If you grow milkweed, you will most likely have aphids. I constantly get asked, “How do I get rid of the aphids on my milkweed?”

Oleander aphids infest many milkweed species including common forming large colonies of bright yellow aphids with black cornicles and legs.

Aphids are a non-native insect and they can multiply very quickly. However, they are not a direct threat to monarch caterpillars because they feed on the milkweed plant only. They can indirectly affect caterpillar health by depleting nutrients in their only host plant. They tend to be problematic when the plant is very small or weak. Aphids suck sap from the plant tissues, and if populations are high, can stress plants and kill small or young plants.

Heavily infested milkweed can be stunted or deformed, and black sooty mold grows on the large amounts of sticky honeydew produced by the aphids. When aphids or other sap sucking insects suck sap from a plant, the plant is weakened and there is a risk of the insect infecting the plant with disease. It sometimes spreads plant viruses from one plant to another.

This common milkweed has been infected with the aphid-borne virus called “Yellow Virus”. Photo by the BugLady.

I do not recommend using insecticides to control aphids because it will kill much more than the aphids and most likely your monarch larvae as well. Even if the insecticide is labeled organic, that doesn’t mean it’s safe for caterpillars. Using systemic insecticides to get rid of aphids can be much more harmful to the monarch caterpillars than the aphids themselves. Some people recommend using neem oil but the oil tends to stay on the leaf. Neem oil can also be systemic. One label states that “neem oil does not harm beneficial insects, only sucking and chewing insects”. Caterpillars are chewing insects.

Here are some recommended strategies to help control the aphids population on milkweed:

  • If there is enough milkweed for caterpillars, cut off any part of the plant that is infected with aphids and dispose of the stems in a sealed bag.
  • Although time-consuming, the safest way to remove aphids is manually by squishing them between your fingers (you can use gloves to avoid staining your fingers) and then using a hose to dislodge them from the plant. I use this method with young milkweed plants. It is best to catch the aphids before they become an aphid army, so even if there are just a few on the plant, remove immediately.
  • The easiest way to control aphids is to use the hose to blast them off every couple of days. You won’t completely get rid of them, but it helps. The negative side is that it does not remove all the aphids or kill the aphids. Some of the aphids may find their way back to the plant. For this method to work you need to do this frequently.

  • ​If you have a severe infestation of aphids on the milkweed you can use a soapy water solution.  The soap solution should be sprayed either in the early morning or late evening. In bright sunlight, soap acts as a magnifying glass and the light burns the leaves, sometimes causing the plant to drop all leaves.

Here is the recipe recommended by Monarch Watch: mix 1 gallon of water with 1-ounce of Blue Dawn dish soap, 1-ounce isopropyl alcohol, and 1-ounce white vinegar and pour into a spray bottle. Saturate the plant with the soap solution and allow the plant to sit for 10-15 minutes, then wash off with a hose. Both the tops and bottoms of the leaves should be sprayed and rinsed. Be sure you remove any caterpillars or eggs before applying!

  • Beneficial insects are great for controlling aphids because they rarely harm monarch eggs, caterpillars, or adults and once introduced, they take no effort on your part! There are many species of beneficial insects. It is important to be able to identify these insects so you know which ones are on your side. Ladybugs, hover flies, lacewings, parasitoid wasps, and a few more types of beneficial insects devour aphids.

    Many natural enemies including ladybugs, hover fly larvae, and parasitoid wasps as well as lacewing larvae will help control the aphis population on milkweed.

After battling aphids for years, I have come to peace with these little yellow critters. For the most part, I just leave them alone (with the exception of young seedlings and plants) and to my surprise Mother Nature comes to the rescue!

An adult Ladybug and the larva of a Hoverfly are feasting on aphids on this giant milkweed.

A recently released study suggests that monarchs are more likely to survive on milkweed shared with non-predatory insects than on a “clean” plant. They believe this is because the plant has more food options for a predator, which lessens the chance that they go after the monarch. So maybe the best strategy is to leave those little orange milkweed aphids alone.


The Very Impatient Caterpillar

My grandchildren recently introduced me to this most delightful book by Ross Burach. The story is about how a caterpillar discovers that it will “metamorphosize” into a butterfly. Each page is delightfully written and illustrated and will entertain children of any age.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach. Click here to purchase.

The Impatient Caterpillar is wondering why all the caterpillars are climbing up the tree. His friend tells him that they are going up to metamorphosize, but Impatient Caterpillar doesn’t know what that means. “Meta-WHAT-now?” he asks. His friend explains they are turning into butterflies. Impatient Caterpillar had no idea he could do that! He cannot wait to become a butterfly.

Hanging upside down at the top of the tree, Impatient Caterpillar wants to know what comes next. His friend explains that they now need to build a chrysalis, and, in the blink of an eye, he’s completely encased in his chrysalis. Impatient Caterpillar is incredulous. “WHAAAT? How did you DO that? Is it a spin? Or more of a twirl?Impatient Caterpillar struggles to build his chrysalis, but once he is encased, he wonders what he must do next. His friend replies, “Just be patient and let nature take its course.

Impatient Caterpillar is full of questions. Mainly, “Am I a butterfly yet?” All the other chrysalises tell them to be quiet because, after all, they are trying to metamorphosize. When Impatient Caterpillar learns that it takes two weeks to turn into a butterfly, he freaks out. “Can I get a comic book?” “What if I need the bathroom?” “Anyone want to play a game?“. His fellow caterpillars all tell him to be patient and let nature take its course, but the waiting is just so hard. Looking at the calendar, he realizes that it’s still only day one and decides that he is going to break free.

He bursts out of his chrysalis and is convinced that he is a butterfly. Unfortunately, he is now only a rather dilapidated and awkward-looking caterpillar. He jumps off of the branch to fly and splats to the ground. He decides to try to metamorphosize again.

Finally the Impatient Caterpillar seems to be getting the hang of it. He practices deep breathing and speaks positively to himself until on Day 7 he finally finds his inner chill.

At the end of the week…he emerges as a beautiful butterfly! He professes a new appreciation for patience. But…wait!…where is everybody going? His friend tells him they’re migrating. “Right. Right.,” this newly patient butterfly says. He takes off, ready for the long flight.

Just one question: “Are we there yet?”

Besides being funny, it can lead to learning more factual information about caterpillars and butterflies, other animals that undergo metamorphosis (like tadpoles to frogs), and/or talking about learning to be patient and coping techniques to help us be patient.

There are so many wonderful books about butterflies for children. Click here for a list of my personal favorite books about butterflies for children.


Planting Seeds in Spring

Most native milkweed seeds and many native flower seeds need cold moist stratification to germinate successfully. After the recommended days of cold moist stratification are done, you can direct sow the seeds outside in the spring after the last frost under a very light amount of soil or you can start them in containers with soil.

The last frost date for an area is the day a region usually has its last frost. You can type in the phrase “last frost date by zip” and discover sites where you can find the last frost date for your specific zip code. You can also click here to find out the last frost date for your area: https://mygardenlife.com/frost-map-with-dates

Below are ten steps to starting seeds indoor (or outdoors) in containers.

Step 1: Prepare the Seed-starting Soil Mix

You need a seed starting mix for germinating seeds in containers. It’s possible to make your own seed starting mix or purchase a commercially prepared seed soil mix. The soil should be sterile to decrease the risk of bacteria interrupting your germinating rates. I recommend using a soil mix that contains mycorrhizae which helps the roots absorb nutrients and helps prevent fungus.

Soil mix that contains mycorrhizae helps to promote root growth, increase nutrient and water uptake, and helps grow larger plants.

Step 2: Dampen Seed Mix and Plant the Seeds

Put the soil mix into a bucket and put water into it and mix it well. You do not want it to be too wet but wet enough to keep seeds moist. I recommend pots, cups, or containers that are at least 4 inches deep to accommodate root growth.  You can also purchase seed trays. Sow the seeds by scattering them on the soil surface 1/4 inch apart, and then lightly cover with additional soil mix, coconut coir, or peat moss. Gently mist the surface with water to dampen the additional soil mix that has been added.

Step 3: Cover for Humidity

Covering the seeds will protect them, maintain moisture levels, and create the perfect environment for those seeds to get a great start. Covering the seeds increases the humidity, which is essential for high germination rates. Cover the pots with clear plastic wrap or a plastic dome that fits over the seed-starting tray. This creates a greenhouse effect and speeds germination. I make my own seed tray by using the aluminum baking trays with plastic covers that I purchase at the dollar stores.

You can purchase commercially made seed starting trays or make your own from aluminum baking pans. Rotisserie chicken or salad containers can be used to make mini greenhouse to start seeds.

Step 4: Keep the Seeds Warm

Once temperatures reach over 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) outdoors the germination process will begin. For indoor growing the temperature should be kept around 75-80 degrees F (24-27 degrees C) for optimal growth. If starting the seeds inside place the containers near a window. You can use grow lights to keep the seeds warm, and some gardeners prefer to use heat mats especially designed for seed trays.

If starting seeds indoors, I place the seed trays on heating mats in front of a window.

Step 5: Keep Soil Moist.

After you dampen the seed starting mix when planting the seeds, use a spray bottle or misting hose to keep the soil evenly moistened. Most seeds fail to germinate because the seeds are allowed to dry out.

Step 6: Uncover the Seedlings Once They Germinate

Seeds will typically germinate in 7-20 days. Once they germinate you can remove the cover. It’s very important to uncover the seedlings and expose them to light once they germinate, otherwise they will rapidly become straggly, with overly long, thin stems.

Once the seeds start to germinate remove the lid to allow air flow.

Step 7: Transplant the Seedlings to Individual Pots

Once seedlings have grown a few pairs of “true leaves” and are big enough to handle without damage, they can be transplanted into larger individual pots with potting soil. Be sure to fill the cups almost to the top to give the roots plenty of room to grow.

These Arizona milkweed (Asclepias angustifolia) seedlings are ready to be transplanted into individual containers because they have developed true leaves (second set that follows first cotyledon leaves). Click here to learn how difference between a seedling’s cotyledon and true leaves, and how you can use the leaves to tell when the plant is ready to be transplanted.

Step 8: Keep Transplanted Seedlings Out of Direct Sunlight While They Establish Roots

If seedlings are placed outside,  keep them out of direct sunlight (but not in a dark or overly shaded spot) for a week until the roots grow into the new soil and have a better chance of absorbing moisture. In dull, overcast weather, you don’t need to do this.

These Aquatic milkweed (Asclepius perennis) seedlings have been transplanted into larger cups and placed on a shelf on the porch outside.

Step 9: Harden Off Seedings

If plants have been grown inside need to be “hardened off” or slowly acclimated to the outdoors over a period of about seven to 10 days. Gradually introduce them to direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights so that they don’t suffer shock from the sudden change in growing conditions.

Step 10: Plant Young Plants

Once plants have reached the stage where their roots are starting to emerge from the bottom of the pot, they can be planted out to their final location in your garden.

You can protect the young milkweed plants by covering them with wire basket purchased at dollar stores.

Diagnosing Seedling Problems

Leggy seedlings are the result of insufficient light after germination.
Solution: Move seedlings grown indoors as close as possible to a window as soon as they sprout.

Seedlings that are shriveled or toppled over is seen in cold, wet conditions that cause a damping off disease. Pathogens kill or weaken seeds pre-germination (or shortly afterwards).
Solution: Try to provide adequate light, heat and ventilation and avoid overwatering.

You can find these native milkweed seeds to purchase at My Butterfly Lady’s Etsy Shop.



Monarchs in Texas

The annual migration of Monarch Butterflies is one of the most impressive phenomena in the natural world. Every spring, vast numbers of monarch butterflies undertake a multi-generational journey from their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico to temperate areas of the United States thousands of miles to the north where they will summer, and then return back to Mexico in the fall. This incredible yearly pilgrimage is under threat from habitat destruction, which has drastically reduced the population of migrants in recent decades.

Texas is an extremely critical state for these migrating monarchs because it is situated between the principal breeding grounds in the north and the overwintering areas in Mexico. Early each March, monarchs begin arriving from their overwintering grounds in Mexico seeking milkweed to lay their eggs.

Planting native milkweeds in Texas is critical to help support the monarchs arriving from their overwintering grounds in Mexico. It is vital that they find milkweed to lay their eggs before they die. The caterpillars will be the first of several new generations of monarchs that repopulate the eastern half of the United States and Canada.

Zizotes and Antelope Horn are some of the first milkweed to wake up in early spring, making them important species for first generation monarchs in Texas. Click here to purchase seeds.

But milkweed is not the only plant these migrating monarchs seek. Adult monarch butterflies seek nectar from other native plants, too, which provide energy to the adult butterflies and help to fuel their flight.

Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, bloom early in the spring, and provide nectar for migrating monarchs. Photo by Alla Avery WFAA Dallas.

Here are some of the early blooming native flowers in Texas that help monarchs fuel their migration through the state.

Cowpen Daisies grow along the roadsides in Texas and bloom from spring until fall. They are an easy native annual to grow from seed. Click here to purchase seeds.
These early purple blooms will add color to the garden until fall. Click here to purchase seeds.
Native to most of the United States, Indian Blanket is a showy annual or short-lived perennial boasting daisy-like flower heads. Click here to purchase seeds.
Lance-leaf Coreopsis plants are one of the easiest plants to grow in the Butterfly Garden. Click here to purchase seeds.
Coneflowers are an important source of nectar for spring and fall migrating monarch. Click here to purchase seeds.

We can help these iconic insects by planting milkweed and native flowers along their migrating path. 


Ladybird Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Monarch Population Status

Spread the word with this t-shirt. Click here to purchase.

What is OE?

OE is the abbreviation for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (pronounced O-free-us-sis-tus electra-sceer-rah). It is a protozoan parasite that infects Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Queens (Danaus gilippus), and Soldiers (Danaus eresimus).

Educational sign found at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. https://www.nationalbutterflycenter.org/

OE can weaken caterpillars and cripple adult butterflies. Only rarely will OE kill a caterpillar, chrysalis, or butterfly. A parasite that is 100% dependent upon its host for its own life cannot kill the host or it will kill itself. OE is a master at keeping itself going through life cycle after life cycle in nature.

Life Cycle & Transmission of OE

The life cycle of OE is closely related to the life cycle of the monarch butterfly because OE can only reproduce inside the insect’s body. Infected females pass on the parasite to their offspring when they lay eggs by scattering dormant spores on their eggs and the surrounding milkweed. When a caterpillar hatches, it not only eats its egg shell and the milkweed, but also unintentionally consumes the OE spores.

Once eaten, the dormant spores move into the caterpillar’s midgut. During digestion, the spores break open and release the parasites, which move into the intestinal wall to the hypoderm. Here, OE reproduces asexually, meaning each OE parent cell divides in two new cells. This happens many times, greatly increasing the number of parasites.

Most of the damage done to the butterfly happens during the chrysalis stage. During this time, the OE parasite goes through sexual reproduction, further increasing the number of parasites in the monarch. About three days before the adult emerges from the pupa, spores will begin to form, which allow OE to survive outside of the monarch’s body. The spores can be seen as dark patches that appear through the integument (outside layer) of the pupa.

Infected adults emerge covered with spores. Once butterflies are infected, they do not recover. By the time adults emerge with parasite spores, all physical damage by the OE parasites has been done – the parasites do not grow or reproduce on the adults. The spores are inactive or dormant until they are eaten by another caterpillar. (Project Monarch Health https://www.monarchparasites.org/oe)

Signs of OE Infection

  • Dark spots or blotches on the pupa: The spots are replicating spores, and ​​they mostly form on the abdomen (but they can also form on the eyes, antennae, and wing veins).
  • Deformed, crumpled wings: Adults that are heavily infected with OE are weak and often have difficulty emerging from the chrysalis. Some monarchs die before emerging. Others emerge, but are too weak to cling to the pupal case. They fall to the ground before fully expanding their wings. These severely deformed monarchs do not survive long.
  • Smaller size: Even if the infection is only mild, these butterflies typically weigh less and have shorter forewing lengths than a healthy butterfly. Parasites also damage the cuticle, or outside layer of the monarch’s abdomen. This damage causes the butterfly to dry out and lose weight faster than normal. This is especially a problem if there is a shortage of nectar or water.
  • Decreased flight endurance: Studies have shown that monarchs infected with OE cannot fly as far or as long as healthy butterflies. Often, infected monarchs die during the migration to Mexico simply because they don’t have the endurance.

Testing for OE

On adult butterflies, O.E. spores are dormant and reside on the outside of the body, usually the butterfly’s abdomen. You can’t see these dormant spores without observing a sample of the butterflies abdominal scales through a microscope.

The OE spores are smaller and darker than the scales and are shaped like a football. (Source: Sander Lower, Sarah & Altizer, Sonia & Roode, Jacobus & Davis, Andrew. (2013). Genetic Factors and Host Traits Predict Spore Morphology for a Butterfly Pathogen. Insects. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26462429/.

Important Facts

  • OE infects Monarchs in all North American populations of Monarch butterflies.
  • The eastern migratory Monarchs have the lowest infection rate. Less than 8% of these butterflies are heavily infected with OE.
  • More Monarchs have OE west of the Rocky Mountains. About 30% of the western migratory population is heavily infected with OE.
  • The highest rate of OE in North America occurs in the nonmigratory Monarchs of South Florida. More than 70% of these Monarchs have OE infections.
  • Only caterpillars can contract the disease but cannot give the disease to another caterpillar.
  • Chrysalises have OE just under the cuticle (skin/hypoderm). It cannot contract or spread OE. The spores are inside the chrysalis.
  • Between infections, OE survives as spores that are resistant to extreme environmental conditions.
  • It has since been found in all other Monarch populations worldwide. Because of this world wide range, all indications are that this parasite has co-evolved with Monarchs.