That ain’t no Monarch: meet these OTHER caterpillars that feed on milkweed

More than any other, the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies are most closely associated with eating milkweed–anything in the Asclepias family. With their distinctive black, white and gold pin-striped suits and expressive dark tentacles reaching out into the universe, that’s no surprise.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are the most famous milkweed feeders. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They’re endearing, ubiquitous, easy to identify and we have a special relationship with them.

But there’s a at least three other caterpillars that eat milkweed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Last week I noticed this fellow noshing on a pot of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. 

Garden striped caterpillar

That ain’t no Monarch. It’s a Striped garden caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My first thought: “That ain’t no Monarch.”

Correct. It’s the Striped garden caterpillar, Trichordestra legitimata, which feasts not only on milkweed but other common garden greens–clover, goldenrod, yarrow, grasses and others. The Striped garden caterpillar turns into the rather nondescript Striped garden caterpillar moth, a grey, smallish creature with little black diamonds on his back. Check out these photos on Bugguide.net.

Here’s a better picture of the caterpillar, via Molly Jacobson.

Garden striped moth caterpillar

Molly Jacobson found this Striped  garden caterpillar crossing a path and resting on a dead leaf. Photo by Molly Jacobson

Dr. David L. Wagner, author of the useful Caterpillars of Eastern North America, describes the milkweed feeder on page 415 of his seminal guidebook as a “handsome brown and yellow striped caterpillar.” He recommends looking for them in grass seed heads but adds that he often finds them on the flowers of Goldenrod in the fall.

Perhaps even more handsome is the fluffy Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, Eucaetes Egle. Like so many other insects that use milkweed as their primary food, this creature expresses the cardiac glycosides found in the latex of the milkweed plants with orange and black coloring.

This photo of at late instar Euchaetes Egle was taken at 12:17pm on October 20, 2007 in Glen Rose, TX. The caterpillar was spotted walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.

This Tussock moth caterpillar was spotted in Glen Rose, Texas in 2007 walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.  Photo by J. Scott Kelley  via Wikipedia.

The adult form of this moth, below, also displays orange and black on its body, as it peeks through the wings to alert predators–WARNING: I don’t taste good!

Dr. Wagner’s description of the interesting larvae: “densely hairy caterpillar with numerous black, orange (or yellow) and white tufts and lashes.”  Yes, “lashes.”

That’s what these hairy protrusions look like–almost colorful bristles on a soft toothbrush extending from the caterpillars body. According to Wagner, the species occurs in Texas and the Southwest, but I have never seen one.  Would love to, though.

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Milkweed Tussock Moth, photo by Patrick Coin via Wikipedia.

A third milkweed fan, Cycnia inopinatus, also makes appearances now and then. Kip Kiphart, a trainer for Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) and volunteer at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas, reports that the Cycnia pictured below was found in 2003 by Myrna Langford while checking milkweed on Laurel’s Ranch near Comfort, Texas.  The Cyncia is considered a first for the area.

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Cyncia inopinatus caterpillar. Another milkweed feeder. Photo by Kip Kiphart

Kiphart says Langford brought the caterpillar to a meeting, asking for help in identifying it. “Nobody had any idea what it was. I took it home, took photos, sent them to a number of people and nobody knew what it was,” said Kiphart. Eventually the Cyncia was identified.

It turns into the Unexpected Cyncia moth and feeds exclusively on milkweed. You can see the same orange-and-black expression of other milkweed consumers in the belly of the beast, below. The University of Minnesota, which oversees the MLMP, is seeking citizen science observations and documentation of the moth, which is considered rare and of conservation concern.

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Cynic

Cyncia adult moth. Photos by Kip Kiphart

Judging from conversations with folks who work and play a lot with milkweed raising caterpillars and butterflies, these other milkweed eaters are not all that common.

Have you seen any of these other milkweed feeders?  Let us know.

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24 thoughts on “That ain’t no Monarch: meet these OTHER caterpillars that feed on milkweed

  1. Thank you so much for the information regarding other Milkweed caterpillars. Although we are way to north to see them, they certainly are beautiful!

  2. I had the Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars on my tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) here in east Texas – I stopped in my tracks when I saw them as they were more colorful than the flowers!

  3. I am in Cincinnati, OH and I see the milkweed tussock moth caterpillar on an annual basis. This has actually been a banner year for them as they are stripping my various kinds of milkweed bare. Their eggs are always laid in clusters so it is not uncommon to so 50-100 of these at once. I refer to them as Fuller Brush or pipe cleaner cats. They are cute! But I’d rather have monarch cats. Only 4 so far this year. Last year- over 300. Hoping August gets better.

  4. Hi, I am in Wisconsin nd found a cluster of tiny moths. Very light yellow with a black dot on one end. They gave me the creeps. my neighbor and I split the group and are watching them grow. We have a slim yr. for Monarchs. the tiny worms now have black and yellow hairs about 1/4″ long. They eat milkweed leaves. When my neighbor brushed their backs with her finger, she said later her finger was a tad numb We figured that might be their defense against ants and the like.

  5. Thanks for this bit of information. Though the caterpillars are certainly eye-catching, the moths, too, are attractive in their way.

  6. Hi there,

    You did not mention the Queen caterpillars…..I have had a couple of them in my yard which is unusual. They left several eggs on milkweeds, and I have enjoyed raising them. They seem to tend to go into the chrysalis very early and don’t wait to get really big before they do it!

  7. Approximately how big are the Cyncia moths? I was digging weeds – leaving the milkweed – and there was a white moth flitting around. I noticed markings but didn’t pay that much attention to what they were.

  8. We see tussock moths yearly on the milkweed. They can strip a milkweed leaf. I also see hummingbird moths, a variety of wasps and bees, assassin bugs, praying mantis and other moths and butterflies.

    • My milkweed in my yard did not do well this year because of the freaky weather so I did not have many butterflies. I plan to plant more “butterfly” plants next year to make up for millkweed not being there.

  9. My husband and I found a caterpillar eating on milk weed today that we have never seen before. I have been searching on the internet to find what kind it is and I have not found out what it is. It’s mainly all black and fuzzy, but does look to have some orange stripes in between the black fuzzy. It’s eating the milk weed leaves. Anyone know what this might be? We live in North Central Wisconsin.

  10. I found a tussock moth caterpillar on my milkweed this morning when I went to check on my monarch caterpillar. I live near Glen Rose TX. I do not know how to attach picture here. I appreciate your website in helping me identify. Monarch caterpillar is not there, it was too little to go to chrysalis. Queen butterflies will also use milkweed as hosts. Their caterpillar is similar to monarch, but with extra black “horns”. I need to plant more milkweed, my plants have been bare of leaves and blooms for all the caterpillar activity!

  11. question: I went out to my goat hut this evening, and found a female Monarch on the side of the hut. It’s chrysalis was just above it, and I am going to “assume” that it just emerged today. Because it’s to be in the 40’s tonight and down in the 30’s tomorrow night, I brought it in for the night and put in a butterfly house with nectar in gatorade lids with cotton balls. Will it be ok to let it out tomorrow and hope it gets somewhere warmer by tomorrow evening? Help !!!!

  12. I have another caterpillar that was eating on my swamp milkweed in Benton County IA and have been trying to ID it. It was a plain blonde fuzzy caterpillar – definatly not a tussock moth – and it was just one individual. I would like to attach an image if you reply to my email.

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