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I’ve raised milkweed, the host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars, for more than 20 years. Some nursery bought; some from seeds. Observing females delicately depositing their eggs, marveling over tiny hatchlings, cheering on ravenous caterpillars to eat and grow big enough to make their jade green chrysalises, watching a newly emerged butterfly unfurl its wings and lift off—all these moments thrill me. I keep records. I even name a few. I remember “Pilar” rising against the blue sky a short while after my mother died. I grieve for individuals with misshapen wings; I euthanized one in the freezer and wondered what had happened.

Now I know.

Tropical milkweed—a favorite among butterfly gardenersis host to a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroschirra (OE), which causes deformities, can render the butterfly too weak to migrate and shorten lifespan. Caterpillars ingest OE spores upon hatching by eating infested egg cases and milkweed leaves. Tropical milkweed, native to Central America, blooms year round, disrupting the signals to hibernate or migrate to Mexico, their winter refuge. Butterflies hang around in Florida, gorging on infectious milkweed.

My friend/artist/gardener/photographer Laurellee Faith Ames, 58, of St. Petersburg, is administrator of a Facebook group, Butterfly’s Garden She recently posted an article from the Miami Herald. “South Florida is a cesspool of infected monarchs,” said Andy Davis, an assistant research scientist of monarch ecology at the University of Georgia. “Take any given monarch there and it will have OE.”

The parasite is spreading to south Georgia and eastern Louisiana

The Sassy Sandpiper: Mind Your Milkweed | Tampa Bay Reporter

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