The milkweed leaf beetle is a small, brightly colored insect that can be found feasting on various species of milkweed plants. They come in vivid orange and black patterns, which not only make them aesthetically striking but also signal their potential toxicity to predators due to the milkweed plant’s toxins they ingest. As a member of the leaf beetle family Chrysomelidae, the swamp milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) is just one example of a beetle specialized on a specific host plant.
These beetles play an essential role in the ecosystem, helping to control milkweed populations and, in turn, providing food for other insects and birds. While they can sometimes be seen as pests, these leaf beetles are also important pollinators for the milkweed plants. But remember, they aren’t the only insects you’ll find on milkweed; for instance, the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) is another common insect often spotted on milkweed plants, particularly on the seed pods.
To better acquaint yourself with the milkweed leaf beetle and its characteristics, here are some key features to look out for:
- Bright orange and black coloration, with varying patterns among individuals
- Found on milkweed plants, often in grassy areas or roadsides
- Adults can measure nearly ½ inch in length
- Consume milkweed leaves by first clipping the side veins to drain the sticky, toxic sap
By understanding the role and features of the milkweed leaf beetle, you can appreciate its unique place in nature and contribute to the conservation of these fascinating insects.
Milkweed Leaf Beetle Overview
Identification and Key Features
The Milkweed Leaf Beetle, scientifically known as Labidomera clivicollis, belongs to the Chrysomelidae family. They are characterized by their:
- Bright coloration: orange, red, or even dark orange hues
- Black patches on the body
- Adorable feet
Milkweed Species Hosts
These beetles are specialists, feeding exclusively on milkweed species. Some of the common milkweed species they inhabit include:
- Asclepias syriaca or Common Milkweed
- Asclepias incarnata or Swamp Milkweed
Habitat and Distribution
Milkweed Leaf Beetles can be found in various milkweed habitats across North America. They are commonly found in:
- Gardens that contain milkweed
Life Cycle and Development
The swamp milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis) begins its life cycle as an egg. Females lay small, oval-shaped eggs on milkweed leaves, often in clusters.
- Color: light yellow
- Size: about 1mm long
Hatching from the eggs, the larvae are small and typically go through four instars before they pupate. The larvae are known to feed on milkweed leaves, consuming the foliage for energy and growth.
- Number of instars: 4
- Diet: milkweed leaves
After the larval stage, the beetles undergo complete metamorphosis and emerge as adults. Adults continue feeding on milkweed leaves, but also consume the seeds. They have distinct orange and black patterns on their bodies, varying among individuals. Swamp milkweed leaf beetles can be nearly ½ inch long.
- Complete metamorphosis
- Length: up to ½ inch
- Diet: milkweed leaves and seeds
|Light yellow color, oval shape
|Four instars, feed on milkweed leaves
|Orange and black patterns, up to ½ inch long, eats leaves & seeds
Swamp milkweed leaf beetles are an interesting species that rely on milkweed plants throughout their life cycle, from laying eggs on the leaves to consuming the foliage and seeds as adults.
Diet and Feeding Behavior
Feeding on Milkweed
The Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle, scientifically known as Labidomera clivicollis, is a vibrant and chunky insect that primarily feeds on milkweed leaves, flowers, and nectar. These beetles are highly specific to milkweed plants and can usually be found clipping the side veins off the leaves to access nutrients while simultaneously draining the toxic sap.
Milkweed sap is toxic, containing cardenolides, a type of heart poison, and the beetles have adapted to feed on it without harm. To prevent excess sap from bothering them, they snip the side veins of the leaves, allowing the sap to flow out and the beetle to feed safely.
Interactions with Other Insects
Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetles are not the only insects that rely on milkweed. Other insects, such as the Large Milkweed Bug, Small Milkweed Bug, Red Milkweed Beetle, and various bees, are also commonly found on these plants. They often coexist on the same plant, and while they share the same food source, they do not seem to be in direct competition with each other.
Adaptations to Milkweed Toxins
These beetles have adapted to the toxic sap of milkweed plants. By ingesting the milkweed toxins, they become toxic and unpalatable themselves, which serves as a protective mechanism against predators. The bright orange and black coloration of the Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle is an example of Müllerian mimicry, where similarly colored species share the same warning signal to predators. Features of this adaptation include:
- Feeding without harm on toxic milkweed sap
- Bright warning coloration
- Mimicry of other toxic species
|Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
|Large Milkweed Bug
|Milkweed leaves, flowers, and nectar
|Primarily milkweed seeds
|Nearly ½ inch long
|¾ inch long
|Orange and black warning colors
|Orange to reddish-orange with black bands
|Ingests toxins from milkweed sap
|Ingests cardenolides from milkweed seeds
By feeding on the toxic sap of milkweed plants and adopting bright warning coloration, Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetles successfully avoid predation and coexist with other insects on the same plant.
Relationship with Monarch Butterflies and Other Insects
Milkweed Bugs and Beetles
Milkweed plants contain cardiac glycosides, which are toxic compounds. These compounds deter most insects but specific species, like milkweed bugs and milkweed leaf beetles, have adapted to it.
Milkweed bugs and milkweed leaf beetles feed on milkweed plants without being affected by the toxins. They are different from monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on milkweed and specifically rely on it for their larvae’s survival.
Impact on Milkweed Ecosystem
Monarch butterflies and other insects form interactions with milkweed plants. This creates a complex ecosystem. Examples of insects that share this ecosystem include:
- Monarch Butterfly: Relies on milkweed to lay eggs and feed caterpillars.
- Milkweed Bugs: Feed on milkweed seeds and leaves, may compete with monarch larvae.
- Milkweed Leaf Beetle: Eats milkweed leaves, may also compete with monarch larvae.
|Interaction with Milkweed
|Impact on Monarchs
|Eat milkweed leaves
|Vital for survival
|Eat milkweed seeds & leaves
|Competes with monarch larvae
|Milkweed Leaf Beetle
|Eat milkweed leaves
|Competes with monarch larvae
These interactions are essential in understanding the overall milkweed ecosystem. Balancing the different insect species is crucial for supporting and conserving monarch butterflies’ populations.
Natural Enemies and Predators
Birds and Mammals
- Birds: Some birds, such as sparrows and finches, prey on milkweed leaf beetle larvae and adults.
- Mammals: Small mammals, like rodents, occasionally consume milkweed leaf beetles when they find them on milkweed plants.
- Parasitic wasps: These wasps lay eggs in the beetle larvae, which eventually kill the host as they develop.
- Assassin bugs: Found in the same environment, they hunt and feed on milkweed leaf beetles.
Overall, milkweed leaf beetles face predation from a variety of sources, which play a role in regulating their populations. While predation can be a limiting factor for the beetles, they still manage to thrive in environments with milkweed plants.
Natural and Biological Control
- Beneficial insects: Releasing predators like ladybugs or parasitoids like parasitic wasps can help keep milkweed leaf beetle populations in check.
- Entomopathogenic fungi: Certain types of fungi, such as Beauveria bassiana, can infect and kill the beetles.
Physical and Mechanical Control
- Handpicking: Removing the beetles by hand as soon as an infestation is spotted can prevent their further spread.
- Pruning: Cutting off and discarding infested milkweed can prevent the pests from moving on to other plants.
- Insecticide: Applying insecticides, like pyrethroids, can effectively kill milkweed leaf beetles. However, be cautious about their impact on beneficial insects.
- Soapy water: A solution of dish soap and water can be used as a less toxic alternative to insecticides. Spray it directly on the beetles to kill them.
|Natural and Biological
|Eco-friendly, targets specific pests
|May take time to see results
|Physical and Mechanical
|Cost-effective, no chemical use
|Labor-intensive, may not be suitable for large infestations
|Often effective quickly, suitable for severe infestations
|Can harm beneficial insects, potential environmental impact
Remember to always use a suitable method based on the severity of the problem and the specific situation. Monitoring for the presence of milkweed leaf beetles and their overwintering locations can help you make informed decisions about which control methods will work best for your garden or landscape.
Importance of Milkweed Conservation
Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed plants for their survival. The decline in milkweed populations directly impacts the health and stability of monarch butterflies and other species. When we protect milkweed habitats and avoid using pesticides, it becomes crucial for ensuring crop pollination and maintaining biodiversity1.
Some other species that use milkweed include:
Protecting and Enhancing Milkweed Habitats
Planting Milkweed: Choose a species suited to your area, such as Asclepias Brachystephana, which is compatible with roadside and right-of-way management4.
Habitat Improvement: Create or expand patches of milkweed in gardens, parks, and other areas to help support various species, including monarch butterflies1.
Pesticide Reduction: Minimize the use of pesticides that can harm milkweed plants, as well as the organisms that depend on them.
Comparing Milkweed Species:
|Common, easily established
|Can be invasive in some areas
|Less suitable for wet habitats
|Tolerates wet conditions
|Good for roadside habitats4
|Limited availability, specific regions
Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.
Letter 1 – Unknown Spiked Beetle from Indonesia is Spiny Leaf Beetle
Location: Taman hutan insinyur haji juanda, Bandung, West Java, Indonesia
December 5, 2012 4:54 am
I found this little guy in the forest 12/25/2010.
black on the back with spikes on it and gold on the other side.
size not more than 1 cm.
It flew from a tree to my friends arm where I took the photo.
Signature: Mohamad Idham Iskandar
This is sure an interesting looking critter. We haven’t the time to research it at this moment, but we want to post your photos. We believe this might be a Leaf Beetle in the family Chrysomelidae.
Update: Spiny Leaf Beetle
Thanks to a comment from Trevor, we have this link to a Spiny Leaf Beetle in the genus Dicladispa.
Thanks Daniel and Trevor for the id, it sure is an interesting looking little guy especially the gold color.
Letter 2 – Unknown Cucumber Pest is Leaf Beetle Larva
dont know what this is.
Sat, Nov 8, 2008 at 11:17 AM
hi, i’m in new york. suffolk county long island. i found this bug on my cucumber leaves. their was a whole bunch in july. i still got cucumbers, but these bugs were eating the leaves. thanks for any info you can give me.
suffolk county long island NY
Seeing as your cucumber leaf lover is immature, it is a bit more difficult to properly identify. We must confess that we aren’t entirely sure of the order. We wish the mouth parts were visible in your photo or that you had described the leaf damage. Were they chewed or did they wither? The reason we would like to know about the mouth parts or leaf damage is that our first inclination is that this is some type of Hemipteran, the insect order containing insects with sucking mouthparts like Aphids and True Bugs. We couldn’t find a match on BugGuide. We might also entertain that this might be the larva of one of the Leaf Beetles though we favor a Hemipteran. Many Tortoise Beetles are covered with projections, but we couldn’t find a match on BugGuide. We will contact Eric Eaton to get some assistance.
Peculiar as it is, it is the larva of a leaf beetle (family Chrysomelidae).
Letter 3 – Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
Unidentified Leaf Beetle
I’m pretty sure this is some sort of leaf beetle, although I can’t seem to find which one. Maybe a swamp milkweed leaf beetle? It was photographed along the margins of a small lake (I would call it a pond with water running in and out) not far from the eastern shores of southern Lake Huron. Sure would like to know what it is.
Hi again Nadjia,
This is a Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. As its name implies, it lives near swamps, meadows, roadsides with milkweed, especially wetlands with Swamp Milkeed, Asclepias incarnata. The markings are highly variable from individual to individual. We located some information on BugGuide.
Letter 4 – Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
swamp milkweed leaf beetle
This large ladybug looking beetle is feeding on my butterfly plant (Asciepias) here in south central Wisconsin (Dodge County). I included a ruler (using metric) for reference in size in the picture. Actually got 2–mating I imagine. From your page and other websites it would certainly appear to be Labidomera clivicollis or swamp milkweed leaf beetle. Feel free to use the image if it is useful to you.
Sew Happy in Wisconsin
Your identification is correct, and we are thrilled to post your photo of a Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle.
Letter 5 – Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
Giant Lady Beetle?
August 5, 2009
Is there such a thing as a Giant Lady Beetle? I found this beetle this morning on a milkweed plant (a typical lady beetle would be the size of the flower buds around this creature). The coloring didn’t seem right for a hercules or harlequin beetle.
Though it looks like a Ladybird Beetle, this is actually a Swamp Milkweed Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. They feed on the flowers and leaves of milkweed, and BugGuide has this interesting bit of information posted: “Both larvae and adults of this species cut several side-veins of a milkweed leaf prior to feeding, to reduce the sticky latex that would otherwise be produced at their feeding sites.“
Letter 6 – Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
Location: SW Indiana, USA
August 3, 2010 2:49 pm
Hello Bugman, I found this beetle on the trash can in my home in SW INdiana, USA this week. I don’t have much luck looking through your site so I have chosen this more direct route. I hope you can help me.
Lisa at Greenbow
Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
Location: SW INdiana, USA
August 3, 2010 3:05 pm
Hello Mr Bugman,
I just sent you a question about a beetle. I finally figured out how to go through the site. Sorry about bugging you but I think I figured it out. You can disregard my question as I think the picture is a Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle. They seem to vary. Thank you for being here.
Lisa at Greenbow
We are happy that you were successful with your identification without our assistance because the work load on our end is much too heavy to respond to every request. For the record, we often spend much more than fifteen minutes attempting to identify creatures for our readership and still cannot provide a response. Luckily we have numerous faithful readers who are quite skilled and often come to our assistance. We are thrilled to be able to post your letters and photo of a Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, so that it may assist future identifications. Those who are curious may also view BugGuide for additional information on this species.
Letter 7 – Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
Geographic location of the bug: Ground
Time: 05:42 PM EDT
Hi. I found a bug that is orange and black and looks like a huge ladybug. What is it
How you want your letter signed: Bug girl
Letter 8 – Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle Larva
Subject: gray and black beetle-like bug on swamp milkweed
Location: Fenton, MO
September 4, 2016 1:51 pm
I ran into this creature while inspecting my swamp milkweed for monarch caterpillars. I found ver 10 caterpillars as well as this gray and sort of shiny creature. It has 5 black dots on each side and I think I see 6 legs but really small. its about the size of a ladybug. Found it on underside of Swamp. Milkweed leaf toward top of stem. I cannot tell where to begin to find out what this little guy or gal is and if he/she means harm to my milkweed or my monarch caterpillars.
Thanks so much!
This is the larva of a Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, and we identified it on BugGuide based on this image. According to BugGuide: “Larvae and adults cut several side-veins of a milkweed leaf prior to feeding, to reduce the sticky latex that would otherwise be produced at their feeding sites.” So, the larvae and adults of the Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle share the same food source as the Monarch Butterfly, and unless the beetles are so populous that they defoliate the plants, they are not a threat to either the milkweed or the Monarch caterpillars.
Thanks you so much. A few folks had thought it might be a false Potato Bug larvae??? Since I found it on a swamp milkweed leaf, a Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle makes sense!
Thanks do much!
Letter 9 – Twelve-Spotted Asparagus Beetle from Romania
Little red beetles
July 20, 2009
I first noticed these fellows in our garden this June. An asparagus bush seems to be the only place they like to hang around and they’re about the size of lady bugs (seems they’re related too). They gave me the impression it’s completely under their dignity to be touched by humans – as I try to grab one it heroically throws itself of the plant and flies just before reaching the ground.
Could you tell me a few things about these bugs?
Thank you 🙂
The Twelve-Spotted Asparagus Beetle, Crioceris duodecimpunctata, is not closely related to the Lady Bug. It is in the family Chrysomelidae, the Leaf Beetles. The Twelve Spotted Asparagus Beetle is native to Europe, but it has been introduced to North America where it is considered an agricultural pest of the asparagus.
Letter 10 – Two Leaf Beetles from Ecuador
Subject: Ecuadorian Chrysomelid beetle?
January 9, 2016 7:53 am
You did so well with my Pole Borer I thought you might be able to help with a handful of additional unidentified beetles from that same area. This beetle photo was taken on July 2, 2002 near Cujuca, Ecuador. It looks like a Cucumber Beetle, in the family Chrysomelidae. Is it identifiable? Thanks!
Signature: Allen T. Chartier
Subject: Another Chrysomelid from Ecuador
January 9, 2016 7:56 am
Although this one is very colorful, I suspect that an ID to species might be difficult? Photographed on July 4, 2002 at Cabanas San Isidro, on the east slope of the Andes, Ecuador.
Signature: Allen T. Chartier
We have combined two of your submissions into one posting as they are both Leaf Beetles in the family Chrysomelidae. Your first submission does appear to be in the same genus as the Spotted Cucumber Beetle, Diabrotica, and upon doing some research, we found a similar looking beetle on FlickR as well as your own images posted to Amazilia. Other than agreeing that your second submission is also a Leaf Beetle, we are unable at this time to provide any further identification.
Letter 11 – Unidentified Leaf Beetle from Costa Rica
Subject: Possible Leaf Beetle
Geographic location of the bug: Santa Elena, Costa Rica
Time: 01:24 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Any help to identify this guy would be most appreciated! It was photographed in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest 05-15-2018.
How you want your letter signed: John
We agree that this is a Leaf Beetle in the family Chrysomelidae, but we have not been able to substantiate its identity. The white-tipped antennae are distinctive.
Letter 12 – Warty Leaf Beetle
Subject: Small bumpy beetle
Location: Connecticut, USA
January 20, 2013 3:02 pm
I have this specimen in my collection, and I’ve never been able to find any info about it… even about the family (darklings? weevils?) !
All I found is this photo on the net, from a photographer in Connecticut, who also had problems identifying this insect.
It measures about one quarter of an inch and resembles a snoutless weevil.
Are you certain this is a beetle? Darklings and Weevils are both good guesses, but alas, both families are enormous and diverse. We did some initial searching, and we found a Darkling Beetle that this is not. It is not Forked Fungus Beetle pictured on BugGuide. Do you have any additional photos that show the antennae and mouthparts? That might be helpful. We will contact Eric Eaton to get his opinion.
Thanks to a comment from Jacob, we now know that this is a Warty Leaf Beetle, in the genus Neochlamisus which we verified on BugGuide. “Adults resemble caterpillar droppings” according to Bugguide.
Eric Eaton Confirms Identification
No, it is a beetle alright, a “warty leaf beetle” to be specific, in the family Chrysomelidae and genus Neochlamisus:
They mimic caterpillar droppings, if you can believe that!
Great image! I’d love to blog about these, and would enjoy using this picture with the photographer’s permission.
Thanks for sharing!
Letter 13 – Unknown Beetle, possibly Skeletonizing Leaf Beetle
Bugged by this bug
Location: North Ease Pennsylvania
November 7, 2010 10:12 am
Started finding this but in various locations around the house. Started in late October, the house is in North East Pennsylvania. These little critters are everywhere in the house and found mostly in the kitchen. They don’t seem to be concentrated in any one location, near food or water etc.I need to placate the wife and identify her nemesis so it can be eliminated, hopefully.
Thanks for your help.
We are sad to report that we do not recognize your beetle as any of the typical nuisance beetles that are found in the home, including Pantry Beetles or Carpet Beetles. Your beetle more closely resembles the Skeletonizing Leaf Beetles, especially those in the tribe Luperini, based on our research on BugGuide. This group includes many agricultural pests. Perhaps these outdoor beetles are seeking shelter because of the approaching cold weather. We are requesting assistance from our readership with this identification.
Letter 14 – Unknown Potato Beetle Larva
Location: Payson, Arizona
September 5, 2010 11:20 pm
We found this bug Payson Arizona, mogollon rim area. It is very interesting with the red color, black spots and black collar. We would like to know more about this bug.
This is the larva of a Leaf Beetle in the family Chrysomelidae (See BugGuide) and we are nearly certain it is in the subfamily Chrysomelinae (See BugGuide), but after that we draw a bit of a blank. There is a strong resemblance to the larva of the Colorado Potato Beetle, but photos we have seen show a black head on the larva of the Colorado Potato Beetle unlike the red head in your photo. Additionally, like many leaf beetles, the Colorado Potato Beetle is quite selective about its food plant, and it feeds on the leaves of plants in the potato family including nightshade. Your larva appears to be feeding on grass. There is a closer resemblance to the larva of the Swamp Milkweed Beetle, but again there are inconsistencies with both the food plant and the range of the Swamp Milkweed Beetles which according to BugGuide are found east of the Rocky Mountains. An additional problem is that it is generally far easier to identify an adult insect than a larva. We will contact Eric Eaton who is familiar with the insects of Arizona to see if he can provide any additional information.
Eric Eaton Responds
I’d say that more than likely it is in the genus Leptinotarsa, which includes the infamous “Colorado Potato Beetle,” but also several other species here in Arizona. Always helps to know what plant it was feeding on.
Thank you for looking into this for me. The bug is not on the grass. It has pretty much finished eating a plant, and the stalk is behind the grass. I am attaching a photo of what it is feeding on. This may help.
Thank you for taking the time to look into this.
Thanks for providing a better photo of the food plant Laura. It appears to be feeding on a member of the nightshade family. Your new photo and Eric Eaton’s comment have convinced us that this is a Potato Beetle in the genus Leptinotarsa, but not the Colorado Potato Beetle whose larva has two rows of black dots on each side (see BugGuide). As Eric Eaton has indicated, there are other members of the genus found in Arizona, and BugGuide has images of two species of adults, but alas, there are no photos of the larvae. The first is Leptinotarsa haldemani, Haldeman’s Green Potato Beetle (see BugGuide) and the second is Leptinotarsa rubiginosa, the Reddish Potato Beetle (see BugGuide). We have also had no luck in finding any photos online of the larvae of those species. We hope you are content with a genus identification.
Letter 15 – Unknown Leaf Beetle Pupae
what kind of bug is this,,
Thu, Jan 29, 2009 at 11:23 PM
he indonesians call it an siapi-api (siapi-Fire). It is found on Coffee trees, And on leaves that are not touched by sun, when you turn it up, and bring the leaf to sun, they change the shape into something like dead bugs.
Left picture is when they are not touched by the sun. Right picture is their shape when I turn up the leaf.
Though their size only few millimeters, but if you touch them, i don’t think you will be ashamed to cry. Really hurts like burning.
Thank you, Raymond A. Abbott
You provided us with so much information, we thought this would be an easier identification for us. We spent a bit of time scouring the internet with no luck. Knowing the host plant and the location is great information, but our initial presumption that these are Leaf Beetle Larvae in the family Chrysomelidae cannot be verified. Many Leaf Beetle Larvae, including the Tortoise Beetles, have spines similar to the examples in your photos. Perhaps one or our readers with more time will have better luck with an accurate identification.
Correction: From Eric Eaton
The recent post of unknown leaf beetle larvae actually shows leaf beetle PUPAE, each encased in the last, shed, larval “skin.” I can’t deduce which of the leaf beetle subfamilies this is, either, though I would bet on something related to the Colorado potato beetle.
Letter 16 – Unknown Leaf Beetle from Peru
Subject: Pink Bug from Peru
Location: Central Peru
January 14, 2014 5:59 pm
tonight I submit a picture of this beauty which I photographed in the cloudforest of central Peru a few months back. Can you help to identify it?
Thank you very much!
We don’t really have the time to research this, but this is a Leaf Beetle in the family Chrysomelidae.