Call me a wimp, but it breaks my heart to see a butterfly, lethargic and struggling, on its last wings, so to speak. It makes me feel beyond helpless. So I was surprised to learn recently that there are things one can actually do to help out a butterfly in distress. Who knew? I have to say, this made me very happy, if not a little guilty about the butterflies I’ve unwittingly left in the lurch in the past.
If you find a butterfly with a torn wing, you can tape it! I kid you not. You can try to carefully use a small bit of lightweight transparent tape to mend the wing. This may allow the butterfly to fly again and to live long enough to reproduce–it may even let it live out its normal lifespan.
Another good trick, according to my butterfly bible, The Family Butterfly Book, written by Rick Mikula (whom I like to call the Butterfly Whisperer): You can feed a weak or injured butterfly a diluted sugar water; sometimes just plain water can be enough.
Follow these steps:
1. First of all, learn how to handle a butterfly. (Rubbing the powder off the wings will not prevent it from flying.) Be sure that your hands are dry. With your thumb and index finger, grasp the butterfly by the wings just above the body and as close to the butterfly’s shoulders as possible. Very light pressure is needed. If the butterfly seems agitated, turn it upside down. This will immediately calm it down.
2. Place the patient’s feet on a moistened pad that has been saturated with feeding solution (mix one teaspoon of sugar in one cup of filtered water).
3. If the proboscis does not extend naturally, help it out by uncurling it with a toothpick. Carefully place the toothpick into the center of the curled proboscis. It will look like a coiled watch spring. Then gently uncurl it until it makes contact with the feeding pad. You may have to hold it in place for a minute or so before the butterfly begins feeding.
4. Once the drinking tube is extended, watch for any up-and-down pumping action of the proboscis. If no motion is detected, take the forefinger and thumb of each hand and hold the butterfly’s front wings near the front edges. Hold each front wing, one between each set of your fingers, as close to the butterfly’s body as possible.
5. Begin to move the wings up and down in a flapping motion. This action may start the suction inside the proboscis and draw the needed food into your patient.
And in the meantime, if you have any garden space, please consider planting some butterfly-friendly plants. Monarchs especially are having a hard row to hoe. Their numbers are dwindling due to severe weather and habitat conversion where they over-winter in Mexico. In addition, the loss of milkweed (which they require) due to the overzealous use of agricultural herbicides is causing great concern.
Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, has asked the public to pitch in, he encourages gardeners, homeowners, schools, governments and businesses to plant monarch “way stations” consisting of milkweeds and other butterfly plants, in hopes that the dedicated habitats will sustain a threatened population during its migration.