It’s the last day of June, the milkweed flowers have recently begun to open, and the bees are starting to work them. Milkweed is abundant in Western Massachusetts, and can be found up and down the street where I live. I’m lucky to live in an old mill house along a river on a dead end street. There are no houses on the other side of the street so there is plenty of space for wild flowers and “weeds” of all types. Milkweed is also known as butterfly flower and silkweed. If you break the stem, it oozes a milky white stick sap. If you open a seed pod late in it’s stage of development you can see the long silky white hairs. Each is attached to a seed and is the means by which they are dispersed. According to American Honey Plants by Frank C. Pellet and published by Dadant, there are over 55 recognized species of milkweed in North America.
Information from Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal, and Joseph M. DiTomaso and published by Cornell University Press states that, “Most milkweed plants emerge from overwintering root buds. These are more robust than seedlings…seedlings do not flower the first year of growth.”
You can find milkweed growing in fields and along roadsides. It prefers well drained soil. Milkweed doesn’t just benefit honey bees. You’ll find a good variety of native bees and other insects partaking in it’s sweet nectar. The flowers are very fragrant and pleasant.
There is one “catch” to milkweed that I learned only after I started keeping bees. One day as I was observing honey bees collecting pollen on the milkweed in my yard, I noticed a bee going in circles on one of the flowers. I wondered why she would be doing that and after closer observation I realized that one of her legs was stuck in the flower. After doing some research, I learned that the pollen sacs of common milkweed have v shaped hooks which often snag the legs of insects that visit them. Some may lose a leg escaping while others can’t escape at all and die. I have found an occasional dead honey bees and other insect on milkweed flowers.
There is at least one other interesting fact about milkweed they you may already know. Milkweed is the only food source used by Monarch Butterfly larvae. The butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed and when the larvae hatch they feed exclusively on the milkweed. For more information about their life cycle as well as some great photos of monarch butterflies, check out this link. http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/#Life-Cycle