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


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

The butterfly weed nearest the street — one big plant that’s been growing for a few years — is two shades of orange:

from above, a nearly round-shaped plant, dark orange flowers on the left, lighter orange flowers on the right

half dark orange, half light orange.

close-up view from the side, dark orange milkweed in focus in front, light orange out of focus in back

This particular plant (one of at least five butterfly weeds in our front yard) is constantly humming with busy honeybees.

closeup of a stem of dark orange with a honeybee on each side

closeup of a horizontal stem of light orange, with one honeybee on the left and two on the right

I thought about watching for five minutes for an unscientific study of which side the bees prefer. Over several days, I would keep coming back to this flower, and the result wasn’t consistent.

closeup of dark orange, with a honeybee in focus facing down on the left and an out-of-focus honeybee further back on the right

closeup of light orange, with a honeybee in focus facing up on the center-right and an out-of-focus honeybee above facing left

Other bees sometimes make an appearance, too. I don’t know what kind of bee this is.

longhorn bee facing away so the head isn't visible

And being butterfly weed, butterflies sometimes stop by, too. I think this is a type of hairstreak.

small brown butterfly with a small triangle of orange on the bottom of the hind wing and a bluish patch below that

This is the same butterfly weed plant that had six monarch eggs earlier this year.

After a big morning storm on June 11, which included plenty of hail, we spent a lot of time in the garden checking on the flowers and the caterpillars. Not many flowers were blooming yet, which may have worked in our favor: some common milkweed and cup plants had a few ripped leaves from the hail, but most looked just fine.

The monarch and American lady caterpillars were wet and recovering where they usually reside, and then we found something somewhat unexpected: five black swallowtail caterpillars.

It wasn’t completely unexpected because they were all on Golden Alexanders, which is a host plant, and I had been looking for them for a couple weeks. (I saw a butterfly on May 12, and a caterpillar last year, so I knew it was a possibility.) But I was quite surprised to find five!

large, mostly white caterpillar, with black and yellow stripes, along a flower stem with its mouth at the blossom

a little smaller, more yellow, resting on a leaf

two mostly yellow, spiky caterpillars in the flower blossom, eating

The fifth looked strange; maybe it had been hurt during the storm?

a caterpillar upside-down, possibly wedged between two flower stems

I kept checking for them after that day, and two were visible for more than a week. Here are photos from one evening:

a skinny, smooth, green caterpillar with black stripes that have yellow dots, along the bottom side of a half-eaten leaf

similarly sized caterpillar viewed from the front, holding a leaf in its front legs to eat it

Same caterpillar from the side, looking guilty (though of course that is just my funny interpretation):

still holding the leaf, but the patterns on its head make it look like the caterpillar is hiding behind its hands in embarrassment

This was the last night I saw any of these caterpillars. I don’t know enough about the life cycle of black swallowtail butterflies, yet, to know whether these caterpillars moved away to pupate, or whether they were more likely eaten by birds, wasps, or something else.

A little over a week ago, I saw a monarch lay an egg on the butterfly weed, so I kept checking on it.

closeup of one butterfly weed bud stem in the sun, with a white football-shaped egg pointed downward on the left side

Two days later I noticed two more eggs. The next day I noticed a fourth, and I was able to get them all in one photo.

large, full butterfly weed plant with two eggs visible in the front and two practically invisible in the middle

Of course, from this distance they’re nearly impossible to see, so I added arrows to show where they are. The orange arrow is the location of the original egg.

same photo, with three black arrows and one orange arrow pointing to tiny whitish spots

A zoomed-in version of the top two eggs:

a black arrow and an orange arrow pointing to white dots

And a zoomed-in version of the bottom two eggs:

black arrows pointing to two white dots

When I leaned in to get a closer look at one of them, I spotted a fifth egg in the crown of one of the stems.

an egg in focus on a cluster of buds, with blurry leaves in the foreground

Then I decided to check the other side of the plant, and I found a sixth egg.

egg on the top left corner of a group of lots of skinny green leaves

Six eggs on one plant. Wow!

I decided to raise two of the eggs (plus one from a common milkweed) inside — partly to simply observe, and partly for a reason I’ll explain in a future post. All three hatched early the same morning, but strangely, they’re growing at different rates.

three tiny monarch caterpillars, one much smaller than the others