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Having problems raising healthy butterflies? You are not alone! This page was born out of our frustration! Been there, done that . . . It is estimated that only 10% of monarch eggs in the wild make it to butterflies. However, as Voltaire pointed out in Candide, this is not the best of all posssible worlds. Sometimes there are no answers other than this monarch was not meant to be. Keep in mind that these creatures cannot tolerate temperature extremes and they require some humidity. They can also be poisoned -- so only use non-toxic, mild soap solutions instead of insecticides on the milkweed in your garden (I remove aphids by hand or with a stream of water). Also, if you carefully bleach your milkweed and keep the containers clean, it will definitely help you avoid some of the issues below. If you have a sick larva, remove it immediately. It should be isolated or destroyed. Then bleach the infected container and give any remaining monarchs a clean container and new food and a fresh paper towel. Also wash your hands or change your rubber gloves between handling different containers.
The egg in A1 is a healthy egg that was just laid. A2 is close to hatching. You can see the head (black spot) of the monach near the top of the egg. In A3 the larva died and you can see the head is near the bottom and the top of the egg is empty. A4 is a dead egg that has turned deep yellow. Most likely this egg is infertile. A collapsed solid egg would also be infertile. A5 the dead egg has turned black. Could have been disease. Could have been a congential defect. I have read the egg could also be host to a wasp egg/larva. I saw several of these during the summer of 2010. If you use a mesh or wire cage outside, keep in mind that thrips and lacewings will eat the monarch eggs if they can get into the cage. A lacewing will leave an empty shell with 1-2 punchure marks (A6), which I have seen numerous times.
Parasitoids are a problem with larvae, especially 4th and 5th instars. In this case, the monarch larva becomes host to the larva of a fly or wasp. Part of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) study is to record the number of fly pupae or wasps that emerge from the monarch host.
Tachinid Flies: The first time I witnessed a fly vicitim, I came home one night to find a caterpillar hanging from the back of a leaf by his prolegs. Brown spots, like the ones on the caterpillar in photo B1, had developed on his body. I snipped the leaf and moved him to a jar. After doing some kitchen tasks I came back to find a yellowish pupa wriggling out of the monarch carcass. It was just like a sci-fi flick! I was horrified and destroyed it. Fly pupae can emerge from a chrysalis (photo B2, see depression in chrysalis) or from a caterpillar (B3) and frequently you will find the white strings left by the tachinids (B3). When they first emerge from the monarch, the fly pupae are off white and can crawl (B4). Eventually the fly pupae stop crawling and 24 hours later become dark brown (B5). When I am doing the parasite study for MLMP, I gently squeeze the dead monarch caterpillar in a paper towel to remove all the flies in order to get an accurate fly count (B6). Yes, it is nasty . . .
Incidentally, Shane was eager to collect monarchs during the spring of 2010, but we couldn’t find any. So he found 5 tent caterpillars and raised them. 3 of the 5 were victims of flies. 2 of the larvae became moths. Tachinids were introduced to the US to control the tent caterpillars, but they became an enemy to all caterpillars.
Wasps: While tachinids exit their hosts as pupae, wasps exit as adults and leave a gaping hole. There could be one wasp or many wasps depending on the species. The chrysalis in C1 turned brown with some black spots before the wasp came out. C2 is one of a few black swallowtail chrysalids that we were overwintering. During a daily check on the swallowtails, I noticed the wasp in C3 flying around the container and then I saw the hole in the chrysalis. My husband was able to identify the wasp as an ichneumon wasp since he had done a report on them in the 1st grade. One day when I was checking my pipevine plant for caterpillars, I found the remains of the caterpillar in C4. I believe it was a wasp victim due to the gaping hole.
Monarchs and other butterflies/moths are suseptable to diseases, viruses, bacterial infection and protozoan. While these problems are frustrating if you are trying to raise butterflies and moths, they are necessary in nature to keep population growth in check. Some of these are used as organic insecticides. Since I am not a biologist, I cannot test my insects for these pathogens. Some of them could have more than one pathogen. What I have done is to match the symptoms in the photos with what I have read online and in the books listed on the Monarch Butterfly Mania page. Note that keeping your monarch houses clean may prevent many of these issues.
Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or Oe is a microscopic protozoan parasite that is the arch enemy of monarchs. It can also infect queen butterflies. Bleach is currently the only reasonable thing that kills it (unless you can put your equipment in an autoclave). Before we release our butterflies, I check for Oe with our Celestron 44340 microscope. E1 was taken at 400x and all of the little dots on and around the butterfly’s scales are Oe. D2 is a closer shot with 1 of the football-shaped Oe parasites circled. This monarch was wild and I captured her to tag her in 2011, but destroyed her in the end because she was heavily infected. She did lay eggs in the yard and most of them died as caterpillars. The affects of Oe can be seen in photos E3-D10.
In one instance we had a larva hang in J formation for 24 hours and then it took him about 45 minutes to pupate. The chrysalis finally dried to the shape shown in E3. It started to fill with brown fluid instead of a butterfly. It may also have had NPV.
Photo E4 is a close-up of the Oe lesions forming on a chrysalis.
To date, the attempt at a chrysalis in E5 is one of our most bizzare pupas. We have had several of these pupas. Just the stuff sci-fi is inspired by!
Photos E6-E8 show problems with emerging. In E6 the chrysalis opened at the wrong spot. In E7 the butterfly’s butt is stuck in the chrysalis. In E8 the butterfly’s head is stuck in the chrysalis. My helping to "free" these guys was no help at all. At the time I didn’t realize that Oe was the problem. Now, I just detroy them instead of letting the poor things struggle.
When our butterflies first started to emerge, we noticed that they seemed to have two proboscises (photo E9). I wasn’t sure if this was a mutation or a result of the Oe. I was concerned and contacted by biologist Karen Oberhauser, who specializes in monarchs. She said that it is normal for the proboscis to be split, but that it should fuse together shortly after the butterfly ecloses. If the butterfly is weak or infected with Oe, it may not fuse together and the butterfly will not be able to feed.
If the butterfly has Oe or is weak it may not be strong enough to hang on to the chrysalis, stick or container and it will fall while drying its wings. This could also happen accidentally. Unfortunately, when the wings dry all crumpled up as shown in E10, the butterfly will not be able to fly. If it was an accident and the buttefly is able feed, you could keep it as a pet as long as it has food that it can reach. However, virtually all of the ones that have fallen that we have had, have been infected with Oe or were too weak from another pathogen to feed.