Anurag Agrawal: Needing and eating the milkweed

AgrawalU.S. agriculture is based on ideas that make me scratch my head. We typically grow plants that are not native to North America, we grow them as annuals, and we usually only care about one product from the crop, like the tomatoes that give us ketchup and pizza.

And we don’t like weeds. Why would we? They take resources away from our crops, reduce yields more than insect pests or disease, they’re hard to get rid of, and they might give you a rash. But there are few plants more useful, easy to cultivate, and environmentally friendly than the milkweed. The milkweed takes its ill name from the sticky rubbery latex that oozes out when you break the leaves, it’s the monarch butterflies only food, and it is a native meadow plant. Milkweed has sometimes received a bad rep, and perhaps for good reason; they can be poisonous to livestock, they are hard to get rid of, and they do reduce crop yields. But what about milkweed as a crop?

AgrawalThomas Edison showed that milkweed’s milky latex could be used to make rubber. The oil pressed from the seed has industrial applications as a lubricant, and even value in the kitchen and as a skin balm. And as a specialty item, acclaimed for its hypoallergenic fibers, milkweed’s seed fluff that carries milkweed seeds in the wind, is being used to stuff pillows and blankets. Perhaps more surprising, the same fluff is highly absorbent of oils, and is now being sold in kits to clean up oil tanker spills. The fibers from milkweed stems make excellent rope and were used by Native Americans for centuries. More than two hundred years ago, the French were using American milkweed fibers Agrawalto make beautiful cloths, said to be more radiant and velvety than fine silk. And chemically, milkweeds were used medicinally by Native Americans since the dawn of civilization, with a potential for use in modern medicine.  This is a diverse plant with a lot to offer.  Why wouldn’t we cultivate this plant, not only for its stem fibers, seed oils, pillowy fluff, rubbery latex, and medicines, but also in support of the dwindling populations of monarch butterflies?

Ever since the four lowest years of monarch butterfly populations between 2012 and 2015, planting milkweeds for monarchs has been on the tips of a lot of tongues. For most insects that eat plants, however, their populations are not limited by the availability of leaves.  Instead, their predators typically keep them in check, or as in the case of monarchs, there may be constraints Agrawalduring other parts of their annual cycle. Monarchs travel through vast expanses from Mexico to Canada, tasting their way as they go. They tolerate poisons in the milkweed plant; indeed, they are dependent on milkweed as their only food source as a caterpillar. Nearly all mating, egg-laying, and milkweed-eating occurs in the United States and Canada. And each autumn monarchs travel to Mexico, some 3,000 miles, fueled only by water and flower nectar.

All parts of the monarch’s unfathomable annual migratory cycle should be observed and studied. My own research has suggested that habitat destruction in the U.S., lack of flower resources, and logging at the overwintering sites in central Mexico are all contributing to the decline of monarch butterflies. Lack of milkweed does not seem to be causing the decline of monarchs. Nonetheless, planting native milkweeds can only help the cause of conserving monarch butterflies, but it is not the only answer. And of course we humans need our corn and soy, and we love our broccoli and strawberries, so is cultivating milkweed really something to consider?

We humans, with our highly sensitive pallets, do the one thing that monarch butterflies don’t do. We cook. And the invention of cooking foods has been deemed one of the greatest advances in human evolution. Cooking certainly reduces the time spent chewing and digesting, and perhaps more importantly, cooking opens up much of the botanical world for human consumption, because heat can break down plant poisons.

AgrawalEuell Gibbons, the famed proponent of wild plant edibles in the 1970s, was a huge advocate of eating milkweed. The shoots of new stems of the eastern “common milkweed” are my personal favorite. I simply pull them up when they are about 6-8 inches tall and eat them like asparagus. Gibbons recommended pouring boiling water over the vegetables in a pot, then heating only to regain the boil, and pouring off the water before sautéing. You can pick several times and the shoots keep coming. With some preparation, the other parts of the milkweed plant can be eaten too, and enjoyed like spinach, broccoli, and okra.

At the end of summer, many insects have enjoyed the benefits of eating milkweed, especially the monarch butterfly. Any boost we could give to the monarch population may help use preserve it in perpetuity. But the real value in cultivating milkweed as a crop is that it has a lot to offer, from medicines to fibers to oils. It is native and perennial, and can be grown locally and abundantly.  Let’s give this weed a chance.

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.


Anurag Agrawal: Summer in the milkweed patch

AgrawalAnurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York. His latest book, Monarchs and Milkweed, is available now.

It’s peak season for milkweed and the village of insects that make milkweed its home.  In my book on Monarchs and Milkweed, I devote an entire chapter to these diverse and fascinating other milkweed insects.  Below are photos from two days last week (July 6 and 7th), one set from my front yard and the other from Shawangunk National Grassland Preserve, both in NY State. All but two of the 11 specialized milkweed herbivores was seen on these four species of milkweed. Do you know which two species are missing?

The butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa.  Likes it dry.
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, >90% of monarchs that make it to Mexico eat this as a caterpillar.
A. syriaca, mis-named because it was thought to be from Syria.
The purple milkweed, Asclepias purpurescens, rare in NY State, this spectacular individual was near the shawangunks.
Vegetative swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata.
Flowering swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, complete with the swamp milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis.
The poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, loves the partial shade. Note the nearly mature monarch.
The four-eyed milkweed longhorn beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus. Note the four functional eyes!
Like all chewing insects on milkweed, Tetraopes deactivates the latex by clipping the veins.
Drippy toxic gooey stuff.
A little egg laid upon a leaf.  Monarch inside.
The first day or a monarch’s life, it makes a latex-free island before starting to feed on the leaf tissue inside the circle.
A week later, the monarch has grown 2000 times its original size.  This caterpillar has parasitic wasps eating it from the inside out.
The only fly known to eat milkweed, a leaf miner, feeds between layers of the leaf (larva is hidden here): Liriomyza asclepiadis.
Euchaetes egle, the milkweed tussock moth, a misnomer since it’s in the woolly bear family, Arctiidae.  Egg clutches hatch into hundreds of caterpillars… note the foamy fluff that the egg mass was delivered in.  These turn into large hairy orange and black caterpillars. Hmmmmm…. same colors as adult monarch butterflies.
A dead bee, like so many that get stuck in milkweed’s flowers. Why do they get stuck?
A tourist, not a real herbivore of milkweed.
Adult of the milkweed leaf beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, here on common milkweed.
Larva of the milkweed leaf beetle, Labidomera clivicollis.  Larvae of this species are apparently polymorphic, with grey or orange coloration. Closely related to the Colorado Potato Beetle.
An adult of the elusive milkweed stem weevil, Rhyssomatus lineaticollis, chewing on apical leaves of common milkweed.
Sometimes they poke the stem, as here on the poke milkweed, A. exaltata. No egg inside this one.
Other times eggs are laid in a row in the stem.
A trenched stem with milkweed stem weevil, Rhyssomatus lineaticollis, eggs.
Inside the stem, larval feeding and frass of the milkweed stem weevil, Rhyssomatus lineaticollis.
The milkweed stem weevil, Rhyssomatus lineaticollis, also deactivates the latex.  All the chewing herbivores of milkweed do it… more or less the same way, but with there own special twist.
No seed pods yet, but the small milkweed bug, Lygaeus kalmii, feeds on last year’s seeds and sucks milkweed’s sap (not the latex!) … The large milkweed bug has not yet arrived to NY State… it apparently cannot overwinter in the frozen north.
Aphis asclepiadis, one of three aphids that eats milkweed.  This species is greenish to brown to grey, typically lives on top of the plant, and is nearly always tended by ants.
And the Oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, usually bright yellow-orange.  Here with a winged adult, just founding a colony in Ithaca, NY.

Anurag Agrawal: Monarchs vs. Milkweed

by Anurag Agrawal

Coevolution is a special kind of evolution. And monarchs and milkweeds exemplify this special process. In particular, what makes coevolution special is reciprocity. In other words, coevolution is one species that evolves in response to the other, and the other species evolves in response to the first. Thus, it is a back-and-forth that has the potential to spiral out of control. In some arms races, the two organisms both benefit, such as that between some pollinators and flowering plants. But coevolution is more common among antagonists, like predators and their prey.

When biologists first described coevolution, they likened it to an arms race. An arms race, such as that between political entities, occurs when two nations reciprocally increase their armament in response to each other. So how does an arms race between monarchs and milkweeds, or between cats and mice, or between lions and wildebeest, or between plants and their pathogenic fungi, proceed? When coevolution occurs, it proceeds with “defense” and “counter defense.” And one of the few rules of coevolution is that for every defense that a plant or prey mounts, the predator mounts a counter defense, or an exploitative strategy to overcome the defense.

Once a monarch butterfly lays an egg on a milkweed plant, the natural history of coevolution unfolds. For every defense that the plant mounts, milkweed mounts a counter defense. Once the caterpillar hatches, it must contend with a bed of dense hairs that are a barrier to consumption of the leaf. But monarchs are patient, and have coevolved with the milkweed. So their first strategy is to shave that bed of hairs such that the caterpillar has access to the leaves that lie beneath.


For every defense there’s a counter defense. But next, when the monarch caterpillar sinks its mandibles into the milkweed leaf, it encounters a sticky, poisonous liquid called latex. In this video we will see how the monarch caterpillar deactivates the latex bomb that the milkweed puts forward.

And so the arms race continues, with reciprocal natural selection resulting in coevolution between monarchs and milkweeds. In my book, Monarchs and Milkweed, I outline the third level of defense and counter defense between these two enemies. Milkweed next mounts a remarkable and highly toxic defense chemical called a cardiac glycoside. But, yes, again the Monarch has evolved the means to not only not be poisoned by the cardiac glycoside, but to sequester it away and put it to work in defense of the Monarch itself from its enemies, such as predatory birds. For more on the Monarch – Milkweed arms race see this video, filmed in Ithaca, New York outside of Cornell University where we conduct our research.

AgrawalAnurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.

Anurag Agrawal: The oldest butterflies?

by Anurag Agrawal

It’s unclear when humans became humans. Presumably it was a gradual growth of our consciousness over the eons. There are some things, however, that appear to distinguish us from most other animals. For example, our artistic depictions. From the deepest, darkest caves have emerged pictures of humanity from thousands of years ago. And in an Egyptian tomb, that of Nebamun, on a painting called “Fowling in the marshes” (from around 1350 BCE) comes one of the oldest human depictions of butterflies. It happens to be of the African Monarch, Danaus chrysippus, sometimes called the plain tiger, a close relative of our beloved North American Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.

I stumbled on this lovely scrap of history when a friend and colleague, Harry Greene, gifted me a book: Nabokov’s Butterflies (2000), a collection of unpublished and uncollected writings. Some explanation is in order. Harry is an extraordinary naturalist and big thinker in ecology and evolution. Like many senior scholars, his predicament was the lack of shelf-space in his office. And so I was the beneficiary of Nabokov’s Butterflies. Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American author, and noted entomologist, was most famous for his writings, for example, Lolita, and his celebrated translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. His ideas about biology were diverse, he was a passionate lepidopterist, and he often intermixed his literary writing and entomological excursions. Lolita is said to have been written primarily on butterfly collecting trips in the American west. Nonetheless, Nabokov also clung on to other ideas that held little merit in the scientific sphere. Most prominently, Nabokov rejected evolution by natural selection as a driver of certain organismal traits that he deemed ‘coincidental, miraculous, or too luxurious.’


Nabokov was a professor at my own Cornell University in the decade following WWII. Although he taught literature and had well-known students at Cornell (including U.S. supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg), his entomological interests continued. In fact, after he retired from Cornell in the mid-1960s, Nabokov had sketched out an outline of a book: The Butterflies of Europe. And although the book never came to be, the outline was recapitulated in Nabokov’s Butterflies. Flipping through the book, I stumbled on his entry for Danaus in which he wrote, “This butterfly has the distinction of being the oldest known to have been represented by man. Seven specimens of it (with typical white-dotted Danaus body but somewhat Vanessa cardui like wingtips) are shown flitting over the papyrus swamp…” (page 603).

I later asked another friend, Harvard’s Lepidopterist, Naomi Pierce: did Nabokov have it right? On the money, she independently pointed to the similarity of Danaus chrysippus and the painted lady, Vanessa cardui, wondering if the butterflies on this three thousand year old tomb painting were Danaus or Vanessa. She concluded, as did Nabokov, that the African Monarch ruled. Detailed assessment of the color patterns on the wings were informative to both entomologists. The oldest human depiction of a butterfly? Perhaps not. Naomi mentioned some evidence of butterflies in Minoan artifacts from Crete, a thousand years earlier than Nebamun, and likely in Pyrenees cave paintings, some 10-30 thousand years earlier!

Of course, there is nothing special about being the oldest depiction of a butterfly by Homo sapiens. But suffice it to say, butterflies, metamorphosis, wing patterning, and the beauty of nature have been on our minds for a very long time. Thanks Harry and Naomi! And thanks Nabokov. Who knows what becomes of those side hobbies and obsessions we all hold.


AgrawalAnurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.

Anurag Agrawal: The migration patterns of the monarch butterfly

by Anurag Agrawal

The plight of monarch butterflies if often in the news: many scientists around the world are working hard to understand their annual migratory cycle. How do the monarchs produced during summer in the northern reaches of America contribute to the overwintering population in Mexico? The origin of monarch butterflies that make it to Mexico has been hotly debated because it has profound consequences for how we approach monarch conservation.

A new study is remarkable in its use of historical collections over the past 40 years and modern isotopic analysis. The scientists address the most important regions in the U.S. for producing monarch butterflies that actually make it to Mexico. This sort of data has been very difficult to come by and there has been a lot of speculation. As outlined in my new book from Princeton, the midwest has dominated discussions as being the most important region in the U.S. for monarchs. In the study, the authors find that the Midwest contributes a whopping 38% of the butterflies that make it to Mexico.


The regions studied by Flockhart et al. separated to highlight their relative areas

I would add two points for discussion. The first is that the areas of land that the authors designated as Midwest, Northeast, etc., seemed totally reasonable, but also somewhat arbitrary. In particular, an issue arises when you consider that, as designated in the paper, the Midwest is about 2.5 times as big as the Northeast. It is therefore not surprising that the Midwest produces about 2.5 times as many butterflies that make it to Mexico (38% vs 15%). In other words, the butterflies that make it to Mexico have about an equal probability of coming from the Midwest and the Northeast when land area is considered. Yet another way to think about this is that two states that are about equal sizes in the two regions (for example, Indiana and Maine) will on average produce about the same number of butterflies that make it to Mexico.


The annual migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly from Monarchs and Milkweed. In my past research, we have opted for a three simple regions defined by the butterfly generations.

Quite interestingly, the North Central area (including my home in the Finger Lakes region of NY) is slightly more important for butterfly production given its size. When you factor out the area of the Great Lakes (where there are no monarch caterpillars), the area of North Central is small (36% of the size of the Midwest). Thus, about 20% more butterflies per square mile come out of the North Central than the Midwest or Northeast. Where does this leave us?  The agricultural Midwest is certainly important, but perhaps not as important as previously thought.

The other point worth thinking about is that the Southwest (read: Texas) comes out as big in terms of area (equal to the Midwest) and relatively less important in terms of contributing butterflies (11% of the total).  The critical importance of the Gulf States including Texas, however, is not in the last generation of butterflies produced in fall that migrate south, but rather in the first generation of butterflies that are produced in spring and that migrate north to the Midwest and Northeast.  In other words, the Gulf States are absolutely critical for the annual migratory cycle, even if that is not where fall migrants are produced.  Without a spring generation there, the Midwest and Northeast would be empty!  In chapter 9 of the book, I summarize the critical importance of Gulf States not only for the spring, but also in providing floral resources for fall migrating butterflies.

I hope we see more studies like this in the future, as it provides new important information and was inspiring to read.

AgrawalAnurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.

Anurag Agrawal on Monarchs and Milkweed

AgrawalMonarch butterflies are one of nature’s most recognizable creatures, known for their bright colors and epic annual migration from the United States and Canada to Mexico. Yet there is much more to the monarch than its distinctive presence and mythic journeying. In Monarchs and Milkweed, Anurag Agrawal presents a vivid investigation into how the monarch butterfly has evolved closely alongside the milkweed—a toxic plant named for the sticky white substance emitted when its leaves are damaged—and how this inextricable and intimate relationship has been like an arms race over the millennia, a battle of exploitation and defense between two fascinating species. Check the PUP blog each Monday for new installments in our “Monarch Monday” blog series by Anurag Agrawal.

What makes monarchs and milkweeds so special?

AA: Monarchs and milkweed are remarkable creatures, they’re on a wild ride! From the monarch’s perspective, its only food as a caterpillar is the milkweed plant. This makes them highly specialized, highly evolved, and very picky eaters indeed. They’re actually not that unique among butterflies, but they are extreme. Milkweed does everything in its power to defend itself against being eaten by monarchs. They make sandpapery leaves, toxins that can stop a human heart, and a thick poisonous goo that can glue an insect’s mouth shut. Again, although milkweed is not unique among plants, it is extreme. In what is called a coevolutionary arms race, monarchs and milkweed have been continually evolving over the eons to keep up with each other. As such, they have a lot to teach us about the way nature works, the way plants and animals interact, and about the various paths that evolution can take different species. And this is all to say nothing of the monarch’s spectacular annual migration, often over 3,000 miles flown by individual butterflies, using the sun to navigate, and having stored away milkweed’s poisons to protect themselves from being eaten by birds. Monarchs and milkweeds are royal representatives of all interacting species.

Why did you write this book?

AA: After studying monarchs and milkweed myself for over 15 years, I felt like I had a lot I wanted to share, especially with non-scientists and nature lovers. Monarchs and milkweed are such fascinating organisms, and yet so much of their beautiful biology is not widely known. I also wrote the book because there are areas of my own knowledge about monarchs and milkweed that I wanted to immerse myself in, but that I had not yet done any research on. So as an author, getting to visit the overwintering sites in Mexico, to study the population decline of monarch butterflies, and to understand their mating rituals were all fascinating detours from my everyday research life at Cornell University. The book was incredibly fun to write, and getting to work with artists and historians made it all the more rich. I hope that anybody that has an appreciation for nature, an interest in science, or just a curiosity about the ecology of plants and butterflies will enjoy this book. Working on this project has surely altered the course of my own research, the classes I teach, and how I see the natural world.

Why have you highlighted some of the personalities of the scientists studying monarchs and milkweeds in this book?

AA: One of the most amazing things about monarchs and milkweeds is the scientists who have studied them. They were such remarkable characters, especially those pioneering studies back in the 1950s: tremendously creative, sometimes competitive, and with some of their discoveries worthy of a Nobel prize. Getting to know them, both from their discoveries and their personalities, and how they interacted, has enriched my appreciation for how science is done. It also highlights the meandering and sometimes serendipitous nature of discoveries. I wanted to share the thrill of science, its ups and downs, and the process by which it is done with the curious reader.

Can you share one of your ah-ha! moments from studying monarchs and milkweeds?

AA: One of my favorites was from when I was an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. One day I was eating lunch by myself in a small downtown garden. Just by chance, I happened to sit on a bench beneath a very tall milkweed plant that had a very large monarch caterpillar feeding away. Without giving away all the details, that one hour encounter, in the middle of a city with 3 million people, changed my perspective on monarchs and milkweed forever. It was so unlikely an event, perhaps 1 in a 1,000 that a butterfly had been flying by and happened to lay an egg on this Toronto milkweed, and then a further 1 in 100 chance of that egg hatching and surviving to be that large caterpillar that I could watch it. And probably a 1 in a million event that I would happen to be eating lunch there, that day, to observe the events. In biology one has to work hard, be patient, and occasionally get very lucky! Throughout my studies on monarchs and milkweed, I have had tremendous luck in encountering wonderful biology that has had profound consequences.

Is the monarch butterfly going extinct?

AA: The answer to this very important and timely question is both simple and complex. On the simple side, there is no way the monarch butterfly is going extinct anytime soon. Having said that, the butterfly, and especially the long-distance migration that occurs every fall from Southern Canada and the USA, all the way to Mexico’s highlands in Michoacán, is indeed declining at a rapid pace, and we should all be worried about the sustainability of the annual migration. There’s so much information and misinformation floating around in the news these days about the causes of the monarchs decline. What I’ve tried to do in the book is outline the best knowledge that we have to date and to examine the facts critically, so we can really understand what might be going on. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the answers, but we can reject some of the most prominent explanations for the population decline of the monarch butterfly. As I argue in the book, planting milkweed certainly won’t hurt, but it is unlikely to save the monarchs annual migratory cycle. It is perhaps ironic that I spend eight chapters of the book discussing and detailing the importance of milkweed for monarchs, and nothing could be more true than their intertwined and intense evolutionary battle, but at this stage, and thinking about their conservation, it does not appear that milkweed is what is limiting the monarch’s population. Monarchs will persist for a very long time, but given that they are migratory butterflies that taste their way across North America, their declining population is something we must try to understand. Much more than the monarch is at stake, these butterflies are sentinels for the health of our continent!

Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York. He is the author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution.