Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Butterfly Tragedy

On Monday I brought three fat caterpillars with milkweed to teachers in Nishuane School. By now they should have formed chrysalises and, if all goes well, will emerge within 14 days to be joyously released by second-graders to begin flights to Mexico.

That left me with only one chrysalis yet to open in my butterfly box. Last night it appeared almost black—a sure sign that there would be a butterfly in the morning. Often they take their time, emerging after 9 AM. But my glance at the top of my box this morning at 6:30 showed nothing, neither black chrysalis nor butterfly. Something was wrong.

At the bottom of the box, a partially developed Monarch female lay struggling—legs kicking in the air, wings about half filled out.  I hurriedly found narrow objects—a pencil, a thin candle—and tried to get her to grab onto them. She clutched but let go repeatedly, seeming not to have strength to hold on.

When butterflies first emerge, their wings are no longer than the length of the chrysalis case, about 5/8 inch. Their abdomens are full of liquid. They must cling to the top of the empty case and pump the liquid into their wings to fill them out, then let the wings dry out, before they can fly. If the butterfly releases its grip and falls at that critical time, the wings will not properly open and it’ll be crippled.

The wings of my poor butterfly were creased. I tried, very gently, to straighten them, but it was too late. All that time she had spent stuffing herself with milkweed as a caterpillar, shedding skin and turning inside out, then waiting for the promise of flight. And now she is doomed to be a crawling insect.

I carried her outside and placed her on a flower. She fell. I tried again and again, several times, until she managed to cling on. Then sadly, I left her.