Monarch butterflies have a mortality rate of over 90% due to parasites, predators and diseases. A Monarch butterfly flitting through your garden is a miracle of survival. It victoriously made it through the entire life cycle — egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult. After all that striving, it will live a mere 2 to 6 weeks as an adult butterfly.

This blackened Monarch caterpillar showed up in a small patch of milkweed I provide as a host plant for monarchs.


I consulted my friend, Cee, the Butterfly Lady, to find out what happened and she provided me with several possibilities.



Monarchs in tropical areas have the highest rate of infection from Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha, mostly referred to as OE probably because no one can pronounce it. OE is a parasitic single cell organism infecting only milkweed butterflies in the Lepidoptera order. The most well-known of these are Monarchs, Queens and the Luna Moth.

The Tachinid Fly, another parasite, attacks anywhere from 10% to 40% of the Monarch population by laying eggs on the caterpillar. The egg hatches and the fly larva bores into the butterfly caterpillar where it becomes a maggot that feeds on the caterpillar from the inside out. Doesn’t that sound awful?



The list of predators is long. Ants, mites, spiders, Chalcid and Trichogramma wasps, plus larval forms of other insects can attack the Monarch eggs. Birds and rodents can also attack caterpillars. As an adult, the Monarch may not make it to old age because of birds, dragonflies, mantids, parasites, wasps, rodents, and insecticides.



The two most common infections that result in “Black Death” are Pseudomonas and NPV. In both cases, the caterpillar shrivels up, turns black, and goo seeps from both ends.

Pseudomonas is a bacterial infection that likes warm, moist environments. It is found all over the world in soil, water and plants. It’s a good idea to allow your plants and soil to dry after watering to discourage development.

NPV, or Nuclear polyhedrosis virus, is most evident in areas with short or mild winters. The longer growing season allows time for NPV to spread. It causes caterpillars to crawl toward the top of the plant and then hang in an inverted V when it dies. Each caterpillar can have a billion virus particles. All that goo seeping from both ends spreads the virus.

A freeze might kill the plants on which virus particles from dying caterpillars exist but it does not kill the virus. Six hours of direct sun will kill the virus but, of course, the sun does not reach shady areas.

It’s hard to tell whether Pseudomonas, NPV or a predator killed a caterpillar because the caterpillar death often looks the same.

This is not a natural progression of a chrysalis. It became spotty, discolored and stayed that way for several days. The change to dark happens more evenly and rapidly in a healthy chrysalis. Photo by Cee.


More examples of infected chrysalis. Photo by Cee


Despite the discouragement of parasites, predators, and diseases, the female Monarch can produce 200 to 600 eggs in her short lifetime which means the 90% mortality rate still leaves almost 10% of caterpillars becoming butterflies. When you see one of those 10% flitting about in your garden, recognize the miracle you are witnessing.

You can help the caterpillars become butterflies by making room in your yard for native plants. According to Jim McCormac, in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, “Nearly all caterpillar species shun non-native flora.”

The University of Florida offers a list of host and food plants for Florida butterflies. You can’t go wrong with a few varieties of milkweed plants which are host plants for the Monarch, Queen and Soldier/Tropical Queen butterflies.


A butterfly house, or lepidopterarium is a facility for the breeding and display of butterflies, usually for educational purposes. Butterfly World, the first butterfly house in the United States, opened in Coconut Creek, Florida, in 1988. Now, butterfly houses are owned and operated by museums, universities, zoos, non-profit corporations, and private individuals as part of their residence. You can build your own butterfly house which my friend, Cee, and her husband did earlier this spring.

First, a little history. It all started with building the wine bottle garden to have a place to plant flowers to attract butterflies. From there, she began poking around on Facebook groups dedicated to raising butterflies. In 2017, she began hatching monarchs and successfully raised 480 monarchs and one swallowtail. In 2018, her goal was butterfly house. After much searching on the internet, she and her husband decided to build their own. She also planted a huge bed of milkweed, a food source and host plant for the monarch butterfly. Now, her back yard looks like this:


Wine bottle garden on left, blue bottle tree on right, 2018 butterfly house in background. Photo by Cee.


Cee’s backyard garden is a peaceful paradise of dappled shade, flowers, and monarchs flying around. My immediate impression was a feeling of well-being that I don’t get in my own garden despite how much time I work in it. Note to self: plant more flowers that butterflies like.

This 16 foot by 6 foot milkweed was planted in the spring of 2018 on the left side of the new butterfly house. Cee has now learned that planting milkweed in large blocks is not a good idea. Once predators, such as the tachnid fly, find it, caterpillars become victims. She has now scattered pots of milkweed around the backyard.

Close-up of milkweed bed.
Close-up of milkweed bed. Photo by Cee.


Organza bags used as seed catchers in the milkweed bed. Purchased from Amazon but also available in packages of 6 at Dollar Tree.
Organza bags used as seed catchers in the milkweed bed. Purchased from Amazon but also available in packages of 6 at Dollar Tree.


Agapanthus blooming in the shade. White rain barrels in the background.
Agapanthus blooming in the shade. White rain barrels in the background.



This is Cee’s new 8 foot x 8 foot butterfly house built by her husband over 2 months of weekends. Cee helped him install the screen panels and the roof is made of clear corrugated vinyl panels.



The butterfly house allows Cee to keep more habitats. Last year, she released one Black Swallowtail. This year, she added the Gulf Fritillary to her impressive list of butterfly releases. Next, she hopes to be able to attract the Zebra Heliconian to her garden.


A wall decoration from Hobby Lobby fashioned into a door knob.
A wall decoration from Hobby Lobby fashioned into a door knob by Cee’s husband.


Giant Milkweed
Giant Milkweed which I just love and had never before seen.


Maypop Purple Passion Vine at door of the butterfly house; host plant for gulf fritillary.
Maypop Purple Passion Vine at door of the butterfly house; host plant for gulf fritillary.


Close-up of Maypop Purple Passion Vine flower.
Close-up of Maypop Purple Passion Vine flower. Photo by Cee.


Butterfly bench from Kirklands.
Butterfly bench from Kirklands.


Two solar panels run the lights inside the butterfly house. Solar battery back-up has a radio.
Two solar panels run the lights inside the butterfly house. Solar battery back-up has a radio.


Left front corner of butterfly house. Red battery back-up in background.



Happy Place sign
To me, this said it all. Photo by Cee.


Front left corner


$50 Granite counter top purchased from Habitat for Humanity. The hole for the sink now has a garbage can under it for quick clean-up.
$50 Granite counter top purchased from Habitat for Humanity. The hole for the sink now has a garbage can under it for quick clean-up.


Butterfly wind chime in back corner.
Butterfly wind chime in back corner.


Floor of the butterfly house. The rock and stepping stone is for tax purposes -- our City taxes outbuildings with cement floor.
Floor of the butterfly house. The rock and stepping stone is for tax purposes — our City taxes outbuildings with cement floor.


Rooting common milkweed in water. The PVC pipe is a paper towel holder. Photo by Cee.


Seed saving in paper bags; drying seeds in mesh bags. Photo by Cee.
Seed saving in paper bags; drying seeds in mesh bags. Photo by Cee.

This next photo shows Cee’s mesh butterfly habitats from Amazon; the small green ones are around $10. Cee has found that viewing is easier with the black habitat. Three habitats are for monarchs, one for swallowtail and one for gulf fritillary.


Photo by Cee.

Diseases in butterflies are more prevalent in climates that are warm year-round where the milkweed isn’t knocked back by the cold or a freeze.  An infected monarch can drop OE spores onto milkweed leaves that are then eaten by the larva when it hatches from the egg.  OE or Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha is a parasite that infects butterflies in the monarch species. To avoid OE, a special ratio of bleach and water is used on both the eggs of the caterpillars and the milkweed fed to them.  It also helps to cut back the milkweed and allow it to regenerate. This is what Cee does for her monarchs:

  • Find eggs on leaves.
  • After 24 hours, to ensure the shell has hardened, it is safe to bleach eggs that have not hatched using proper bleach/water ratio and timing.
  • Put in small container or put leaves in floral picks until eggs hatch.
  • Move to habitat with similarly sized caterpillars, keeping bleached and unbleached separated since caterpillars from bleached eggs are less likely to be diseased.
  • Keep in mesh habitat until they pupate and form chrysalis.
  • After chrysalis has hardened (about 1 day), move to chrysalis “nursery.”


This is Cee's chrysalis nursery (inside a zippered laundry hamper). Photo by Cee.
This is Cee’s chrysalis nursery (inside a zippered laundry hamper). Photo by Cee.


Black swallowtail chrysalis in black butterfly habitat.
Black swallowtail chrysalis in black butterfly habitat. Photo by Cee.

Laminated booklet of 80 species, their caterpillars and host plants. Published by (2014). It stays in the butterfly house.


Laminated booklet of 80 species, their caterpillars and host plants. Published by (2014).
Photo by Cee.


I was planning a trip to Cee’s on July 2 to get a close-up shot of some baby monarch caterpillars. She called that morning to tell me she was running out of milkweed food for her monarch caterpillars.

She had purchased 27 milkweed plants since early spring at a cost of $4.49 to $4.99 per plant. Each 3-foot plant, when covered with mesh netting, will support only 3 to 4 caterpillars unless you put additional sprigs of milkweed in a floral water tube inside the netting.

Her caterpillars had mowed down almost every milkweed plant she had purchased. She was concerned that her husband was going to have a conniption fit if she wheeled into the big box store’s parking lot, yet again, for more milkweed. I could envision subversive tactics on her part. Like leaving the milkweed plants in the trunk of her car until he was in the shower, then sneaking the plants out to the patio and quickly netting them so he wouldn’t know.

I told her I would bring some milkweed and she suggested that I take some of the baby caterpillars home since I had three milkweed plants and she was planning a short trip. By the time I got to her house, she had also decided I should take a netted pot of milkweed with caterpillars that were almost out of food. You will recall from Hatching Monarchs, that I do not do worms. I am not encouraged that caterpillars are also called larvae. Thus, her suggestion caused a bug-eyed moment as I thought about all the things that could happen to these caterpillars inside my house because I have two felines, one of them a very curious Siamese. I also thought about trying to get them home inside my car without having an Alfred Hitchcock moment. I never agreed to take all these worms but, let’s face it, silence is acquiescence. In truth, I didn’t want Cee to think I was a wimp.

She had already hatched 32 monarchs since the season began and was well on her way to some of that big word stuff called expertise.

a few of Cee’s netted caterpillars on patio table

Cee provided me with supplies – rubber gloves, a floral water tube to hold fresh sprigs of milkweed, the mesh Cone Paint Strainer with elastic at one end (about $3 from Home Depot), a dollar store laundry hamper and metal stakes. She then told me how to take care of them. She then walked me out to the car with a container of babies and the netted pot of milkweed containing 5 caterpillars who would soon metamorphose into a chrysalis. I strapped that pot of milkweed into the seat belt with great care. No way was I taking a chance on it falling over and spilling worms inside my car. I think I managed to smile at Cee as I waved goodbye.

At home that afternoon, I conned Bubba into putting the babies on the outside milkweed plant. I plopped one of Cee’s laundry hampers over the plant and anchored it with rocks and metal stakes. For the indoor netted caterpillars who were out of food, I put a sprig of fresh milkweed in the glass floral water tube Cee gave me.

I put them on the dining room table because my two felines have been discouraged from getting on it. Every time I walked by the table, I had to count to make sure I had 5 caterpillars still inside the net. What if they gnawed their way through that netting and were out roaming around my house?

Fobbing off almost 10 worms on me was apparently successful enough that Cee began passing them out to co-workers so that she could make a trip to some northern-bound state where it is probably cooler than it is here. I can’t help but wonder how many of those co-workers screamed all the way home with a couple pots of worms strapped into THEIR passenger seat.

A lot of emails went back and forth as I tried to cope with having worms in my house and doing right by them, too. I also did a lot of research on my own. For instance, the caterpillars had an antenna at both the front and the back. I wondered about that. Research told me that the antennae are sensory organs for guiding the caterpillar to food because none of its six pairs of eyeballs are worth a flip. Interestingly, if you find a caterpillar with three antennae, that’s a Queen Butterfly which is more solid orange in color than the Monarch. They share an affinity for milkweed.

antennae at both ends of caterpillar

Within a few days, many of the caterpillars did not require much assistance from me. They had migrated to the top of the netted enclosure, prepared a silk pad on the mesh netting or the milkweed stalks, attached themselves to the silk pad and hung themselves in the “J position.”

monarch caterpillars in J position

Five days later, the adult caterpillars had formed a chrysalis and I was feeding only a sixth baby caterpillar that popped up out of nowhere. I began to calm down.

On July 12th, I started my morning with 2 black chrysalides. I knew hatching was imminent and fired off an email for help. Cee was in the process of trying to fly home but thanks to modern technology, she emailed me that they would hatch in a few hours and to leave the butterflies in the netted pot for 4 to 5 hours while their wings dried out.

dark chrysalis an hour before hatching


newly hatched monarch next to empty chrysalis

Both monarch butterflies were released in my backyard around 5 p.m. I have four remaining chrysalides in the house and at least two outside in the laundry hamper.


Around 9 a.m., I found last night’s dark chrysalis had just hatched because his wings were folded like they would have been inside the chrysalis. Huge abdomen and very small wings. He was so deformed I ran for my camera. By the time I got back, he was modestly hiding his huge abdomen. Cee caught a much better photo:
Photo by Cee
Within 10 minutes, the monarch releases his bottom wings and irons himself out. The “deformity” disappears.
By noon, another chrysalis had hatched.


Over the Memorial Day Weekend,  my friend Cee was in High Point, North Carolina where she visited the butterfly farm, All-A-Flutter. It appears, from the website, to be a private farm with a large screened-in area for the butterflies. Cee shares the following photographs:




Monarchs on milkweed
Notice the pots of milkweed beyond butterfly house


All-A-Flutter is relocating the chrysalis, probably with scotch tape, for safety and, obviously, for visitors to see.



A common recipe for feeding hummingbirds also works for butterflies. Boil 1 part granulated sugar and 4 parts water until sugar dissolves. Cool to room temperature. Soak bright colored scouring pads or sponges in the sugar solution. The sponges give the butterflies a landing place. Place among the flowers in your garden but 4 to 6 inches higher.

Sponge apparently soaked with sugar water


A butterfly feeder

Got fruit going bad? Butterflies love rotting apples, bananas, grapefruits, nectarines, oranges, peaches, and strawberries. Place it on a tray for the butterflies and keep moist with the addition of water or fruit juice.



My friend, Cee, learned that if you plant it, they will come. In 2016, she had two milkweed plants in her wine bottle bed. A yellow (Asclepias tuberosa) milkweed and a red milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  She soon found monarchs in her yard because milkweed is both a food and a host plant for monarch butterflies. This is Cee’s wine bottle flower bed which you first saw at Yard Art with Wine Bottles and a Plow.

Cee's wine bottle flower bed with laundry hamper habitat
Cee’s wine bottle flower bed with laundry hamper habitat

This year, Cee has planted seeds or plants of an impressive list of butterfly attractors – alyssum, cosmos, dill, Dutchman’s pipevine, fennel, lantana, lavender, lemon grass, parsley, penta, phlox, passion vine, sage, milkweed, purple coneflower, purple salvia, Shasta daisy, stonecrop, sweet pea, verbena and zinnia.

The milkweed plants came up again this year and Cee is doing her best to expand the Monarch population with netting arrangements inside and outside the house. She is learning by doing.

Inside the house, she has a netting arrangement over a milkweed plant. When the caterpillar is fully grown, it leaves the milkweed plant in search of a quiet place to pupate. It makes a silk pad or mat from which to hang. It hangs in the “J” position for about a day and then forms a cocoon. In about 12-14 days, the monarch butterfly will hatch from the cocoon.

Pupae and "J" position of monarch caterpillars hanging inside a net
Netting arrangement inside the house. You can see two pupae/chrysalis and one caterpillar hanging in the “J” position.
Photo by Cee

Outside, Cee uses a mesh hamper from the dollar store as a “habitat” to protect the caterpillars and their cocoons from predators. She secured the bottom of the mesh hamper with rocks and mulch in her wine bottle garden.

Very small monarch caterpillar
The auto-focus on Cee’s camera saw her hand instead of the teeny
tiny caterpillar. Photo by Cee.

At one point, she talked about relocating the caterpillars. I freaked out. I do NOT do worms even if they eventually become a beautiful butterfly. She reassured me that she breaks off the leaf or uses a stick. She either encourages them to get on the stick or she uses the stick to gently pick them up. Whew, what a relief!

Once a monarch has hatched, she uses her fingers to pick them up and remove them from the hamper or they get on her finger and she sets them on another plant to allow them to finish drying.  Most have flown right off her hand.


Notice chrysalis hanging at the right corner of the mesh hamper.
Photo by Cee


Newly released monarch. Photo by Cee.


Monarch released on Easter Sunday. Photo by Cee.

The number of butterflies she releases every day can vary from 2 all the way up to 7. She has about 17 caterpillars now but hopes to grow and release more over the summer.


As spring became summer, Cee wanted a larger habitat in which her chrysalis could hatch. She found a zip-up laundry hamper (approximate size 24″ high x 14″ wide) on clearance at Bed Bath & Beyond. It has a bigger opening for pulling a wooden stand in and out. She sewed a net screen over the handles to prevent the entry of predatory insects.

Laundry hamper with handles sewn shut.
Laundry hamper with handles sewn shut. Photo by Cee.


From Norfolk Botanical Gardens, she got the idea to install pool noodles (blue) on the center of a wooden stand her husband built for her. The stand is inside a zippered laundry hamper. You will note that three monarchs have just hatched, leaving their empty, clear chrysalis on the pool noodle. The two dark chrysalis will be the next to hatch. She uses a straight pin to remove the chrysalis from its silk pad by gently picking at the silk pad and transferring it to the pool noodles.


Zippered laundry hamper with chrysalis pinned to pool noodles.
Photo by Cee.


Photo of mesh habitats hanging up to dry after being washed.
Even worms have laundry. Photo by Cee.


Cee reports that 179 monarchs have been released, 26 are in chrysalis, 29 are in “J” formation and 19 are caterpillars.