Milkweed: It Makes an Insect Village

Planting milkweed in your garden aids not only monarchs but a whole slew of pollinators and other insects. See one illustrator's rendition.

  • By Laura Tangley // Art by Sarah Nelson
  • Habitat Gardening
  • Mar 28, 2024

FOR GARDENERS WHO WANT TO HELP POLLINATORS, planting milkweed to aid the declining monarch butterfly—whose larvae feed only on this host plant—has long been considered an absolute must. But many gardeners may not know that by planting milkweed, they are also supporting a wealth of other insect species, including pollinators—from bees, butterflies and moths to hoverflies, ants, beetles and true bugs. Like monarchs, some of these species are milkweed specialists that rely at least primarily on milkweed to survive.

Here we show just one of more than 70 milkweed species native to the United States—swamp milkweed—along with a handful of the insects this plant nurtures within its range across more than 40 states in the East, Midwest and West.

A milkweed plant can be a busy place. Like monarchs, queen butterflies drink nectar from the plant’s flowers and lay eggs on leaves that are gobbled up by their hungry caterpillars. Fuzzy larvae of the milkweed tussock moth also feed on leaves (while adults eat nothing because they lack working mouths). Roaming across more parts of the plant, milkweed bugs and beetles feast on leaves, stems, seed pods and even, in the case of red milkweed beetles, the plant’s roots when they live underground as larvae.

To sustain such diverse milkweed villages—and support the dwindling monarch butterfly—we need more milkweed planted in our gardens, city parks, farmlands and natural areas. But take care when selecting which milkweed to plant, cautions Mary Phillips, head of Native Plant Habitat Strategy & Certifications for the National Wildlife Federation. Always choose milkweed species that are native to your region, she says. “Depending on where you live, those plants will support different communities of specialist butterflies, moths and other insects, as well as a diversity of generalist pollinators.” To find out which milkweed species are native to your area, as well as the specific insects those plants support, check out the Federation’s zip code-based Native Plant Finder.

Laura Tangley is the senior editor of National Wildlife.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

In Full Bloom »
Pollinator gardens bring monarchs—and joy—to a Texas Town »
Blog: What the Listing of the Monarch Butterfly as Endangered Really Means »

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