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The Fight Against Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha: Strategies for Protecting Monarch Butterfly Populations

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are beautiful and graceful as they flit and flutter in garden landscapes, parks, and grasslands. But a dangerous parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) threatens the species. This parasite is highly contagious and can spread quickly in monarch butterfly populations. The parasite affects monarch and queen butterfly larvae and the butterfly’s ability to mate.


Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) feeding on buttonbush flowers
Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) feeding on flowers

Monarch butterflies are known for their migration from North America to Mexico. However, studies show that monarchs infected with OE are less likely to complete the migration. But interestingly, monarch butterflies that complete the migration are less likely to carry the parasites.

Scientists note that understanding Ophryocystis elektroscirrha and how it affects monarch butterflies is key to their survival.


Scientists discovered Ophryocystis elektroscirrha in 1966. They found that single-celled organisms were affecting monarch butterfly larvae. Parasite transmission takes place from adult to egg and also between adult populations. Depending on location, infection rates in butterfly populations are between 5 and 80 percent.


In this article, we will explore the life cycle of OE, its transmission methods, and the signs of infection. You will also learn strategies for protecting Monarch butterflies from this deadly disease. Understanding how OE works can help protect one of nature’s most beautiful creatures from extinction.


What is OE?


protecting Monarch butterflies from Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaOphryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE, is a dangerous single-celled parasite called a protozoan. Although OE mainly affects American monarch butterflies, the protozoan parasite also affects populations of queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus). Unfortunately, OE has been found in all Monarch populations worldwide. The disease spreads quickly via its spores which are resistant to extreme conditions.


It is important to understand the life cycle of OE and its transmission to protect monarch butterflies from this deadly disease. This can help to minimize the impact of the butterfly parasite and prevent it from spreading further.


Life cycle of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha


Ophryocystis elektroscirrha starts its life as an inactive spore. However, the parasites become active when monarch butterfly larvae ingest the spores. During the pupal stage, more spores appear and transfer to the scales on the butterfly’s wings before it emerges from the pupa.


OE is spread when the infected butterflies fly, and their beating wings release spores into the air, on milkweed plants and flower surfaces, and newly-laid eggs. Spores are also transferred when the female lays eggs, a process called oviposition.


The new OE life cycle begins when the emerging larvae ingest spores.


monarch caterpillars appear dirty with grayish patchesHere is information on how OE affects monarch butterflies during each stage of their life cycle:

  • Larval stage: The monarch caterpillars appear dirty with grayish patches.
  • Pupal stage: The pupa will show discolorations and dark gray blotches. In some cases, the butterflies fail to emerge from the pupa.
  • Adult monarch butterflies: The black and orange butterflies may have difficulty flying or cannot extend their wings fully.


It can be difficult to check for OE parasites without a microscope. However, if you suspect a monarch is infected, you can carefully check the butterfly’s abdomen. The markings should be clear and distinct, indicating that infection is probably absent.


Effects of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha on Monarch Butterflies


Ophryocystis elektroscirrha affects a monarch butterfly’s survival, fitness, and migration success. The parasitic infection causes butterflies to have smaller wing spans, lower weights, and less chance of mating successfully. And if an infected female lays eggs, the eggs have a shorter life span, negatively impacting monarch butterfly populations.


The effect of OE on wings: The most significant damage OE causes is on a butterfly’s wings. Scientists have found that OE infections cause butterfly wings to be prone to damage. In many cases, their wings are smaller than healthy butterflies. This results in reduced flight capacity and prevents the butterflies from being able to migrate and mate.


migrating monarch butterfliesThe effect of OE on muscle mass: Studies have also discovered that butterflies infected with OE have reduced muscle mass. This side effect means infected butterflies lack the stamina necessary for long migrations. Additionally, because a lack of tissue mass causes weakness, infected males are less likely to mate and produce offspring than uninfected butterflies.


The effect of OE on monarch butterfly appearance: Ophryocystis elektroscirrha affects monarchs in all stages of their life cycle. First, you will notice black spots or blotches on the pupa. These spots are the replicating spores in the larva’s abdomen. Then, if the butterfly manages to emerge, you may notice its black and orange wings are crumpled or deformed. In some cases, the butterfly may be so deformed that it dies before emerging.

Strategies for protecting Monarch butterflies from Ophryocystis elektroscirrha


Ophryocystis elektroscirrha is one of the biggest threats to the monarch butterfly’s survival. Therefore, if you raise monarch butterflies, it’s crucial to take steps to protect the graceful butterflies from harm.


Unfortunately, once Danaus plexippus eggs or larvae are infected, there is no way of treating the infection. Therefore, ensuring the larvae are never exposed to the spores is the only method to prevent infection.


There are two steps to help protect monarch butterflies from OE. 

  1. Keep equipment and cages clean: Decontaminate plastic cages by soaking them in a 10% bleach solution or 100% rubbing alcohol for at least 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. Additionally, you should use the bleach solution or rubbing alcohol to soak any tools you use to transfer larvae. Then wipe all surfaces and countertops where you rear larvae or keep butterflies.
  2. Check females for signs of OE infection: The next step is to check females for spores. To do this, carefully rub off a patch of scales from the abdomen and examine them on a microscope slide. If you notice spores, you should destroy the infected butterflies.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)

Sterilizing equipment is vital because the spores can endure freezing temperatures and live for over a year. 

You can also take steps to encourage larger populations of monarch butterflies. Here are a few tips:

Plant native milkweed plants:  Milkweed plants (Asclepias) are the only host plant where monarch butterflies lay eggs. The butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves, and the larvae feed on the vegetation. At the same time, it’s vital to avoid planting non-native, tropical milkweed species as they can harbor Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Additionally, adult monarchs will feed on sunflowers, coneflowers, lantanas, penta flowers, and zinnias.


Avoid pesticides: Chemicals can harm monarchs if they feed on toxic chemicals. This is another reason to plant flowers native to your region, as they are more resilient and require fewer chemicals to stay healthy.


Provide food sources for migrating monarch butterflies: Monarchs feed on nectar-rich milkweed plants. However, you can supplement their diet by leaving out sugary foods for them to consume. Monarchs have been known to feed on decaying apples, bananas, strawberries, and stale beer. Additionally, you can provide shallow dishes filled with sugar water in the butterfly garden to give migrating monarchs a much-needed energy boost.

Participate in Monarch Butterfly Monitoring


Monarch butterflies on water melon
Monarch butterflies on water melon

Participating in citizen science monarch watch programs is a useful way to help protect this stunning butterfly species. Monarch monitoring involves tracking the population at different stages of their life cycle, monitoring overwintering sites, recording monarch health, and tagging monarch butterflies.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has more information about joining monarch butterfly monitoring projects.

In Conclusion


Monarch butterflies are an incredible species that need our protection. Therefore, it is essential to learn more about Ophryocystis elektroscirrha to help protect the species from infection and ensure their populations continue to thrive.


Practical steps to encourage more monarchs involve planting native milkweed plants, avoiding pesticides, providing food sources for migrating monarchs, and participating in citizen science projects. With these steps in place, we can ensure this beautiful species continues to thrive for generations.

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