Goldenrod an important fall food source for bees and butterflies

The Detroit News
Look closely at this photo, how many monarch butterflies can you find?

  Goldenrod is an important fall food source for bees and butterflies

 In past years, goldenrod has received a bad reputation through no fault of its own. For decades, doctors implied their patient’s allergy symptoms were caused by goldenrod pollen when in fact, the actual culprit was ragweed.

The thinking behind it was ragweed flowers are relatively inconspicuous compared to flowers on other plants. Unless you’re really looking for it, ragweed can be hard to find. Goldenrod on the other hand, with its bright yellow flowers, can easily be seen by a man riding on a galloping horse. Since goldenrod blooms when ragweed is shedding pollen, it was simply easier to tell allergy sufferers to expect their symptoms to show up when goldenrod is out. Botanists would call this a phenological event. That’s when something goes on with a species of plant that is a signal for something else.

Goldenrod is one of the last flowering plants to bloom after others have stopped for the year. Their flowers produce large amounts of nectar, so they’re always eagerly anticipated by beekeepers. A large goldenrod bloom can make the difference between no honey or a bumper crop .

Honeybees are not the only ones that take advantage of the nectar bounty. It’s an important fall food for wild pollinators and butterflies, such as monarchs and other species.

Earlier this week we were sitting on our front porch taking a break and noticed some movement in our wildflowers. Looking closer, we could see more than 20 adult monarch butterflies feeding on nectar from the goldenrod growing in our yard.

The monarch southerly migration is underway and coincides with the fall bird migration (and Michiganians heading back to Florida).

During our break, we also watched a kettle of broad-winged hawks circling high in a thermal updraft. They were on their way south to their winter home. While watching the hawks, way up in the air we could see something passing by in and out of our field of vision through the binoculars. After re-focusing and zooming in on them, we discovered they were monarch butterflies!

Looking around, we saw more monarchs flying just over the treetops. It was a lot of fun watching them fly at those different altitudes instead of fluttering around the garden where we normally see them during the summer.

A pair of monarch butterflies mating in mid-September.

There are still quite a few caterpillars feeding on our milkweed plants too. We even spotted a pair of mating adults. That seemed late to me. The eggs will have to hatch; the caterpillars have to pupate; and the adults emerge before the weather gets too inclement for them to fly south. Hopefully they’ll have enough time to complete their life cycle this fall.