MONARCH BUTTERFLIES — PARASITES, PREDATORS & DISEASES

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.

 

PARASITES

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?

 

PREDATORS

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.

 

DISEASES

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

THE GOOD NEWS

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.

BUBBA’S BABY BIRDS

Bubba found another crop of baby birds in his garage on a shelf, among the nuts and bolts. Bubba thinks they might be wrens. Photo by Bubba.

MY CLEAN DIRT WAS NOT SO CLEAN

Sometimes our clean dirt is not so clean. I mix purchased potting/garden soil and purchased peat to make new, clean potting soil that is ready to use. In other words, it all came out of a bag. No worms. My container of choice is a recycle bin the City no longer wants us to use. Of course, it has no lid but I never gave that a thought because it was in my greenhouse.

My failure to think about a lid resulted in an incident in the greenhouse. I was attempting a quickie potting of a Torenia plant I found growing behind the greenhouse. My garden gloves were in the house but I had a small, metal trowel for spooning some of that clean dirt into a ceramic planter. It was going too slow. I tossed the trowel aside and reached in for handfuls at a time. This was great for a few handfuls. Then, as I reached deeper to pull up a new handful, I felt something round and more solid than potting soil. I screamed when a blue striped skink flew out of my hands. I screamed some more when it started clawing the slick side of the bin. More unintelligible sounds filled the air as I wrestled with the heavy blue bin trying to tip it so the skink could get out. Finally, the skink was on the floor of the greenhouse looking at me. That’s when I heard “Aack!”, “Aack!”  I’m really not sure which one of us was making that noise. Me, or the skink, as he realized my bare hands had been on him.

Skink
Photo by James DeMer/Pixabay

Needless to say, I wasted no time in ordering myself a big, honking trowel. No way was I ever again reaching into a pile of dirt, even clean dirt, with my bare hands.  Despite my best efforts with a ruler, this photo simply does not convey the sheer size of this thing. My entire hand will fit inside the silver trowel.

 

Fiskars Big Grip trowel
Big, honking trowel

VISITING THE GYPSY VANNER HORSES

I love horses but I don’t need to own one. I forgot that Ocala, Florida had a lot of horse farms until I paid a visit to Meta, an early subscriber to my blog, in October 2015. I forgot because I have so many file drawers in my head from living so long that stuff gets lost up there. On returning home, I checked the internet to see if Ocala had any Gypsy Vanner horse farms. Not only did they have one but it was the foundation farm for gypsy vanners in America. Ocala’s Gypsy Gold horse farm brought the Gypsy Vanners to  the U.S. I put it on my bucket list when I learned they gave farm tours.

In 2017, the Gypsy Gold horse farm moved up the bucket list. Nancy and I put it on our list for some Saturday. On March 17, 2018, we headed to Gypsy Gold with our ticket and a printed Google Map.

We were running extremely close to the arrival time when we reached Ocala and this is where our timely arrival went south. Orbiting the crooked moon as I do, I am always up for a hilarious adventure. Frustrating adventures make me grit my teeth and draw a deep line in the Florida sand.  I won’t bore you with all the details of stumbling into the Matrix of the Lost thanks to Google Maps. Only the Google map on Gypsy Gold’s “buy ticket” page is correct and I didn’t scroll down far enough to see it. We learned that the farm has tried for over 3 years to get Google to correct their map. The location of the farm is correct on Mapquest.com so I would now advise: NEVER TRUST JUST ONE OF THE MAPPING WEBSITES. Check both and if you find a discrepancy, call the person you plan to visit.

Dennis Thompson, our tour guide, and his late wife, discovered the gypsy vanners on a trip to England in 1995. The gypsy vanners were not a recognized breed at that time. The horses had been bred by British gypsy/travelers. At the time Nancy and I joined the group, Thompson was giving an intriguing lecture of the various gypsy/traveler families – Romanov, Kennedy and Diderot. Thompson had so much respect for the gypsy/travelers that he has a mini-museum dedicated to them with photos and beaded clothing.

Thompson had a good sense of humor which made his tour very interesting. We were shown two horses who had been bathed and dressed up for “company” as well as a walk around the grounds (he has a total of 40 acres) to see various horses in paddocks. Stallions could not be kept together because they fight, colts were kept together, mares were kept together, and most donkeys were kept together. I missed a lot of the lecture because I wanted to talk, pet and feed carrots to the horses without a crowd around. I learned near the end of the tour that I wasn’t supposed to feed the horses a whole carrot because the horse can’t distinguish between the end of the carrot and your hand. I’m lucky I still have an arm.

 

Dennis Thompson, Co-Founder of Gypsy Gold, with Gypsy Vanner

 

Same horse with Stable Manager

 

We were allowed to pet them; Thompson is leaning down because a farrier asked to see the horses’s shoes

 

side view of gypsy vanner horse, black with white feet
That’s me in the background; photo by Nancy

 

Gypsy Vanner with a child; they are mild-tempered horses

 

Side view of same horse - black coat, white stocking feet
Same horse; photo by Nancy

 

Brown eyes seemed predominant in the Gypsy Vanners

 

Gypsy Vanner with blue eyes

 

gypsy vanner horse with mustache
Gypsy vanner with mustache

 

Photo by Nancy

 

Photo by Nancy

 

The only Gypsy Vanner I saw with a solid red coat

 

Thompson even had four maccaws

 

Me and my bag of carrots with horse giving Nancy the evil eye for distracting me; photo by Nancy

For more information on these beautiful horses, check Gypsy Horse Association or Gypsy Vanner Horse Society.

CRITTERS WHO GARDEN

Last updated April 3, 2018

close-up of sunflower bloom

 

Will you agree this is a beautiful sunflower?

It was not planted by myself, Bubba or Flip Flops. That leaves various critters fond of the sunflower seeds Bubba provides in the bird feeder. We know birds and squirrels frequent the bird feeder but have no knowledge of critters who sneak up to the feeder under moonlight. Based on the location of this sunflower, right up next to the wall, I’m guessing that landscape design is not on the critter curriculum of life skills.

 

sunflower planted right at the wall

 

I am grateful to have critters who garden as I have enjoyed this bright yellow bloom for days.

 

Close-up of central core of sunflower at end of bloom cycle. Photo taken on March 18, 2018.
Close-up of central core at end of bloom cycle
Photo taken on March 18, 2018.