to really control their numbers in Minnesota — though I did catch this interesting altercation between a candy-stripe spider and a Japanese beetle on a common milkweed plant last year. The beetle put up a really good fight, but the spider eventually won.

first of a series of five photos of a white spider with a pink spot on its abdomen, pulling a beetle down off a leaf and wrapping it up

The end of a Japanese beetle at the hands of a candy-stripe spider, the same night — possibly the same pair, though on a joe-pye weed 10 feet away:

candy-stripe spider with a dead Japanese beetle on a joe-pye weed that is partially folded over, connected at the top by a spiderweb

Every summer when the common milkweed is in full bloom, I find insects trapped in its blossoms. They can’t get their legs out because they’re caught in a slit in the flower or on a bundle of pollen called pollinia.

honeybee that appears to be visiting but is stuck on the underside of a cluster

I sometimes see honeybees struggling, like this one from two years ago…

honeybee, out of focus at the bottom of a cluster, hanging by one of its back legs

…and then if they fight enough, they’re often able to get away. I’ve even seen honeybees get stuck, struggle, free themselves, and then immediately get stuck again on another flower.

same honeybee has righted itself, and its wings are beating so fast they look like a blurred circle

But sometimes, they aren’t able to get free. I assume this one struggled so much that it got turned around and found itself in a cage. When I find them, I help them escape. It may be interfering with nature, but I can’t sit by and watch them suffer.

honeybee inside a blossom, viewed from underneath, and the individual flower stalks look like a cage

For the insects that can’t escape, if I don’t find in time, that’s how their story ends. I’ve found many dead insects with their legs stuck in the flowers.

honeybee stuck at the bottom of a cluster

Honeybees, flies, and moths are the only insects I’ve found trapped; bumblebees and other bees, as well as butterflies, apparently are strong enough that this isn’t an issue.

fly with its front two legs trapped in one flower and at least one back leg trapped in another

I found these two moths about two feet apart one morning.

small white moths with a bit of brown stripes, one with its wings open and the other with wings straight behind

The one on the left even lost a leg in the ordeal; you can see it in the first picture too.

facing straight into a blossom, with a white insect leg bent in one of the flowers

Learn more about this phenomenon

I think the title pretty much says it all.

Painted lady:

side view of butterfly facing right underneath a pale-pink cluster, nearly blending in with the flower color

Eastern tiger swallowtail:

facing left under a flower cluster, wings partly open, back wing only partly visible
Red admiral with wings closed:

side view of butterfly facing left, hanging off the bottom right side of the flower cluster

Same butterfly with wings open:

same position, with the wing on the right visible and the wing on the left straight on with the camera

Comma butterfly — wings closed, with the white C / backwards comma visible:

mottled brown butterfly with a small white c, facing up to the right under the flower

Same butterfly with wings open:

wings flat, top wings hanging below the blossom, antennae in an upside-down V

Mourning cloak (taken from the “wrong” side of the sunlight, so it’s in shadow):

facing left underneath a flower cluster, antennae to the left, proboscis in a flower

Monarch:

butterfly hanging underneath a blossom, facing right, taken from far away, showing a lot of the plant

And though this one isn’t a butterfly yet, it will be one day, and it’s my favorite photo of the year so far, so I’m including it in this set. Monarch caterpillar in common milkweed:

nearly round blossom, a few flowers moved from the left front to show a caterpillar with its head at the bottom left and its end up near the middle