Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Guest post 2: common milkweed buds and visitors

with 10 comments

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The last post showed flowers and beginning-to-open buds of Asclepias syriaca, known as common milkweed. Here’s an earlier stage, when the buds are still green. During the time I took pictures of these buds, some large black ants kept up their activity on them; what attracted the ants and what they were trying to accomplish, I don’t know.

This view, like the last, is from June 27 at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, Massachusetts.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 15, 2012 at 6:02 AM

10 Responses

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  1. Great shot, and now that I think about it, I don’t think I have ever seen ants on flowers before. Other bugs yes, but not ants. I wonder what they are up to?


    July 15, 2012 at 6:11 AM

    • I’ve noticed that ants on flowers often move quickly, so that if there’s just one ant you might miss it by happening to look when it’s on the opposite side of the flower or otherwise hidden by something. In this blog I’ve occasionally shown an ant or ants on a wildflower, including a silverpuff bud and a sunflower (to the ants’ detriment).

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 15, 2012 at 7:13 AM

      • Wow, that sunflower shot is amazing!! You’re right though – ants do usually move so fast that I have probably just missed them. 🙂


        July 15, 2012 at 8:13 AM

      • Thanks, Cindy. I felt fortunate to notice those two small ants entombed in the drop of resin. I could so easily not have noticed (and I assume there are plenty of good things that I have missed by inches or minutes). Here’s to future noticing for us both, for us all.

        Steve Schwartzman

        July 15, 2012 at 8:27 AM

  2. It’s so nice to see black ants again, as well as “my” milkweed. Black ants swarm over peony buds as well. It used to be said they help the buds to open – in fact, my grandmother used to say that. Actually, there’s a nectar on the buds the ants love. Once the flowers open, the ants disappear. I suspect the same is true with these milkweed buds.

    We may be looking at the ant version of “Life is short – eat dessert first!”


    July 15, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    • I think you’re probably right that the ants are behaving less altruistically than your grandmother made out, but it’s still possible they perform some service, liking attacking insects that would eat the milkweed and in so doing would cut short the supply of the nectar that the ants love. In my limited reading about such things, I’ve come across examples in which connections between two species have been beneficial to both, neutral to both, beneficial to one but neutral to the other, and beneficial to one but harmful to the other. I think there’s a name for each such relationship, but I’d rather go with your description: eat dessert first.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 15, 2012 at 7:29 AM

  3. I have both Asclepias tuberosa (
butterfly milkweed) and Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) growing throughout my garden. Each lures the Monarch and other butterflies. The butterfly milkweed is preferable, because it’s the Monarch’s number one choice to lay their eggs and then the larvae eats the leaves. Butterfly milkweed is harder to establish, whereas the common milkweed can become invasive. I’m always pulling volunteers. Still, both are important for the balance of things here in Delaware. Mine have flowered early (like everything else this summer), and I am hopeful that they’ll survive the lack of rain. Thanks for introducing your readers to an important native species. Oh and a side note: ants collect around my peony blossoms where they are drawn by the sweet-smelling nectar. Peonies can be covered in ants, which do not harm the plant. “Some” say ants help open the blossoms, but that it not the case. Just a response to the other comment, Sally


    July 15, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    • Thanks for the milkweed report from Delaware. You’ve confirmed how common the common milkweed is. We have the lovely Asclepias tuberosa in parts of Texas, and I’ve seen it growing wild one county to the east of Austin as well as closer to the coast. Like you, many people plant it here not only to attract butterflies but also because it’s so attractive in its own right.

      From what you say, it seems like the claim that ants help open blossoms is a widespread one. Even if it’s generally not true, I wonder if there are species for which it is.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 15, 2012 at 12:10 PM

  4. Usually the ants are attracted to aphids. I unfortunately find they are attracted to me too. When I get too close to the plant they end up on me and deliver a powerful bite!

    Bonnie Michelle

    July 16, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    • Maybe the ants think you’re threatening the aphids that they want. Sorry for your bites. So far that’s one inconvenience I’ve avoided. Fire ants, though, are something else; they’re a real nuisance here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 16, 2012 at 1:26 PM

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