DUNNELLON — There is an important pollinator in Citrus County whose numbers are dwindling.
No, it's not the honey bee, but rather a butterfly: the monarch.
A butterfly farm in Dunnellon has taken note of the decline of the regal flutterers, and is breeding monarchs to help bolster the species' populations.
The farm recently produced 2,000 monarchs from 10 butterflies, said John Wilchynski, owner of ButterflyWorkx butterfly farm.
"The monarchs are in decline pretty bad. They haven't been listed as endangered yet, but the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is debating whether to list them or not," Wilchynski said.
"They're in decline because of loss of habitat. The monarch only uses milkweed for their reproductive cycle; once that milkweed is gone, so is the monarch," he said.
Two large contributors to that habitat loss are pesticides and insecticides, Wilchynski said. A relatively new class of insecticides affect the nervous system of insects, and are also found on many plants sold in box stores, he said.
Caterpillars that consume plants with pesticides on them will most likely die, he said.
"We tell a lot of people that if you go to Lowe's or Home Depot, ask if they've been sprayed with any type of pesticide. Home Depot is starting a new policy where they've got special stickers they're sticking in plants so people know they haven't been sprayed or that they have been sprayed with a certain type of chemical."
Butterflies are, of course, subject to other factors which contribute to their decline, such as predation. Butterflies are eaten by birds, while caterpillars fall prey to pests such as aphids, which can also feed on milkweed plants.
The farm protects its plants against aphids by purchasing bugs that feed on aphids.
"In (the enclosures at the farm), they're safe from predation. That's the No. 1 thing that kills them in the wild. One in 100 eggs make it to the adult stage. Ninety-nine percent attrition is not good," Wilchynski said.
However, as Wilchynski pointed out, caterpillars and butterflies do have natural defenses.
Some caterpillars "look nasty and some will throw up on you if you pick them up," Wilchynski said. Others, he explained, even imitate bird droppings as a form of protective camouflage.
The farm keeps its host plants on a drip system to protect butterflies from even being struck by water.
"We don't have sprayers on the butterflies, which could possibly make them sick," Wilchynski said.
Another precaution the farm takes to ensure the health of its flock is to test all the butterflies for the parasitic spore Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, which is prevalent in Florida.
The parasite infects only monarch and queen butterflies, and has been found in every known monarch population.
The disease will not kill butterflies, Wilchynski said, but it will slow them down.
"Our goal on the farm is to have perfect, healthy butterflies. We want to make sure we don't have any spores on butterflies that we send out," he said.
To test for the spores, Wilchynski demonstrated, a piece of tape is pressed lightly against the butterfly's abdomen, which removes scales from the butterfly. Wilchynski explained that this does not hurt the butterfly. Once the scales are removed, he looks at them under a microscope.
"If we see just scales, we're good; if we see little football shapes, and there are a bunch of them, then you have a problem," Wilchynski said. "We've got a real clean batch this year, so we're real happy with it so far."
The farm also breeds exotic species like malachites, which are typically found in Central and South America, but range all the way to parts of Texas and South Florida.
Ironically, more federal protections for the butterfly would put a halt to the efforts of people like Wilchynski.
"Right now it's in the hands of the (feds) whether or not the monarchs are going to be listed as endangered, but if they are listed, that means we won't be able to raise them anymore," Wilchynski said. "People like myself that do this work for a living and work with them every day, we're not hurting the population, we're helping the population — we're wanting to help, not hurt the species," he said.
One thing Wilchynski said people can do to help the monarch species it to consciously purchase pesticide-free milkweed plants and other native butterfly host plants for their yards and gardens.
"Butterflies are pollinators, and of course without pollinators, we have no food source," Wilchynski said. "They're just as important as bees. It's important we keep them around.