Hey, Gardener! Leave them bugs alone!

Pink Floyd

Do you remember the Pink Floyd song that included the line: “Hey! Teachers! Leave Them Kids Alone!”   Well, I do – since I am of an age when my friends were listening to Pink Floyd and other rock bands in the late seventies. This song and that famous line came to my mind this morning as I answered yet another question about aphids on milkweed plants. This was the third set of questions regarding milkweed and aphids that I have entertained in the last two weeks.

The exact question asked has been, “How do I remove the aphids from my milkweed plants? I am trying to support monarch butterflies.”  Okay. So, there are a couple of things to address in response to this.

What’s Your Line?

First, what qualifies me to answer such a question? My answer? Several things:

  1. I have purposely planted and grown milkweeds in my yard and several schoolyards for close to twenty years! During this time, I’ve learned a great deal from daily observations of the plants over each summer over the last twenty summers!
  2. My latest degree is in environmental education. Luckily, I was able to customize this degree with a number of electives that I found pertinent to my area of interest and expertise. So, any project that I could find to expand upon, expound upon, or tweak my knowledge on milkweed and monarch conservation, I did!  This resulted in a great increase in knowledge, resources, and my ability to share something for which I have passion.  In one of my last classes, I had to choose a book to read on the environment from a professor’s given list. Naturally, I chose Monarchs and Milkweeds (2017) by Dr. Agrawal from Cornell University. This is a great source of scientific information on the co-evolution of these two species.  He also addresses the ecological community of insects that live on milkweeds – referring to it as the”Milkweed Village.”  Guess who’s a part of the community? You got it! Aphids!
  3. I read voraciously – especially about monarchs and monarch habitat.  Milkweeds are essential components of that habitat, as we would not have Monarchs without this plant. But, common sense tells me other organisms might depend on or just like the milkweed plant, as well!  Right?!
  4. I am an educator. Educators educate, inform, entertain, inspire, and enthuse. Hopefully, I am doing each of those to my fullest capacity. In doing so, I try to retain my sense of humor all the while sticking to the facts and reading the latest research has shown. I hope I am a role model for some, and inspirational to others.

The answer, please?

Secondly, what was my answer? This is probably the reason you are reading this post in the first place!

My answer stayed the same in three different scenarios. The scenarios included: 1) internet inquiries on social media on a page on which I have participated and follow (Save Our Monarchs), 2) at a talk I gave last night on the topic of Citizen Science using Monarchs as an example, and 3) on social media via another friend’s referral (today).

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Here is a copy of what I posted regarding the internet question on Save our Monrachs’s  FB page on August 16th – the first inquiry of many I am seeing or hearing about aphids on milkweeds.

As far as the aphids go, I would leave them alone. They are part of the monarch/milkweed ecosystem and the natural process. Here is a link to something Monarch Joint Venture posted today: https://monarchjointventure.org/…/should-i-kill-insects…? Also, you can check out the following book by Cornell Monarch Researcher, Anurag Agrawal, who writes about the ecological community of insects (11) that live on milkweed, of which aphids are one in his book Monarchs and Milkweed (2017). I do not see any way to prevent them, either. You always have to bear in mind that if you do something to kill/prevent the bad insects or those you don’t want you also hard the good ones (the monarch larva). My milkweed is also covered with aphids now and has been at this time of year for decades….just part of the natural process. Good luck! Thanks for asking!”

It is the same thing I replied verbally last night at a public library session on Citizen Science, and today, on a friend’s concerned question on her personal FaceBook page. Although I did find a better reference to from Monarch Joint Venture, specifically on aphids. 

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What strikes me as remarkable is the lack of recognition of ecological communities.  As humans, we have different communities within which we live.  Some, we choose and some we do not. For example, you might choose your spiritual community – based on your religious beliefs. You choose the community (if you are able and fortunate) in which you live. You are part of educational communities if you are a student or a teacher. There are also communities to which we all belong based on our profession or interests or let’s face it – just being human puts us in a community – whether we like that or not!

Why does it not occur to people that there is more than one type of insect that lives on milkweed? In fact, there are a whole host of insects – or an ecological community – that survives on the milkweed plant. It is not there solely for the monarch! There are other species that depend upon the milkweed plant species for sustenance, too! Why wouldn’t there be? In fact, if you read the book I suggested above, you will be in for a huge surprise! The milkweed plant is not there to nourish the monarch larva; the plant actually evolved to kill the monarch lava (which are pests to the plant!). I kid you not!  But, guess what, monarchs evolved with milkweeds to co-exist. They did a genetic dance over the millennia allowing each species to adapt to the other. Now, they co-exist.

Just like the aphids are co-existing on the milkweed along with with the monarch eggs and larva, the tussock moth larva,  milkweed beetles, and more! Aphids suck fluids out of the milkweed leaves. They are not harming the caterpillars. Yes, they are competing for food, but all part of the same ecological community on the milkweed plants in our garden. In other words, they belong there – just as the monarch larva do. We really don’t have the right to comment or rid the plant of their presence.  So, I guess I am a naturalist – allowing species to live and let live.  I happen to think mother nature knows a great deal more than I. And, I also do not want to spend hours handpicking aphids off my milkweed leaves. I’ve got better things to do, such as plant more milkweed!

And, lest you think I am mocking those who asked what to do about the aphids on the milkweed plants, I most certainly am not. They asked! That, itself, is important! Thank you!

2 Thoughts

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