Compared to bees, butterflies are often less efficient at transferring pollen between plants because pollen often does not stick to their bodies and they lack specialized structures for collecting pollen. However, on the occasions in which pollen does stick to the butterflies' bodies, it is often inadvertently transferred to another flower while the butterflies are nectaring, earning them the title of pollinators.
Research has shown that most butterfly species do indeed end up pollinating some of the flowers they visit, and because monarch butterflies have such a long migration route they are potential pollinators to plants across the country! Studies have found that monarch butterflies do carry pollen from swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and are, therefore, potential pollinators. Monarch butterflies are known pollinators of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Additionally, monarch butterflies feed on the nectar of many other plants, like rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), desert broom (Baccharis spp.), aster (Aster spp.), sunflower (Helianthus spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), verbena (Verbena spp.), clover (Trifolium spp.), and other milkweed species (Asclepias spp.).
Although adult monarchs feed on the nectar of many flowers, they will breed only where milkweed plants are found. That is because monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed plants. Milkweed plants contain compounds called cardenolide alkaloids that are toxic to most vertebrate herbivores if ingested. However, while monarch larvae feed on milkweed plants they also ingest the toxins. They then sequester the compounds in their bodies, wings, and exoskeletons, making both the larvae and adult butterflies toxic to many predators.
- The Monarch Butterfly in North America, US Forest Service
- Diversity and temporal change in the effective pollinators of Asclepias tuberosa, D. L. Venable, Ecology, Vol. 77, No. 4, 1996, p. 1061-1073, Pollinator Conservation Digital Library
- Migratory Pollinators Program: Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Reproductive biology of Eryngium yuccifolium (Apiaceae), a prairie species, Brenda Molano-Flores, Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, Vol. 128, No. 1, 2001, p. 1-6, Pollinator Conservation Digital Library
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