Sunday, November 23, 2014

Food Chain in the Milkweed Patch



Common milkweed. © Beatriz Moisset
The common milkweed teems with life. Numerous insects feed on leaves, stems, and roots or sip nectar from their flowers. It is ironic that a plant so well protected by powerful toxins and sticky sap behaves like a magnet for a large assortment of creatures. The best known dependent of the common milkweed is the monarch butterfly, but there are many others that deserve our interest. Many species have found ways to overcome the defenses of this plant. They have developed resistance against the toxic cardenolides and methods to avoid the milky sap.

The herbivores are in turn eaten by other insects or spiders, which may fall prey to still other carnivores. It is worthwhile to examine one of these so called food chains or food webs.

Oleander aphids on common milkweed. © Beatriz Moisset
One milkweed feeder, the oleander aphid, has become incredibly common in recent years. This bright yellow-orange aphid was accidentally introduced in this country with oleander plants, widely used in ornamental gardening. It established itself successfully and became adapted to milkweeds. It multiplies in huge numbers near the end of the season. It can do so because females reproduce parthenogenetically, that is without help from males.

Parasitized or mummified aphids. One wasp left the corpse through a round hole. © Beatriz Moisset
This aphid has few enemies. One of them is a tiny parasitic wasp. The mother wasp lays one egg inside a growing aphid and the larva completes its entire life cycle inside the unfortunate host. By the end of the aphid's life, it becomes dark, rounded and dried up. We call that a mummy. The fully grown wasp cuts out a round hole and emerges ready to start parasitizing other members of the aphid colony. It isn't easy to see the wasps, but almost every aphid colony has some of these mummified bodies. So you know that the parasitic wasps have been around.

Parasitic wasp. © Beatriz Moisset

Lacewings, lady beetles and syrphid flies also feed on aphids. Their stories are worth telling but we'll let them be for now.

The food web does not end there. Not surprisingly, many predators visit the milkweed patch in search of animal food. Parasitic wasps seem to be a delicacy among some flies. I have found members of two different families of predatory flies dining on the wasps.

Robber fly (Taracticus octopunctatus) feeding on a parasitic wasp. © Beatriz Moisset
One is a member of the family of robber flies, Asilidae. The name describes the members of this family well. They are seen pouncing mercilessly on their prey. One of them is Taracticus octopunctatus (no common name), a slender, hunchbacked fly with large eyes.
Long-legged fly feeding on a parasitic wasp. © Beatriz Moisset
Another one is a longlegged fly, Condylostylus, a shiny metallic green fellow, with long skinny legs. Parasitic wasps are part of its menu.

I marvel about this food preference. Evidently, these flies look down on the most abundant food nearby, the aphids, and go for the far less common parasites. Perhaps, the latter have less cardenolides than the aphids and this is why the predatory flies prefer them as food.

Longlegged fly caught by a spider. © Beatriz Moisset
A second layer of predation is added to the one just described. A spider feeds on a longlegged fly. We can summarize this food chain this way:
Milkweedaphidparasitic wasppredatory flyspider

Will a bird sweep by and eat the spider? Will it in turn fall prey to a hawk or a snake? How many steps can be added to this food chain? Common milkweed feeds many members of the wild life directly and indirectly. The links of this food chain are numerous.

More on milkweed dependents and visitors

No comments: