O.E. Scare! Changing the way I raise monarchs

Hi Gang — Big news in the milkweed patch but first an announcement:

It’s Pollinator Month and Asheville Greenworks asked us if we would put on an event at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville. In thinking about an event, two things came to mind that I’d like the public to know: 1) other insects besides bees pollinate plants, and 2) the best way to help the pollinators is through native plant landscaping. We already have some classes coming up on native plant landscaping, so I thought wouldn’t it be fun to have a book club on Andrew Moore’s “Pawpaw; In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit”? It will take place from 4-5:30 pm on June 21. We get lots of questions about the pawpaw tree at the Gardens, a native understory tree that has a tropical-like fruit, and the book just came out in paperback. The pawpaw has a special relationship to three interesting pollinators: the carrion fly and carrion beetle (the pawpaw’s pollinators) and the zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose caterpillars use only the pawpaw leaves as a food source. So, if you want to attend the book club, click this link for details. I’m making homemade scones with pawpaw-spiceberry jam, and I’ll share some info about the carrion flies and beetles and tell a couple of funny stories about the pawpaw. We’ll also take a look at the Botan’s pawpaw patch. Until then, here’s a few pictures taken today of the pawpaws in my urban yard near downtown Asheville:

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Let’s talk monarchs! This is the first spring that I’ve had monarchs stop by my milkweed patch on their migration north. Here’s my report:

Flying monarch

I found a total of 28 monarch eggs/caterpillars in
my milkweed patch this spring. 

2 died as caterpillars (cause unknown)
May 29, 2017:    4 monarchs released (3 girls/1 boy)
May 30, 2017:      5 monarchs released (3 girls/2 boys)
May 31, 2017:       5 monarchs released (3 girls/2 boys)
June 1, 2017:    2 monarchs released (1 girl/1 boy)

Then something bad happened:

June 2, 2017:     3 monarchs eclipsed from chrysalides. I released two healthy females, but a male came out of the chrysalids with deformed legs.

Could this be the result of O.E.? Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite that infects monarchs and queen butterflies — adding another terrible threat to these beloved creatures. Infected Monarchs pass this protozoan parasite to their off-spring when they lay their eggs. They can also pass it on by landing on a milkweed and inadvertently wiping the spores on the leaves. This is a great place for me to remind folks: do NOT plant tropical milkweed (Asclelpias curasssavica) unless you live in the tropics. Click here for more details from the scientists. Instead, plant milkweed that is native to your area. For Western North Carolina, here’s a list of our native milkweeds.

Little monarch

Here’s what I did:

immersed myself in researching the O.E. parasite and realized that I can no longer in good conscience raise and release monarchs without testing each and every butterfly in my care for the protozoan, and that I must change the way I raise these creatures to insure that I’m not inadvertently helping to spread O.E.

Before this incident, I already sterilized my containers. That’s good, but now I know I need to use a 20% bleach solution and soak all my equipment for a minimum of 4 hours. I need to be wearing gloves when I handle everything. This is serious business! I would wash my milkweed to removed predators, but now I’ve learned that even the milkweed needs a soak in a 10% bleach solution (and then a very good rinse!) before I give it to the caterpillars to feed on.

Anyone thinking of raising monarch butterflies MUST read the information on the University of Georgia’s Project Monarch Health website. As for my deformed monarch, I followed the directions provided on the Project Monarch Health website and took a sample of the butterfly’s abdominal scales with a piece of tape. I would later take the sample to the UNC-Asheville biology department and look for O.E. under a microscope. In the meantime, I put the poor butterfly in an envelope and put him in the freezer for a humane euthanasia.

June 3, 2017:  2 male monarchs eclosed from chrysalides; one healthy, one again with legs that wouldn’t clasp. Again, I took a sample and euthanized the deformed monarch.

But, guess what? A healthy looking monarch can have a mild case of O.E. That’s why every monarch should be tested before release.

Last week, I made it up to UNCA with my samples and am pleased to report that I did not find signs of the football-shaped O.E. spores among my butterflies’ scales. So, I don’t know what caused the problem with the two monarchs I had to euthanize. It sure made me sad. I can tell you that much.

I went ahead and released my five remaining monarchs after they eclosed (see below for details). Without a microscope, I couldn’t test them right away, and I didn’t want to keep them in containers until I could get to a good microscope. I’ve started researching microscopes and will order one next week.

June 9, 2017:    3 monarchs released (2 girl/1 boy)
June 10, 2017:    1 
male released
June 11, 2017:    1 female released

Happy news: none of my monarchs fell victim to parasitic wasps/flies this year. Hooray for that!

So here are my final numbers for spring:

28 eggs/caterpillars found
2 died as caterpillars (cause unknown)
2 euthanized due to leg deformities (not infected with O.E, so cause unknown)
24 monarchs raised and released (15 girls/9 boys)

Ahem … also, one female puppy adopted from the pound.

Here is the Wonderful Wonder Dog:

Wonder Dog in the milkweed

About MonarchLover

Heather Rayburn is a native of Asheville, NC., and works at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, a non-profit 10-acre public garden dedicated to the promotion of plants native to the Southern Appalachians. She has a B.A. from UNC-Asheville and a M.S. from the University of Tennessee, both in Mass Communication with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. She's also a dog lover and baker.

3 comments on “O.E. Scare! Changing the way I raise monarchs

  1. I’ve heard the word “eclosed” but have never heard “eclipsed” used for a butterfly coming from a chrysalis.

  2. Hello Heather,

    This is vitally important information! Thank you for sharing this and for explaining the sterilization process in detail. Did you get your microscope?
    I have read about O.E. but this post really brought the matter close to home!
    Congratulations on all of the babies that were successfully released. It must have been heartbreaking to lose the two as caterpillars and the two who suffered from leg deformities but you gave them a fighting chance, that’s for sure.
    I am having the problem of yellowing milkweed leaves. This is the second year that this has happened. The milkweed plants in another section of the yard have not shown this yet but I’m concerned that there will be no milkweed leaves left on the ones that have this issue. I am too afraid to spray an anti-fungal product on the plants even if the brand is purported to be one of the ‘safe’ ones. I don’t believe I am overwatering and suspect some fungus because of the dark spots that appear on some of the stems.
    Love the new addition to your family! Wonder Dog is adorable.
    Thank you for your post.

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