What do infected monarchs look like?

The answer to this question depends on how heavily infected the monarch is. Many OE infections, especially of eastern North American monarchs, are 'mild' cases, and the infected adult monarch will look nearly identical to a healthy adult. Mildly infected adults will also act normal, so it is usually impossible to know if they are infected without testing them using the methods described below. Unfortunately for those of us that rear monarchs in captivity, these mildly infected adults can spread their spores around their cages and rearing containers just as well as heavily infected ones, which is why it is essential to test all adult monarchs upon eclosion, and remove any infected ones immediately. Also, since there is no way to 'cure' adult monarchs once infected, they must be destroyed. Releasing them to the wild will only spread the parasites further and you will risk contaminating your favorite local milkweed patch.

Below are some pictures of various OE infected monarchs. The monarch in the bottom right image is indeed infected, but appears otherwise normal.

 

If you are interested in examining your own butterflies for the OE parasite, you can follow these steps using the supplies sent to you in your new kit. Most of our participants use the tape method below for project MonarchHealth.

 

Things you will need for testing using the tape method:

Disposable gloves
Clear tape stickers
Blank index cards

 

Step 1. Put on your gloves!

Step 2. Hold the monarch firmly as shown in the picture below, using a gloved hand.  Be sure not to use your other hand to touch the butterfly because that hand will be used to hold the tape sticker and sample for spores.  It is critical that you keep your bare hand completely free of touching the butterfly throughout this process!

 

Step 3. Pick up a tape sticker using your other hand and gently place the sticky side of the piece of tape to the abdomen of the monarch. Press down so that it wraps around and sticks to the sides of the abdomen.

 

Step 4. Gently peel the tape sticker off and stick it to the index card. You will remove some scales in the process, but don't worry, it will not harm the monarch.

 

Finish by labeling the sticker sample on the spore card with the identity (we use a number) of the monarch. Continue these steps until you have sampled all of your monarchs. In the end, your index cards should look similar to this:

The numbers on the bottom of each sample refer to the number of the butterfly in our lab, and the numbers above refer to the parasite 'spore load' on each monarch (we use a 0-5 scaling system). Notice that one monarch from these samples was infected and was given a 5 score (heaviest infection category).

While you have the butterfly out, determine if it is a female (photo on left) or male (photo on right). The two sexes are easy to tell apart because males have a small raised black spot on a vein on each hind wing that is not present in females.


Step 5. Record data on data sheet for each butterfly: date collected, date sampled, gender, etc.

Step 6. Prepare the sample for mailing.

Once filled out completely, place the index card into the larger mailing envelope. Once you have sampled 10 or more butterflies, or at the end of the summer season, return the pre-addressed envelope to our lab at the University of Georgia. Samples should be mailed in the envelope provided to:

Project Monarch Health

c/o Sonia Altizer
Odum School of Ecology
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-2202

Step 7. Wipe down your work surface with the bleach wipes when you finish and dispose of your gloves before handling another monarch.

It's important to try and keep a clean work area when sampling the butterflies for parasites. One monarch may be infected, while another may not. Changing gloves and wiping areas with bleach wipes will prevent cross-contamination of different samples and help avoid touching a non-infected sample with infected spores from another.

Are the monarchs I sampled infected?

We will examine if your samples show if the monarchs are infected. Once we have the results, we will notify you the infection status. Results from all participants will be compiled and sent to all volunteers and updated on the website.

Here's what a sample looks like when we examine it under the microscope:

The red arrows indicate the parasite spores in this image. The big objects are the monarch scales. The spores look like tiny lemon-shaped objects, often clumped together. They often have a reddish tinge. This monarch would be considered heavily infected.

Have a question? Go to our Frequently Asked Questions section.