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.



What is Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is a method of starting seeds outdoors in winter. This is generally done with seeds that require a period of cold stratification. The method takes advantage of natural temperatures, rather than artificially refrigerating seeds.

When Do You Winter Sow

Winter sowing starts on or after the Winter Solstice. January and February are best times to winter sow native milkweed seeds and native perennial seeds.

What Can You Winter Sow

Any seeds that typically need to go through a cold stratification such as native milkweed seeds and native perennial seeds. As a rule of thumb, if a plant is hardy in your garden you can plant its seed in winter.

Most native milkweed seeds need to be cold stratified. Click here to purchase native milkweed seeds: https://tinyurl.com/MonarchFood

Many of the native perennials need to be cold stratified. Click here to purchase seeds: https://tinyurl.com/NativeFlowers

Advantages of Winter Sowing

How to Winter Sow

  1. Choose the container. Anything that is translucent enough to allow light to pass through and that can be made to have drainage holes, a lid, and a ventilation holes can be used for winter sowing. Options include, but are not limited to, plastic jugs, water or soda bottles, take out containers, disposable foil pans with plastic covers, clamshell containers, disposable beverage cups, plastic tubs, and plastic totes. You can use any container for winter sowing as long as it can hold AT least 3”-4” of potting soil.
  2. Fill the bottom portion of your container with 3-4″ of potting soil that has been moistened.
  3. Broadcast the seeds over the soil.
  4. Slightly cover the seeds with garden coir or soil.
  5. Water your newly sowed seeds. I recommend using a spray bottle.
  6. Cover the container. Make sure the cover has holes for ventilation. If using a milk jug or plastic bottle remove the cap. Secure the cover to the container with Duct tape or Poly tape
  7. Label the containers. Use a waterproof marker such as a plant marker and label of the type of seed you planted. You can also a place plant marker inside the container.
  8. Set the containers outside on a flat surface, such as a patio or deck so they are exposed to the elements. Don’t leave them under an overhang. The point is to let them get exposed to the rain, snow, and sun.
  9. Sit back and relax!
  10. Once the weather is warmer and your seeds have germinated you can remove the duct tape and the top portion of the container. Leave them open until you’re ready to transplant into your garden.
  11. Water as needed to keep the soil moist.
  12. Transplant the seedlings when seedlings have become established and have developed true leaves.

More Resources:


Encounter With a Black Witch

I just had an unexpected encounter with a black witch moth. I was outside working in the garden when it startled me and flew up to me and around my head. At first I thought it was a bat because it flies just like a bat. But bats generally do not fly during the day. As it flew away towards the oak tree I realized it was a large black moth.

Female moths can attain a wingspan of 24 cm. The dorsal surfaces of their wings are mottled brown with hints of iridescent purple and pink, and, in females, crossed by a white bar. The diagnostic marking is a small spot on each forewing shaped like a number nine or a comma.  Photo by Charles J. Sharp, from Sharp Photography.

The moth, Ascalapha odorata, commonly known as the black witch, is a large bat-shaped, dark-colored nocturnal moth, normally ranging from the southern United States to Brazil. Ascalapha odorata is also migratory into Canada and most states of United States. It is the largest noctuoid in the continental United States.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascalapha_odorata)

I have to be honest, this encounter spooked me somewhat, one, because the flight pattern was so unusual, and second, I am aware of the tradition in many cultures that an encounter with this moth means impending death or misfortune. (In Spanish, the black witch is known as “mariposa de la muerte”.) It also doesn’t help that it is so close to Halloween.

The males are somewhat smaller, reaching 12 cm in width, darker in color and lacking the white bar crossing the wings. Photo by Charles J. Sharp, from Sharp Photography.

I decided to do some research and found out that black witch moths have also been credited with bringing good fortune. In the Bahamas the moth is known as the money moth, and if you see a black witch moth, the hope is that you’ll gain riches. And in south Texas, where I live, the black witch moth might be the prelude winning the lottery.

I am off to buy a lottery ticket!


Children’s Books About Monarch Butterflies

Fall is the perfect time to teach children about Monarch butterflies. Whether you are a teacher, parent or grandparent, here are nine books to read to young ones and help them discover the magical lives and migration of these amazing butterflies.

Monarch Butterflies by Ann Hobbie and Illustrated by Olga Baumert

With easy-to-read text and colorful, engaging illustrations, Monarch Butterflies presents young readers with rich, detailed information about the monarch’s life cycle, anatomy, and the wonders of their migration, as well as how to raise monarchs at home and the cultural significance of monarchs in Day of the Dead celebrations. As the book considers how human behavior has harmed monarchs, it offers substantive ways kids can help make a positive difference. Children will learn how to turn lawns into native plant gardens, become involved in citizen science efforts such as tagging migrating monarchs and participating in population counts, and support organizations that work to conserve butterflies.

Monarch Butterflies by Ann Hobbie, Illustrated by Olga Baumert • Click here or on the book cover for details.

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak

If your children want to learn how to raise Monarch butterflies, this is the book you must have. Carol Pasternak, The Monarch Butterfly Crusader, has filled the book with colorful and detailed photos. She shares secrets to help you find eggs and caterpillars, then provides detailed instructions on how to feed Monarch caterpillars, as well as how to take of Monarch adults.

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak. • Click here or on the book cover for details.

Gotta Go, Gotta Go written by Sam Swope and illustrated by Sue Riddle

This is a very fun book to read aloud to children, beginning with the monarch caterpillar chanting, “I don’t know much, but I know what I know. I gotta go! I gotta go! I gotta go to Mexico!” In simple, jaunty text and pictures, children will learn about the magical transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly and its fantastic journey to Mexico.

Gotta Go, Gotta Go written by Sam Swope and illustrated by Sue Riddle. • Click here or on the book cover for details.

Monarch! Come Play with Me By Ba Rea

A young girl finds a monarch caterpillar and invites it to play with her but the caterpillar replies that he is much too busy. She observes the similarities between her and the caterpillar (including that they both need to eat and they both poop). Beautifully illustrated with large and detailed artwork of the monarch caterpillar’s metamorphosis from egg through caterpillar and chrysalis to butterfly.

Monarch! Come Play with Me by Ba Rea • Click here or on the book cover for details.

Monarch Butterfly (New & Updated) by Gail Gibbons

Follow the transformation from a tiny white egg laid on a leaf to a brilliantly colored butterfly in this kid-friendly introduction to metamorphosis.  With detailed, bright watercolors, Gail Gibbons illustrates the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, stage by stage, as it grows, changes, and takes flight.

Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons • Click here or on the book cover for details.

A Hiding Place for a King by Anja Dhinagaran and illustrated by Anna Panchuk

Every child who loves to play Hide-and-Seek will enjoy reading this story about Mouse and Frog and Caterpillar who play Hide-and-Seek in a meadow of milkweed. When it is Caterpillar’s turn to hide it takes several days before Mouse and Frog discover his special hiding place.

A Hiding Place for a King by Anja Dhinagaran and illustrated by Anna Panchuk • Click here or on the book cover for details.

Monarch Magic! Butterfly Activities & Nature Discoveries by Lynn Rosenblatt

Learn about the world of the monarch butterfly and milkweed habitat in this beautiful book with full-color photographs throughout. An excellent resource for parents and teachers with many learning activities.  ~ “If there is a better book for children about butterflies, we haven’t seen it.” – National Parenting Center

Monarch Magic! Butterfly Activities & Nature Discoveries by Lynn Rosenblatt • Click here or on the book cover for details.

Senorita Mariposa by Ben Gundersheimer

Rhyming text in both English and Spanish along with lively illustrations showcase the epic journey taken by the monarch butterflies each year from Canada to Mexico. “Over mountains capped with snow, to the deserts down below.” Children will be delighted to share in the fascinating journey of the monarchs and be introduced to the people and places they pass before they finally arrive in the forests that their ancestors called home.

Senorita Mariposa is written by Ben Gundersheimer and illustrated by Marcos Almada Rivero. • Click here or on the book cover for details.

Need more books recommendations for children? Click here for the Top Twelve Children’s Butterfly Books.

Harvesting Milkweed Seeds

Timing is everything when harvesting milkweed seeds! Too soon and the seeds will be immature and won’t germinate, too late and they will have either blown away or create a flossy mess you’ll need to deal with. 

When the seeds are ready to disperse, the floss will expand, causing the pod to burst. For those wishing to collect seed, this floss can be problematic, creating a messy barrier to gathering large amounts of viable seed. There are several options for separating the floss, but the best option is to plan your timing so that you are able to easily remove the seed as soon as it is mature, but before the silky floss has expanded.

Once the milkweed seed pods open, the wind will blow the floss and seeds away from the pod making it difficult to collect the seeds.

Milkweed seeds should be brown and leathery when mature, though the pods themselves may still be green. You can test an unopened pod for maturity by applying gentle pressure to the seam. If the center seam of the pod pops with gentle pressure, the seed pod is ready to be picked. If it does not open readily, the seeds inside are immature.

The perfect time to harvest seeds from milkweed pods is when the pod is starting to pop open at the suture and the seeds are brown. Typically seed pods are brown when the seeds are ready to harvest such as the common milkweed pods on the left.  The showy milkweed pods on the right are green but since the seeds are brown they are ready to harvest. (Photo courtesy of Brent Potter.)

Be aware of the milkweed beetle around open seed pods. These beetles are orange and black and will damage the seeds, making them nonviable. While the bugs do no harm to the plant, if a pod is covered in these insects it’s likely the seed inside is no longer viable and those pods should be avoided.

The beetle is not able to chew its way into the pods but will wait for the pod to open. A rubber band lightly wrapped around the pod will prevent the milkweed beetle entry to the seedpod. Cheesecloth or organza can also be used to surround the seedpods until they are mature.

You can use rubber bands on the milkweed pods to make it easier to harvest the seeds. It can also help prevent the milkweed bugs from getting to the seeds. (Photo courtesy of Linda Herard.)

Organza bags are a perfect solution to protecting seed pods on milkweed and making it easier to collect seeds. You can find them in craft sores or on Amazon.

Once you have collected the milkweed seeds you can store them in a paper bag or envelope until you are ready to plant them. Most native milkweed seeds require cold stratification in order to germinate. Seeds can be planted in the fall on a prepared bed, winter sowed in containers, or planted in the spring after the seeds have been cold stratified in the refrigerator. Click here for more details: http://butterfly-lady.com/three-ways-to-sow-native-milkweed-seeds/

Spread the word with this t-shirt. Click here to purchase: https://amzn.to/31rUCNE