|Asclepias + ant feeding on nectar|
Milkweeds are an important nectar source for bees and other nectar eaters, and a food source for caterpillars. The weeds are eaten by caterpillars of the monarch butterfly and its relatives, and by other herbivorous insects (such as beetles, and true bugs). These insects are able to feed on the plants despite their chemical defences. Milkweed is named after its milky sap, which contains alkaloids, latex, and several other complex compounds. Some species are toxic.
Pollination in this genus is accomplished in an unusual manner, as the pollen is grouped into pollen sacs. The feet or mouthparts of flower visiting insects such as bees, wasps and butterflies, slip into one of the five slits in each flower formed by adjacent anthers. The bases of the pollinia then mechanically attach to the insect, pulling a pair of pollen sacs free when the pollinator flies off. Pollination is effected by the reverse procedure in which one of the pollinia becomes trapped within the anther slit.
Milkweeds have three defenses to limit damage by caterpillars and other insects: hairs on the leaves, toxins, and latex fluids. Some more recent milkweed species grow faster than older species. They have the potential to grow faster than caterpillars can eat them. Caterpillars which eat milkweeds, and their adult butterflies, may be protected by the foul taste of the milkweed chemicals. Such butterflies and caterpillars usually show warning colors (see mimicry#warning coloration).
- Ramanujan, Krishna (Winter 2008). "Discoveries: Milkweed evolves to shrug off predation". Northern Woodlands. Center for Northern Woodlands Education. 15 (4): 56.