There is nothing as endearingly whimsical to me as a butterfly in flight. I have maintained a butterfly garden in my backyard for seventeen summers. Butterflies are to me as daffodils were to Wordsworth…”they flash upon that inward eye” and fill my heart with joy.
I don’t raise them in captivity to protect them, as some people do. I provide a pesticide free habitat in my garden and a variety of plants to attract the adults and feed the larvae. Other than that, I let nature take its course, survival of the fittest. I observe with awe as an adult emerges from a chrysalis, against all odds, hanging on and pumping its wings until it is strong enough to flutter across the garden like a flying flower. I watch the female dance with intention from plant to plant leaving one tiny pearl of an egg on the underside of a leaf and moving on to deposit another elsewhere.
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed one monarch who could not pump its wings. She had fallen from her chrysalis to the ground, struggling to take flight, flailing and twisting with no success at becoming airborne. I moved her to a flower in dappled sunlight, hoping she would get some nectar and gain the strength to recover. She didn’t. I found her dead next to the plant the following morning.
I belong to the Louisiana Butterflies and Moths Facebook group, and one particular post caught my eye. A person asked about a monarch with damaged wings, wondering what had caused the problem. Someone else posted a link to “OE Spore Disease in Monarchs.” An OE spore is a type of protozoan that can be present on milkweed, is consumed by the monarch larva, lives in its gut, and does its damage to the pupating adult. Many of these butterflies emerge with malformed wings, unable to fly, and die a few hours later.
Since my philosophy had been to let nature take its course, I decided to do nothing. A few days ago, I found another monarch who appeared to be the victim of OE spores. Then, within a twenty-four hour period, three of four chrysalides I had been observing on my brick wall produced monarchs that could not fly. On closer examination, the fourth had possible evidence of OE spores visible through the chrysalis. Seventy-five to one hundred percent of this sample had been infected.
After searching websites about Monarchs, I learned that this condition is highly communicable. Some adults have a few spores and do not have damaged wings. They can still fly and will transmit spores to milkweed, which continues the cycle of infection. Other butterflies survive briefly with damaged wings but perish within a few hours. It is suggested that the most humane action for the infected adults is to put them into a container and place them in a freezer for at least two hours before disposing of them in the trash.
One of the sites I stumbled upon was www.monarchhealth.org. I emailed them for advice and quickly received a response. Project Monarch Health is connected with the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. Monarch Health specifically studies the effect and prevalence of OE spores in Monarch, Queen, and Soldier butterflies. The information I received will, I hope, help me to become a better steward to the monarchs.
I learned that tropical milkweed, which I have, should be cut back yearly. This will not only encourage the monarchs to migrate but will also prevent the spore population from continuing to gather on the plants and worsen the infection. A better choice is to plant native varieties of milkweed such as swamp milkweed or common milkweed, which will naturally die back and reduce the prevalence of infection.
With heavy infestations of OE spores, which my garden apparently has, it is advised to cut back and dispose of all milkweed cuttings immediately. After putting two beautiful, terminally affected monarchs into the freezer, I set about the task of cutting back all the milkweed in my garden. There were tiny caterpillars and eggs on many of the plants, but I thought it was better to end the cycle of the disease with this cache of caterpillars than to have it spread more widely throughout the population.
My heart was heavy, tough love really is tough, but as I worked in the garden, a monarch fluttered among the flowers with me. I felt some comfort that I was pruning the milkweed that could have been deadly to her offspring. She circled around me and then soared over the fence, hopefully to find a safe place to deposit her eggs.