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Raising and Overwintering Labidomera clivicollis

I'm a complete amateur and non-bug person (see profile), but have raised Labidomera clivicollis in the hundreds. This is the creature I know best because of how much time I have spent observing them. This is my favourite creature of the bug world: I hold tremendous affection for them.

Adult, one day after emerging from pupa:


I will briefly discuss finding, housing, life cycle, and care, and I am happy to answer any questions based on my limited experience.

I have not found much literature on this species and I don't personally know of anyone else interested in this species. It is my belief (*not* backed by any evidence/studies/literature citings) that these guys are likely threatened. They are solely dependent on a milkweed and can survive on nothing else. With the destruction of their habitat, all creatures dependent on milkweed could be endangered, in my opinion. This includes the well-known Monarch butterfly, but also Queens, milkweed tussock moths, milkweed bugs, milkweed beetles, and more.

Labidomera clivicollis are very easy to raise; HOWEVER, it requires a year-round supply of healthy milkweed plants. In my area, milkweed is gold, and when the nurseries do stock it, customers rush in and fight over it. Nurseries capitalise on this and sometimes price gouge while at other times sell plants poisoned with systemic pesticides to unsuspecting customers trying to serve Monarchs during spring migration. This year, for example, a local nursery sold hundreds of poisoned plants to central Texans, killing off large numbers of already threatened creatures, and two weeks later, sold dozens more poisoned plants from a different supplier. I am paranoid about plants that don't have insects on them, and I will work on breeding Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) on nursery-defined "clean" plants until I know I can trust the plant to be safe.

Labidomera clivicollis adult with 4th-instar larva:


Native milkweeds sold from nurseries in my area are rare, expensive, and generally do quite poorly, so most commonly sold is Asclepias curassavica, native to the American tropics.
Asclepias curassavica:


In my case, I kept as many milkweed plants as I could inside over the winter, schlepping them outside on every milder or sunnier day, and then back inside. It's quite a chore keeping the plants in shape. If you can accomplish this, then raising the beetles is easy.

FINDING Labidomera clivicollis

Some online sources say that L. clivicollis can fly, but I have *never* seen one fly, not even the shortest distance. They crawl a bit, but, from what I can tell, do not move about much, and are therefore likely hyperlocalised in patches of milkweed. Finding a patch of milkweed is very difficult in my area, and then finding the clivicollis there is even rarer.
In my case, I live in the tiniest legal-sized urban yard, but managed to create about 60 square feet of milkweed habitat. I was quite fortunate: Labidomera clivicollis showed up in my yard, likely having come as eggs on plants I purchased from nurseries. When I first saw the larvae, I didn't even know what they were. I soon became intimately familiar with them after raising them in the hundreds.
I also found some at a park a few counties south of me in an area where they destroy the butterfly garden each fall and build a new one each spring, unaware of how they are destroying the creatures who depend on those plants, even through winter. I snuck in some small containers and clippers and brought home their remaining Labidomera clivicollis.

HOUSING

Overwintering these guys is quite easy, as long as you have the plants. I simply put down many potted plants on tarp (mostly one-gallon size) and placed my beetles on the plants. They were loose in the house but almost never leave the plant. The alternative is to put the plants inside 30-inch or taller butterfly cages. I use T5 grow lights when needed.
Larvae must be contained in cages, as they crawl off the plant quite a bit and definitely crawl away to pupate. Butterfly cages work well as they allow for misting and viewing, keep the beetles contained, and let the air flow through to maintain healthy bugs and plants.
The most critical housing for a Labidomera clivicollis is a healthy milkweed plant.

LIFE CYCLE

(Complete metamorphosis)
Labidomera clivicollis mating, and pre-pupal larva with freshly eclosing adult:


1. egg
Labidomera clivicollis generally lay their eggs on milkweed leaves (generally, but not always, on the underside). However, it's been my observation that they will lay eggs just about anywhere: on completely wrong plants, on foreign substrates, on fencing, on the sides of pots holding plants, pretty much anywhere. I've learned to move eggs with a very soft paintbrush and place them on protected milkweed plants.

Oh, sweetie, please don't lay your eggs on the tarp.


eggs ready to hatch:


I think the hatching time depends on environmental factors, but mine generally hatched in around 6 days on average.
hatching larvae:


2. larva
There are four instars that you will get to know well if you raise these guys. They are much like caterpillars and are easy to raise, move, and care for. In addition, they play nicely together, a joy for the humans who care for them.

Labidomera clivicollis, 4 instars:


moulting
Moulting looks rather like death and can be a scary sight. They often hang from the underside of a leaf or stem to moult. As with caterpillars, it is critical to avoid disturbing these guys or their plants in any way while they are moulting.


The final moult will be in soil. The larva will drop from the plant and crawl to a place to pupate.

Fourth-instar larva burrowing head first in order to pupate in the soil:


3. pupa
These beetles pupate in the soil, so it's important to provide loose soil that will not be disturbed. Of the hundreds that I raised, only a small handful pupated right at the surface of the soil so I was able to watch the process. Pupae are flexible and mobile. When I mist or gently move the container of soil, I see movement in the pupae.
Even in this newly formed pupa (first two images), you can see all the adults parts.

In peak times, mine generally emerged around 10 days later.

4. adult
This adult is seen emerging at 11:06am,11:38am 12:17pm, and 12:28pm expelling waste:



CARE

Raising Labidomera clivicollis is much like raising Lepidoptera species, especially burrowing ones. The larvae are easy to handle. Not too much goes wrong with these guys, and if it does, it's usually in the pupal stage. Mine were quite successful and very prolific and long-lived when raised inside. Outside, they don't do well: Polistes eat the larvae and adults die off early.
Daily care is recommended and plants must be kept healthy and misted when necessary. Cages must be cleaned daily with paper at the bottom of the cage changed to remove frass and leaf parts.
Caution: Leaf parts at the bottom of the cage quite often have larvae attached to them. Check every fragment of every leaf and every corner of paper at the bottom of the cage for larvae. The larvae will also be on the sides of pots and in the saucers holding the plants; therefore, the saucer must be checked before watering, and then changed out with a fresh saucer. Larvae will also climb up the net: it's generally safe to leave them there as they might be preparing to moult.

Since Labidomera clivicollis burrow in soil to pupate, containers of fresh loose soil must be available, and this soil must be misted with a fine mist sprayer and never disturbed.
I would recommend tall butterfly cages as the safest housing to contain these creatures.

Labidomera clivicollis freshly emerged from soil and about to have their first meal:


Moving:
Moving these beetles is easy. The tiniest one-day old larvae can be moved with toothpicks by luring them onto it. When they are a bit bigger, I use slips of paper. With older larvae, I just use my hands, as I would with caterpillars. Adult beetles often act like beetles and drop, so it's important not to disturb or frighten them. I just pick them up with my hands or get them to crawl onto a little piece of paper (I kept small slips of paper all around for this purpose). I then put the paper near a good horizontal leaf and let them crawl on to it. Adult Labidomera clivicollis will often "play dead" after dropping. They curl in their legs and go completely still. I put them upright on a horizontal leaf (they won't hold on or use their legs so it's critical that the leaf be horizontal and flat to hold them). Then I wait until they gradually extend a leg and hold on. Afterwards, they'll extend another leg and eventually walk. It's important to stay with them until they grasp the leaf (maybe a few minutes) because the "dead" version can roll right off the leaf. I've picked up these beetles outside and thought they were dead until they later started crawling. Now that I have handled so many of these beetles, I can tell by their weight and sometimes by their colouring and general posture that they are indeed alive and just playing dead. If they fall on their backs, they often cannot turn over, so it's important to keep an eye on them and keep them safe.

CONCLUSION
I think that overwintering and caring for Labidomera clivicollis will help the species, as they are going to do better when protected during the winter. They can then be released into a milkweed patch in spring. These guys are sweet and beautiful and easy to care for. They are nice to each other and very rarely quibble. Larvae and adults only need good milkweed plants to survive. Watching both adults and youngsters munch little bites on the edges of leaves is a delight.


As long as there is a fresh, healthy stock of milkweed plants, preferably with blossoms, these guys will thrive indoors.
Labidomera clivicollis with Oncopeltus fasciatus nymphs (all handraised) on Asclepias curassavica seedpod: