other pollinators

Milkweed surfaces as a green alternative

After I wrote about milkweed fairies, I received the following story in an e-mail. Although I had read about this practice, I never knew of anyone who actually did it. Now I do.

Kapok trees produce pods with seeds surrounded by a fluffy, yellowish fiber that is water resistant. Kapok seed “fairies” have characteristics similar to milkweed fairies. Kapok was used to fill flotation devices. During WWII the United States source of kapok was cut off by the war in the Pacific. The US government called upon civilians to collect milkweed pods to turn in for processing. During the WWII, we collected fluffy milkweed “seeds” for processing as a substitute for kapok, used to pad life jackets for our troops on ships and to fill flying jackets. I remember collecting these pods as a very small child with my family. See, we used natural products for flotation devices. Being “green” is not new!

According to Wikipedia, Americans collected 5500 tons of milkweed floss during World War II.

Today, milkweed is being used by a Nebraska firm, Natural Fibers Corporation, to make a product called Hypodown. Made from four parts goose down to one part milkweed floss, the product is used to fill jackets, comforters, and pillows. Milkweed floss has been found to have excellent insulating properties and to be hypoallergenic as well.

Milkweed has a long and complex history. It has been used to prepare a medicinal tea to treat various ailments and the sap has been made into topical preparations. Parts of the plant have been eaten in certain cultures. It is said the Germans attempted to extract the latex for use as a rubber replacement, and Native American peoples used the stalks to make string and rope. And, of course, the monarch butterfly is completely dependent on the plant for its survival.

Unfortunately, milkweed is known as a tenacious perennial weed in cultivated croplands. Herbicides and the use of genetically-modified crops are wiping out milkweed in many parts of North America to the severe detriment of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators.

By encouraging commercial uses of milkweed—especially Asclepias syriaca or common milkweed—we can better care for that segment of our native pollinator population that is dependent on it.


Asclepias syriaca. Photo by Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, Ontario.


  • Gorgeous photo. We have a restored prairie in the neighborhood, a former cornfield. They burn it every other year, which is rather alarming (it’s done at night), but the flowers are burgeoning. You have inspired me to get out there with my camera.

  • I’m wondering about another thing concerning milkweed.

    I’m a new beekeeper with two hive colonies from swarms. I check both grid-boards regularly for varroa. I noticed something curious – we leave all the milkweed to grow and bloom in our orchard, and there’s a lot of it. As the milkweed came into full flower, I noticed the more milkweed was in bloom, and more the bees were all over it, the fewer and fewer mites were showing on the board. I’ve found exactly two mites on the board in, say, the last three weeks.

    Is there a connection between milkweed harvesting and varroa resistance? The colony at the back of the pasture has shown a consistent varroa presence – not a lot, just sort of there.

    • Blanche,

      I have never heard of anything like that, but I don’t know if anyone has studied it. It could be that your bees are raising a lot of brood on the milkweed and, with a lot of brood available, the mites are hidden from sight underneath the capped cells.

  • Just wondering…has anyone thought to use milkweed sap to control varroa mites? I know it’s poisonous to many critters. Maybe it would be a natural deterrent to varroa?

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