Skip to Content

What Eats Milkweed? 45 Pests & Pollinators (Butterflies, Bees, Deer)

Milkweed is probably best known as the sole host plant for monarch butterflies. But milkweed is also on the menu for many other insects and mammals. Milkweed nectar is an important food source for many species of bees, moths, butterflies, skippers, and beetles.

Milkweed plants and flowers attract clouds of pollinators and pests. Some insects (like bees) only feed on the nectar, pollinating the flowers. Others, like butterflies, both help (pollinate) and harm (eat leaves) the plant. Some insects, like milkweed assassin bugs, specialize in hunting milkweed pests.

what eats milkweed

In this list, we’ll include both common milkweed pests and milkweed pollinators.

42 Insects that Eat Milkweed

Helpful milkweed insects include butterflies, moths, bees, and hoverflies.

9 Butterflies that Eat Milkweed

These butterflies feed on milkweed as larvae (caterpillars) and adults. Some prefer milkweed leaves for laying their eggs.

  1. Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
  2. Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus)
  3. Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  4. Pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor). Also known as the blue swallowtail.
  5. Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). Previously known as the red admirable.
  6. Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)
  7. American copper (Lycaena phloeas american). Also known as small copper or common copper.
  8. Edward’s hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii)
  9. Delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan). The North American butterfly is a member of the subfamily Hesperiinae, the grass skippers.

Here’s the source for this list of larvae that feed on milkweed plants.

milkweed and monarch butterfly
Milkweed plant and a monarch butterfly

Do butterflies harm milkweed plants? Yes, because they eat the leaves. But the damage is minimal and many gardeners plant milkweed for this single purpose – to create an environment for monarch eggs to develop into adult monarch butterflies.

monarch caterpillars on milkweed
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed plant

4 Moths that Eat Milkweed

  1. White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata). They hover while collecting nectar
  2. Unexpected cycnia (Cycnia inopinatus)
  3. Milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle). Also known as a milkweed tussock moth. Like many of the species on the list, their young also eat milkweed leaves. The caterpillar of the milkweed tiger moth is very fluffy.
  4. Striped Garden Caterpillar (Trichordestra legitima). This is a moth from the family Noctuidae.

2 Flies that Eat Milkweed

  1. Hover flies (family Syrphidae). They are also known as syrphid flies or flower flies. These flies have the appearance of bees or wasps and feed on nectar. There are 6000 syrphid fly species. The larvae of some species feed on aphids and thrips.
  2. Leaf Miner Flies (Liriomyza genus).
bee feeding on milkweed nectar
Bee feeding on milkweed nectar

6 Bees that Eat Milkweed

Bees love to feed on the nectar from milkweed plants.

  1. Bumblebees (Bombus genus)
  2. Carpenter bees (Xylocopa genus)
  3. Yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus genus). Also known as masked bees.
  4. Plasterer bees (Colletes genus)
  5. Sweat bees (Halictus genus). Most are brown or black in color. Some have metallic, iridescent green coloring.
  6. Leafcutter bees (Family Megachildae). Also known as mason bees, carder bees, and resin bees. They get their name because they cut pieces of leaves to use in their nests.

If you’re planting tropical milkweed for bees, you need to be careful.

Scientific research shows that this plant disrupts the monarch migration patterns when it’s planted outside its tropical range, and can lead to the spreading of OE, orophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite that infects monarch and queen butterflies. So we gardeners cut it back AFTER the monarchs have quit laying their eggs for the summer (or early fall) and BEFORE the monarch migratory season.

Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California
small milkweed bug
Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii)

3 Bugs that Eat Milkweed

Here are two very similar bugs that both eat milkweed.

  1. Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii)
  2. Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus)
  3. Oleander aphid (Aphis nerii). Also known as milkweed aphid, sweet pepper aphid, and nerium aphid.

Learn more about these milkweed bugs.

milkweed pests
Oleander aphids are common and agressive milkweed pests

18 Beetles that Eat Milkweed

  1. Long-horned beetles (genus Typocerus). These North American beetles are noted for having long antennae (“horns”) and an elongated body. 15 species have been described.
    1. Typocerus acuticauda
    2. Typocerus badius
    3. Typocerus balteatus
    4. Typocerus confluens
    5. Typocerus deceptus
    6. Typocerus fulvocinctus
    7. Typocerus gloriosus
    8. Typocerus lugubris
    9. Typocerus lunulatus
    10. Typocerus octonotatus 
    11. Typocerus serraticornis
    12. Typocerus sinuatus – Notch-tipped Flower Longhorn
    13. Typocerus sparsus
    14. Typocerus velutinus – Banded Longhorn Beetle
    15. Typocerus zebra – Zebra Longhorn Beetle
  2. Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus). This beetle feeds on milkweed foliage and its roots.
  3. Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica). Here’s how to tell Japanese beetles apart from ladybugs and Asian lady beetles.
  4. Milkweed Stem Weevil (Rhyssomatus lineaticollis). Adult weevils feed on the stem of the common milkweed.
japanese beetle
Japanese beetle

Other common milkweed pests include slugs, spider mites, swamp milkweed leaf beetle, thrips, and whiteflies.

3 Mammals that Eat Milkweed

  1. White-tailed Deer: While the sticky, milky sap of the milkweed often deters deer, they have been known to eat leaves off the plant.
  2. Rabbits: Rabbit kittens will develop a preference for milkweed if their mother ate it during pregnancy or the lactation period.
  3. Horses and other farm animals. Horses are most at risk for milkweed poisoning, according to the University of Wisconsin. Other domesticated animals that are at risk of the toxins include chickens, sheep, cattle, dogs, and cats. Sometimes milkweed will be baled into hay or even in a pasture where it is grazed on by farm animals.

Do deer eat milkweed? Milkweed isn’t a primary food source, but deer often graze as they walk. Milkweed is lush and tall – making it attractive for at least a nibble. And if enough passing deer take a bite, it can be enough to hurt, or even kill your milkweed patch.

2 Insects that Hunt on Milkweed Plants

  1. Milkweed Assassin Bugs (Zelus longipes). There are more than 7000 species of these assassin bugs. According to Everywhere Wild, their appearance varies greatly across species. Learn more here.
  2. Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii). While primarily feeding on milkweed seeds and nectar (also listed above), they have also been known to feed on other insects, including aphids.
milkweed pollinators butterfly

Growing healthy milkweed plants are critical when raising monarch caterpillars.

Not all milkweed problems are caused by pests. Here are 11 common milkweed leaf problems.

Your Turn

What milkweed pests and pollinators have you seen in your garden? How have you attracted good milkweed pollinators? And managed the milkweed pest insects? Please join me below.