Like so many of you, the pandemic has shrunk the size of our world. We haven’t gone out much at all since March, only to witness once-in-a-lifetime sign removals, keep the car engine humming on our socially distanced local road trips, and attend to unavoidable errands.
We’re blessed to have a small but vibrant garden, which has been Richard’s special project for the past decade. He tends cacti and bromeliads, ferns, plumeria, bamboo and bananas. A funky network of interconnected ponds provides water for the possums, raccoons, songbirds, squirrels and neighborhood cats, and the inhabitants of a bee hive that recently took up residence in an upended bucket. The scrub jays get mouthy if he sleeps too late, demanding their breakfast peanuts.
If we’ve got to stay put, it’s a pretty great place for it.
Earlier this summer, inspired by people I saw on social media raising monarch butterflies, I checked the underside of our milkweed leaves, and was excited to find a number of tiny fluted eggs. After watching videos to get up to speed (thanks, MrLundScience!), I’ve raised a few generations of monarchs in a Lucite display case on my desk, and sent the creatures out into world after documenting their strange transformations.
But there’s a lot that can go wrong with butterflies, in nature and on my desk, as I learned a week ago.
Very early in the morning, a monarch broke out of her chrysalis, lost her grip, and fell a few inches to the floor of the case. I found her there when I woke up. She wasn’t hurt, but her new wings, which need to hang free to harden in the air, were crimped underneath her. I lifted her up, and helped her grab on to a cord, hoping her wings would straighten out. They did, a little, but once they hardened, they were undeniably folded right to left.
She was alert and had a good appetite for honey nectar sipped through a sponge. But how would she ever be able to fly with her crumpled napkin wings?
Feeling guilty about creating a situation where a newborn butterfly could fall from its perch, I got on the internet and fell down a rabbit hole of monarch lovers who had performed home surgery to correct wing damage. Wings, I was assured, had no nerves and you could cut them into like trimming human hair. Some people transplanted whole wings on top of broken ones, others had used lightweight cardstock as splints.
I didn’t have a spare pair of monarch wings on hand, but I had some cardstock and a bottle of contact cement. And so, once the sun set and my lively butterfly was slowing down for the day, I plopped her down on a towel, immobilized her body between the tines of a measuring cup handle, screwed up my courage and glued her crimped wings straight.
Once I’d done all that to my good patient, I thought I’d better name her. I called her Jess, after the collage artist Jess Collins, since she was now a bit of a collage herself, butterfly wing topped with strips of a flat rate envelope.
Here’s a short film about Jess’ surgery and what came after. And now that you know that there are people daffy enough to perform home surgery on injured butterflies, I hope you’ll look a little closer when monarchs come close. You might just see a living collage off on an adventure in the California breeze.
Lovely! I raise Monarchs here in Southern California. I have never tried repairing wings–it must take a lot of patience. So glad you were able to help this girl soar off into her future.
It went pretty quickly once I started, but it was a tense moment to actually bond the glued strip of cardstock to her wing. Very glad it all worked out, and happy to think of her out in the world.
Amazing work, Kim!
My goodness what a great story. You sure have a lot of courage. I’m glad it worked out so well for you. It sounds like you and Richard have a beautiful garden. During the pandemic, we had a hummingbird make a nest, and read all about them. As the babies hatched, we were waiting for that great day when they would fly on their own power. One day, we saw one of the babies on the ground. It tried to fly, but landed on the ground, just sitting there. Todd was worried (freaked out), and felt he had to put it back in the nest. He gingerly picked up the bird, his feet grabbed on to Todd’s hand, and he was safely returned to the nest. Within a few days, all the babies flew away under their own power. Thanks for sharing your interesting tale!
Your hummingbird story is so sweet. Glad you were able to help keep nature’s infants on the right path.
I have a butterfly with one bent wing. Bought my supplies and will do my best to brace it to a straighter position. I just wonder if I would have to put one on the other (normal) side to balance it.
I am going to attempt the same thing with a monarch. Only one bent wing. Have my orange card stock and glue. But I just need it on one side. I hope it will be able to balance itself. I am wondering whether to do the same thing on the other (normal) side…..
We just winged it, so to speak, but we thought there was no need to splint the healthy wing. If your splint is not too big and heavy, it should be fine. Jess could flap both wings, with no lag on the splinted side. We practiced with a paper butterfly with a fold where the wing was damaged, to be sure the splint was in the right spot, and get the nerve up to apply it. Good luck!