I got into raising monarchs by accident, but once I saw the many threats to this not-quite-endangered species, I purposely set about learning all I could to help keep their population healthy and prospering.
Some of that learning centered on how to protect monarchs from their natural predators, but more of it centered on using best practices to keep from spreading the spore that is the bane of monarchs, a single-celled organism commonly referred to as O.e.
Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or O.e., is a single-cell parasite that infects monarch butterflies and is spread by contact. O.e. kills some monarchs in the pupal stage (when the monarch is in its chrysalis), it deforms some so that they can’t fly or even live long after they emerge from the chrysalis. It makes others weak, or they’re simply carriers.
Monarchs spread O.e. from plant to plant. The more plants they visit, the wider they spread the pathogen. Mothers who have O.e. transfer it to the eggs they lay, and when the new larva (caterpillar) eats its own eggshell as its first meal and ingests the spore, it becomes infected. Caterpillars who eat leaves that infected butterflies or caterpillars have touched become infected as well.
As a human interloper, it’s my job to not contribute to the spread artificially, which would result in much higher incidences of infected monarchs. I handle every one of them, one after the other, which, if I didn’t use best practices, would amount to every butterfly touching every other butterfly—the polar opposite of social distancing.
I’ve experienced the heartbreak of seeing the effects of O.e. infestations: I’ve seen chrysalises that changed and looked like the butterfly was ready to eclose, only for the process to stop while the butterfly died inside; I’ve watched hopefully as butterflies unfurled from the chrysalis in a graceful ballet, only to display deformed wings that would never allow them to fly; and I’ve seen butterflies that are too weak to fly, too weak to even sip nectar when I tried to keep them alive in their own enclosure.
I’ve seen butterflies that looked well and were strong, carriers who tested positive for an O.e. infestation that didn’t affect them, but would affect the others they would spread it to—if released into the general population.
To prevent the spread of O.e., I quarantine caterpillars and chrysalises that I think may be carrying O.e. I monitor them carefully. Sometimes they’re entirely healthy– or at least they don’t have O.e.
There is nothing like watching healthy monarchs develop. The magic of science at work in their transformations from caterpillar to chrysalis, then chrysalis to butterfly is fascinating. Science is the thing that got me so interested in the monarchs. And science is what tells me hand washing is essential in handling them.
Sanitizing the things I touch while I’m working with the monarchs is also essential. That includes my cell phone (because I photograph them), my doorknobs, my desk, my computer keyboard, the tape dispenser, the pen, the handheld microscope, the standard microscope, and even my reading glasses that I put on and take off constantly. Sound familiar?
I house the monarchs in mesh enclosures specially made to keep out their smallest natural predators, wasps the size of fleas. I sanitize the “doorknob” to the mesh enclosures, which is a zipper that I zip and unzip many times a day. I sanitize the enclosures themselves after one group of monarchs is finished and before I house new ones in it.
Visible only under a microscope, O.e. spores appear as tiny black football-shaped dots on the scales of the butterfly’s abdomen. To test for the spore, I hold the butterfly gently by its wings with its wings closed, and I use a small piece of shiny Scotch tape and touch it to the butterfly’s abdomen. Then I put that piece of tape on a small square of paper. I put the paper under the microscope. I record on the piece of paper the date the butterfly eclosed from the chrysalis, the sex of the butterfly, and whether or not the butterfly has O.e. spores.
If the butterfly has no spores, I don’t have to wash my hands before I handle the next one. If it does, I have to clean my hands and everything I’ve touched before I handle the next butterfly, or I will transfer the spores from my hands. I have an advantage here that we don’t have with the coronavirus, because I know whether or not I may have the spore on my hands. We can’t see the coronavirus.
I’m conscious that if I slap a mosquito from my arm, or scratch my face, I could be leaving spores behind that I could pick up later by touching myself in that spot. When I clean my hands again, I clean that spot.
It’s a lot of work.
However, that work prepared me for this coronavirus—in ways that are obvious to you now. I know to wash my hands well to get rid of microscopic dangers that could wreak big havoc. I clean every surface I touch without thinking about it. It’s as instinctual now as using my turn signal.
From my study of O.e., I learned how easily disease can spread, and how we energetic humans who have our hands in everything, literally and figuratively, can accelerate the spread to dangerous levels.
My experience with monarchs has been helpful not only because I know what to do to keep from spreading pathogens, I already had on hand the items I would need during this coronavirus pandemic. I didn’t have to worry about empty shelves in the supermarket. I simply had to open my cabinets.
The best thing is releasing the butterflies into the sky above my back yard after all my hard work is done. I released hundreds of healthy monarchs last year. And each time, the flitting of their wings has matched the giddiness I feel in watching them go.
I wash my hands when I go back into the house. Force of habit.
All photos by me (except photo of me).