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Fighting for the butterflies

July 3, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A group of citizen scientists on Fort Myers Beach are taking on the plight of the monarch butterfly.

Volunteers with the Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve are planting native milkweed varieties in the hopes of attracting healthy monarchs to lay their eggs.

A protozoa called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE, is killing the iconic butterfly. Infected butterflies carry the protozoa on their abdomen to milkweed plants, where they lay their eggs. The protozoa continues to live topically on the milkweed, which is not affected, said Jim Rodwell, one of the volunteers.

Article Photos

A batch of caterpillars infected with the OE protozoa came out of their chrysalis with deformed wings. Photo by Randa Veach.

When the eggs hatch and the caterpillars emerge, they eat the infected leaves and then become infected themselves. When they transform into butterflies, they're often born lethargic and unable to fly or deformed.

Part of the issue stems from the fact that many milkweed plants people plant are not the native variety, Rodwell said.

Many are a variety called tropical or scarlet milkweed, which are non-native to Florida. These varieties don't go dormant during the year, allowing the OE to continue living and infecting more butterflies and caterpillars, said Randa Veach, another volunteer.

"Native milkweed goes dormant, and the protozoa dies," she said. "Then the fresh growth isn't infected."

The Friends group started contributing the Project Monarch last year. They are caring for almost 50 milkweed plants. Every other Friday, the group meets at the Donora Boulevard entrance to Matanzas Pass Preserve, and they go out into the preserve to check on the six plots of milkweeds. They measure them for growth and check them for eggs and caterpillars.

Rodwell said the group is going to try to do some of their own research to find out how to keep the milkweeds OE free, and in turn, produce healthy butterflies.

They tried an experiment in which they raised healthy milkweeds and purchased monarch eggs to hatch on them. But what they didn't know was the caterpillars were already infected, producing lethargic and disfigured butterflies, Veach said.

Now, they're determined to help the monarch with their native milkweeds. The group uses Google Drive to compile their bi-weekly data collections. They also have a butterfly cage where they can transfer caterpillars to safely grow to maturity and be released.

"We're going to observer, measure and get rid of the protozoa," Rodwell said.

The group is looking for additional volunteers to help on Fridays. Those interested can follow the Facebook page at or call 565-7437.



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