Sunday, August 30, 2009

Our Butterflies Are Free To Fly!

Butterflies are one of the most beautiful gifts of nature I know. Their striking colors and effortless flight make me feel free to fly myself... in my own way, my own direction. The mystery of the Monarch's flight home to it's roosting grounds, 4 generations removed from ever having been there, knowing just exactly when and where to go engages me. They make this age-old journey hundreds of miles and countless hours away to a place they've never been but have been preprogrammed to return to so that their kind continues to exist. Surely, this is nothing short of miraculous!

My daughter, the old soul, is equally enchanted by the butterfly. And so, was very excited when her 2nd grade class raised Painted Lady butterflies last year. She was even more ecstatic to be gifted her very own butterfly house by her all-knowing and loving aunt. Out of season, Olivia waited patiently for the "right time" to raise her own butterflies.

Being an outdoors[wo]man, I am hesitant about taking God's creatures from their natural habitat and holding them captive for any reason but to heal a wound or protect them from predators. (I know this last part is in the natural order of things, I just don't want to be witness to it.) Still, at Olivia's insistence, I hesitatingly agreed and we ordered her "pillars" as she playfully referred to them, for delivery on return from our recent camping trip. The small box, clearly marked "this end up", was upside down and so were our 5 caterpillars, surrounded by their life-saving gelatinous caterpillar food. We righted the cup and found a spot on our overcrowded counters for yet another of Olivia's science projects in process.

According to the instructions, we had 7 to 10 days of caterpillar-ness before our new friends -- of COURSE she named them: Pumpkin, Dino, Catrina Cat, Elizabeth Anne and Tinker Bell -- finished spinning their silks and hung themselves appropriately from the roof of the cup. Extraordinary quiet was required as they built their iridescent chrysalides where their metamorphosis would occur. In just 5 days, and under Olivia's watchful eyes, the first part of the transformation was well underway when I heard her gasp... one of the chrysalid had fallen. According to her teacher, this was suicide and the fallen comrade was already doomed... 2 days passed as we looked on with concern. Olivia being she and me being me, we determined that the fallen chrysalid was worth saving... Or at least attempting to save. As per the instructions, we gently removed the paper disc where 4 of the chrysalides remained, then we carefully spooned the fallen chrysalid out of the caterpillar food. Startling us as it wiggled mightily, seemingly attempting to wiggle itself into a hanging position again, we gently wrapped some of the remaining silk threads around its curled top and -- because the silk is sticky like Velcro -- rehung the supposedly-sleeping-but-clearly-awake creature on the disc with it's siblings. We gently paper clipped the disc to the side of Olivia's butterfly tree house and set it back in its protective and quiet corner -- if that's possible to find in our home -- to incubate. All was quiet! Once hung, even the reborn chrysalid quieted down immediately in preparation for her (Elizabeth Ann) miraculous metamorphosis.

Another 7-10 days of waiting! On day 4, as she had done every single day since they arrived, Olivia bounded down the stairs to check in on her butterfly children. "Mom! The butterflies hatched! There are 5 butterflies! WE SAVED HER!" She laughed at their cute little fuzzy faces, their buggy eyes and how they moved their heads like robots to look around their new home. It was wonderful to watch as they slowly flapped their newly minted wings to dry. FIVE perfect Painted Ladies!

If you're not familiar with the Painted Lady, she is a small Monarch-look-alike. Though not poison to its predators like the Monarch is, the Painted Lady mimics the grand Monarch for its own protection. As Olivia explains it, "it dresses up like a Monarch so it doesn't get eaten. A predator says, 'I don't want to eat that! The last time that thing made me sick!' And, as Olivia is my co-writer here, she'd also like to add some Painted Lady facts: Did you know that Painted Ladies have 10,000 eyes and they can travel 1,000 miles over the course of their lifetime? True!

Back to our butterfly-raising instructions... We learned that our friends need cut flowers sprinkled with a home-made sugar solution to mimic the morning dew. Still in pajamas, Olivia and I cut some of the HUGE yellow flowers -- we have no idea what they are -- from our garden and a few blooms from her new butterfly bush. We spooned the sugar water onto the flowers, placed the flowers in small containers with water to sustain them and placed them carefully in the bottom of their butterfly habitat, careful not to crush any of our friends in the placement. It was Catrina Cat, we think, that came to investigate first. And, she was eventually followed by all of her siblings. They chased each other around the netted pen, up and down the walls, under and over the flowers, tasting the sugar water dew on the flowers with their feet -- because that's how Painted Ladies taste things -- and sipping with their deep purple proboscis -- a long butterfly tongue that's like a little wire robot. The butterfly's mouth opens up and the long swirled proboscis uncoils down to the flower's nectar, poking in and out to suck up the sweet juice.

Olivia called them her butterfly sailors because when they closed their wings they looked like sail boats, she said -- appropriate, as our school teams are the Oceanside Sailors. The gentle wind of Olivia's breath as she spoke softly to them would cause their wings to flap gently as if smitten with her natural breeze. Such a Beautiful sight! Olivia and her FIVE Painted Lady butterflies... We were both so relieved they were all alive and well.

I noticed, they did not fly yet. Perhaps too young. Perhaps too trapped, I thought! Almost immediately I wanted to let them go. My heart ached for their freedom. But, hurricane remnant rain pummeled our neighborhood throughout the day. Now, I'm not sure what I think wild butterflies do when it rains (sounds like a topic for a good children's book) but Olivia had relayed a story about one of her classroom butterflies accidentally landing in water which caused its wing to rapidly disintegrate and the poor thing died. Desperate now to have all 5 of her butterflies go free, I would not, could not take that chance. So, they were held captive.... Quietly clinging to their netted -- versus gilded -- cage waiting, begging for their freedom.

Butterflies -- Day 2: Though it started out raining, the sun finally managed to break through right about the noon hour and we began discussing the release of her butterflies. Olivia explained that their classroom butterflies were held for several days, but I quickly convinced her that, just as people can't eat yodels for every meal, a butterfly cannot live healthily on sugar water either. And, with their small bodies and short lives -- Painted Ladies live only a few weeks -- I wanted her babies to have good nutritionally-sound butterfly food (live flowers and nectar) and to live as much of their lives as possible in freedom. Once I'd put it that way, Olivia wholeheartedly agreed. But, she worried, did we have enough flowers and enough variation in our own garden to support 5 growing Painted Ladies? After all, our butterfly bush was just a baby itself and had only a few blooms. So we began to discuss where her new children could be set free. Who had an abundant garden nearby so that we wouldn't have to transport them far and we could visit them or they could visit us, maybe? Together we named several worthy flower gardens in the area and Olivia quickly chose Grandma's friend, Helene's garden around the block because she knew that garden had been planted specifically with butterflies in mind. Delectable flowers meandered from the front yard, down the driveway and into the back yard where 2 huge butterfly bushes and a row of milkweed (a butterfly favorite Helene had picked from the neighborhood creek) grew tall and wild.

Helene is a friend of my mother's whose whole family has been in MY life since I was about 6 years old. Herb, Helene's husband who passed away many years ago, was the first person to take me camping (outside of my own backyard) and was instrumental in building my love for camping and increasing my knowledge of the great outdoors (not to mention instilling a sense that people with handicaps were capable of absolutely anything... being a double amputee himself. But that's a different story about another angel that graced my life). We knew that Helene sits on her porch every morning admiring her garden and watching a wide array of butterflies come and go. So, we called Helene and asked her permission to free Olivia's babies in her garden. She was thrilled with the idea noting that she had not seen any Painted Ladies in her garden yet. Olivia's would be her first!

The very moment they were carried outside still in their tree house, the butterflies took flight instinctively... quickly learning the confines of their netted world. Their first flight!!!

As a family, we walked over to Helene's house... Daddy, Mommy, Brian, Michael, Bubba and Molly (the dogs), and Olivia and her butterflies -- Pumpkin, Dino, Catrina Cat, Elizabeth Ann, and Tinker Bell. Upon arrival and deciding just where they'd be set free, Olivia carefully unzipped their temporary home and hand-delivered each of her babies to perch on the biggest bloom of the biggest butterfly bush. One by one, they tasted, then drank, then flew away to investigate their new world... testing their new freedom without confines. Up, up and away!

It was a wonderful thing to be able to raise them and then let them go. The whole experience gave me a brief glimpse into the future. My future. Into the inevitable growing up and physical letting go of my children someday. It was comforting to know the butterflies were now free to live their lives as they were meant to. Olivia and I were only here to briefly give her butterfly sailors a safe harbor to grow up in. Yes, I worry for their safety. Do they know how to survive out there? Can they protect themselves from predators? Will they find enough food/flowers to eat? Will they have shelter from the rain? I wonder, as I'm sure Olivia does, whether I'll ever see them again.

In the end, I have learned a deeper understanding of the adage, "if you love something... set it free!"

Note: All of the butterflies pictured are Olivia's Painted Ladies


  1. Oh, what a great experience. Andrew's preschool class hatch butterflies and released them on the last day of school. It must have been a lot of fun to do it at home. Maybe we'll give it a try next year. Good job saving the fallen one!

  2. how wonderful and brave to set free.