Those Conniving Milkweeds

by The Old Scot

Who could love a milkweed? Even its name seems to say it all: "milkweed."  That's all it is—just another weed. Ah, but look again. The common milkweed is a trickster extraordinaire! While it shares in common with all plants—indeed, all life!—the need to reproduce itself, it does so by baiting a biological trap: It offers honey-sweet droplets of nectar to hungry insects, but exacts an unsuspected price from its guests.

When a bee, for example visits one of the down-turned flowers, it seeks a footing on the smooth surface of the flower's center. Shortly, it finds such a footing on the base of one or more slits which run up the sides of the flower tube. The bee is then able to drink at its ease from the five little buckets of nectar which each flower offers.

But when the bee raises its feet to fly away—this is the moment the milkweed demands payment. For when the insect's leg is lifted, it comes into contact with sticky black discs at the top of the slits. The bee is caught. Now it can escape only by considerable effort—and when it does break free it carries away a spongy mass of pollen clinging to the discs.

The bee completes payment for its dinner when it visits a flower from another milkweed plant, seeking more of the sweet nectar. Its pollen-laden foot slips into a convenient slit for anchorage, and the pollen mass is transferred to the flower's sticky female receptacle. Thus the next generation of milkweeds is assured. 

However, not all of the insects which spring the milkweed trap are able to break free. In fact, most are not. Ants, small beetles, butterflies and wasps, and numerous varieties of flies lack the strength to free themselves. They can help neither themselves nor the milkweed, and both suffer as a result. The American naturalist Edwin Way Teale once counted 351 individual flowers on one milkweed plant, each with five pollen traps. Yet a later count of maturing seedpods showed only three on this plant, and just 32 in a stand of 121 plants on a hillside plot.

This would seem to be a very poor return for the milkweed's investment, but it is sufficient. Milkweeds are in no danger of extinction! The pods which mature release hundreds of seeds, which are carried near and far by gauzy parachutes of silken threads.

Nevertheless, we may ask why the milkweed has chosen this method of reproduction. True, there is a benefit in allowing only the larger, stronger insects to escape from its trap, for these are the very insects which will not be satisfied with the nectar from a single flower. They will visit other flowers, and thus complete fertilization.

Still, it is a very wasteful method. Even air-borne pollination, in which the grains of pollen are simply committed to the vagaries of the wind, usually results in a higher percentage of success.

The fallacy in our question lies in the assumption that the milkweed "chose"—or evolved—this method of reproduction. The false theory of evolution demands that each life form continue perfecting reproductive patterns, as well as all other characteristics. If the milkweed had done this, doubtless the world would be overrun with milkweeds! Instead, this humble plant occupies just the niche meant for it in our world—which is not our world at all, but the world of the Master Designer who created it. The milkweed's method of reproduction is also a control mechanism to keep it in balance with all other life.

Throughout nature we see this balance. Plants and animals sometimes compete for the necessities of life, and sometimes cooperate in gaining them; but always according to a marvelous master plan laid down in the beginning by God.

Only man seems to be an exception to this balance of nature, for he has done much in recent centuries to destroy the balance—often polluting what he does not root up, and laying waste forests which required hundreds of years to grow. Yet even this is foreseen in God's master plan, for He created man in His own image and gave him dominion over the earth (see Gen. 1:26).

In the beginning man walked with his Maker and his God in love and harmony, and man was in harmony with all of nature. But man fell. There is no need to retell the sorry tale: its evidence is everywhere around us, and in the hearts of all who are far from God. Man's ultimate capacity is the capacity to self-destruct.

But there is hope. God is still in charge, and the Bible assures us that in His own time He will restore the peace and harmony and fruitfulness, which the world first enjoyed. Obviously, that time is not yet come. But we do not need to wait for it to restore our harmony with God and with ourselves. Our prayer is that all who see these words will both seek and find that peace with God.

Source: Days Without Time, by Edwin Way Teale, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1948.

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