Disease and Nature

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  • #12780


    A disease called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or Oe has been observed in Monarchs here in Russell this season; Perhaps this is not the first time it has affected my Monarchs, and I’ve been playing with them for 30 or 40 years, maybe longer, and have noticed similar symptoms before.

    However, I have never identified Oe for sure before – always been too reluctant to do so. This year have a microscope and found a scientist who did say emphatically it’s Oe.

    Oe infects the Monachs in various ways, reducing the "success rate" or emergence. They often "get stuck" in their pupae, the pupae are often discoloured with black spots. I also have some pupae that go very brown and smelly and die – and suspect that this is caused by really bad Oe.

    Anyway with Oe, it’s not something that the typical Monarch butterfly lover will be affected by.

    I know that my Monarchs were relatively clean until the wasps died off at the end of the summer. Then we had hundreds of Monarch larvae downtown – and instead of farming them out all over the district (which would have been a more natural way of doing it) I brought them all home to my butterfly house, and brought lots of plant matter in too. And of course the disease would have spread like wildfire.

    You can see more about Oe here:


    If we don’t want to get into farming butterflies (as you’ll see in the pictures on that site) there are other ways we can address the problem.

    Reminds me of when I was farming organically. My farm was only ten acres, but I had cows, sheep, horse and a pig and chooks running around everywhere. I didn’t mind weeds as what one animal didn’t eat, another one did. The chooks and pig also spread the piles of dung left by the horse and cows – so that worms that affected my cows and sheep had a reduced chance of emerging.

    In my book although there were lots of good grasses and clovers, other "weeds" like blackberry, plantain, thistles, dandelion etc gave the added variety to their diet. It was all in balance.

    My neighbour, a dairyfarmer, only wanted to keep cows to produce heaps of milk, so he sprayed to get rid of his broadleaf weeds. He sowed clover and rye grass seed. Then he had a clover flea problem – this little flea was eating his clover, so he had to spray for that. So much clover would produce milk, but it also meant the cows would be more susceptible to bloat in the spring when the clover really took off – so the vet and he injected these huge plastic bullets down their gut, the bullets were loaded with a slow release anti-acid to prevent bloat. Even so he still lost a few cows to bloat, and these were expensive well-bred, well-fed Friesians.

    Did I say well-fed? Well, they were, if you wanted machines to produce milk. But to the cows it was probably like a diet of McDonalds day-in, day-out. All these expenses (seed, spray, vet’s expenses) must have affected my friend’s profitability of course.

    We were discussing this over a cup of tea one day – he’d been out spraying for clover-flea and I told him I didn’t know if I had it, so we went and looked. We found a healthy clover plant, he rustled the leaves, and then caught a handful of air just above the plant. He brought his closed fist in front of our faces, and opened it, and all these little mites jumped out. Yes I had it too! But it wasn’t a problem – because that clover plant was surrounded by a good variety of other plant matter and it was hard for the flea to have a population explosion – whereas on his farm the clover flea was in paradise!

    What I SHOULD have done when we had that outbreak of caterpillars downtown, was take twenty or so to this large healthy plant in someone’s garden, and another twenty there further up the road and so on. Instead I brought them home and by bringing in more plant when needed, and leaving it in buckets of water, I created a paradise for Oe. I didn’t keep the place sterilised (as commercial operations would) and just left the frass and rotten stems behind.

    Oe is all part of Nature’s way of controlling populations – as are the wasps. If we want more Monarchs we have to take the good with the bad. Sure we can help things along by planting more milkweed, but we’re going to have to accept that by having more Monarchs we’re going to have more feed for wasps, praying mantides, and we’re going to give butterfly diseases more chance to take hold. Best to plant our milkweed in smaller, more removed areas, than in huge ‘plantations’. Better to have three or four plants in three or four sections of the garden, than all in one place.

    We live and learn.

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    I have just opened this thread again, as I am receiving requests about why people’s butterflies are dying.

    Firstly, it’s quite difficult to know how bad the situation is unless we can measure a percentage of sick to healthy/normal emergences. There will always be the odd sad one which has a damaged wing, doesn’t emerge properly or falls to the floor. But when you have over 30% of your butterflies ‘coming out wrong’, then you need to look for symptoms.

    If the disabilities are all different, e.g. one might have a hole in its wing, another few have proboscises that don’t zip up, another one fails to feed, and another has deformed wings, I would suspect environmental factors such as spray drift or chemicals in the atmosphere. There are certain diseases and viruses which affect Monarch butterflies, but these mostly become apparent when your butterfly population are under stress, e.g. when you have hundreds of caterpillars and very little food. (Just like it’s easier for us to catch a cold when our resistance is low because of poor quality food, and we’re working in a situation where there are lots of other vulnerable people around us!)

    But the symptoms of diseases and viruses are usually all very similar. There’s a good website here which tells you about some of them, and some of the predators which can affect our Monarchs too.



    I know that it’s probably not much help to you in this case. Perhaps your plant had been sprayed at some point – or perhaps the neighbours had been spraying, or it could even be that the Council had someone spraying weeds in the street and that that has come onto your Swan plant.

    In this case, there’s not much you can do, except learn the lesson — we are killing off our insect life when we use chemicals. We are meant to have a balance of insects – good things and bad things – in our garden, and when we use chemicals we throw the whole balance out. Better to find an organic method of controlling a pest (not exterminating it – no spray will EVER eliminate a pest anyway – but keeping it in manageable portions).

    It’s sad when you see deformed butterflies – but just focus on the ones that you are successfully seeing as adults, rather than the deformed ones. Remember too, that the Monarch female lays 300-400 eggs each (one laid over 1000) and the reason is that they will not all get to maturity. If they are badly deformed and have no chance of survival, I put them in a plastic container in the deep-freeze and the butterfly’s system slowly shuts down so it doesn’t experience anything untoward – just thinks winter is here, and when its asleep, dies.

    If your question isn’t answered in this discussion or elsewhere in the forum, then please add a question and someone will share their experience with you.




    Thankyou Jacqui for this post it’s very interesting and informative!
    from AK



    The Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust joined IBBA (International Butterfly Breeders Association) about a year ago, and personally I have found it invaluable from all that I have learned since.

    One of the “experts” who advises IBBA members is Nigel Venters, who has written several books on butterflies and I know travels the world looking at butterflies.

    The following is from a post he made to the IBBA list (mostly US people, some in Canada) . Apart from Oe I don’t know what other diseases appear here in NZ – but it seems “good common sense” if we are going to do more than watch Monarchs in our garden. Quote:

    The position on disease as I see it follows:

    O.e. is a species specific parasite, it affects only Monarchs and other members of Danaide (Queens, etc) All other butterflies are completely unaffected by O.e. The O.e. parasite has evolved over millions of years alongside the Monarch. It is quite normal to find low levels of this parasite in wild collected stock, where in low infection rates it does no real harm to the species. It only becomes a problem when bred stock kept in high densities, under stress in closed conditions using cut hostplant. So the challenge for the butterfly farmer (As I see it) is to learn to live with low levels of infection, and choose breeding methods where O.e. does not become a problem.

    Nosema – It is not unusual to find microsporidia in any of the butterfly life stages, microsporidia are single-celled organisms that are parasitic. 1000’s of species of microsporidia have been described that infect most animal groups… shock horror even man! Like many bacteria, parasites and virus… we learn to live with them… It was these that killed the Martian invaders in the War of the Worlds!

    The point is that females do infect their offspring… either inside or outside their eggs… and a further point is that small rates of infection do no harm… that is how parasites work… it is not in the parasites interest to kill its host. Only when these infections build up to high densities can they cause problems… keep a clean healthy operation… plenty of fresh air and natural outdoor breeding and you should have no problems.

    Polyhedrosis is quite another matter… it is a virus and infected stock will all die.

    Interestingly in experiments with the Gypsy moth… larvae deliberately infected with both Nosema (Microsporidia) and Polyhedrosis (Virus) showed that the microsporidia infection actually slowed the effect of the virus… the larvae took much longer to die from the Polyhedrosis infection!

    Bacterial infection, (many, many different types) Most deaths in captivity (in my view) are due to bacterial infections overwhelming the larval and pupal stages through… again…. It only becomes a problem when bred stock kept in high densities, under stress in closed conditions using cut hostplant.

    Points to ponder:

    I posted a while ago that experiments in Portugal showed that Interestingly in experiments with the Gypsy moth larvae deliberately infected with both Nosema (Microsporidia) and Polyhedrosis (Virus) showed that the microsporidia infection actually slowed the effect of the virus…the larvae took much longer to die from the Polyhedrosis infection!…. I see from your own experiments that you state that, “Oddly enough, when we accidentally infected first instar (nosema infected) Monarch larvae with OE spores, nosema was suppressed. When we took the same stock and sterilized the eggs and elimated the OE, nosema returned as badly as before”

    So in other words, Nosema suppresses Polhedrosis…but you state O.e. suppresses Nosema! This raises some alarming prospects… Like all things in life there is a great deal of interdependency between organisms… including parasites and hosts, should we actually be breeding disease-sterile butterflies for release? Would this make them more prone to attack from these diseases which occur naturally in the wild? Would their subsequent interbreeding with wild stock affect natural immunity to the wild stock?

    There seems to me only two ways forward, breeding in lab conditions in a completely sterile environment…alongside the potential problems with immunity that could cause. And given that there is no artificial diet for Monarchs (That I am aware of) that is efficient… you are back to live hostplant… and this means some levels of infection by any or all of the above diseases.

    I believe (from the farmer’s point of view, not the scientist) that knowing exactly what killed your stock is fairly unimportant…there are so many different potential infections. You will never eradicate them all, far better to adjust the breeding methods to avoid infection building up in the first place. Better to cure the problem in the first place than to use sticking plaster to help cure it!

    OK, I like to use growing hostplant planted outside in sleeves, this method may not work well everywhere, it depends on climate and pests like fire ants. There is no magic single breeding solution like a one sized glove that fits all. However regardless of where you are you can adjust your methods to a more natural process. If you can’t sleeve outside then pot the hostplant and sleeve that, you have already seen how densely you can plant hostplants. Flight houses and breeding areas… Rotation… rotate your breeding areas if possible…this means having more than one of course…but the ancient method of lying fallow does work!

    Sterilise everything … cleanliness is vital… never touch another sleeve without sterilising your hands (Sprays used in hospitals for hands are easily available from chemist here in UK and I’m sure the US, keep a few handy at all times) If you have to breed in closed conditions… never use airtight closed lids… always netting. Change the hosplant everyday, not all species will accept hostplants standing in water, but one way round this is to use wet cotton wool, form a clump of cut stems, put the stems in cotton wool, soak it and then use cling film and a rubber band to hold it on and provide a water tight seal.

    Put the new hostplant in and allow the larvae to crawl to the fresh food… try to touch them as little as possible. In containers, always put some absorbent kitchen roll on the bottom to take in any excess moisture, and change this daily too.

    After using sterilise everything… try not to be too greedy and overcrowd too many larvae together, this causes stress and weakens resistance.

    If you have problems… ease back the number per container the next time to determine optimum conditions, and safe levels Follow these procedures and you won’t have to waste time identifying diseases…they won’t bother you!

    Now this is a personal view, and of course I accept that there may be many other with different approaches… the thing is I don’t ever suffer from disease that overwhelms my stock, although I am sure I have low levels of all sorts of non-fatal infections… just like they do in the wild!


    Nigel – it is much appreciated.




    Thankyou Jacqui, just saw the pictures. Very sad. I remmember crying when 3 yrs previously I saw a paper wasp taking off with one of my small caterpillars.
    from Auckland



    Oh is that what they are – yes, I have seen them Jacqui. Gosh, the poor monarchs have a lot to cope with :O :O



    Hi there Pam,

    I’ve just found this interestnig website – some “great” photographs (though not pleasant viewing for Monarch lovers). It’s all a learning experience though.


    I don’t think I’ve ever seen ladybird larvae? Have you?



    Thankyou Jacqui for this post. I have found many of my crysalis are dead and I suspect I may have had this problem without knowing it.
    from Auckland

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