A butterfly that couldn’t fly

This was our first year of raising monarchs. Most of the time, when a butterfly emerged from its chrysalis, the big event happened before I woke up. So when it was time for the 12th birth, the day after Labor Day, I didn’t even try to wake up early to catch it. But when I checked on her, I noticed a that not only had she emerged, there was major problem: she was stuck in the chrysalis.

chrysalis viewed from above with a butterfly's wings below

Her head and wings were out, but her abdomen was stuck to the very top of the chrysalis. It was obvious that she had been struggling to free herself for some time.

Best practices say that you should not help a monarch who is stuck. If this problem occurs, it is because something is wrong and the monarch isn’t healthy enough to live. But how in the world could I not help?! It was terrible to watch her frantic struggling. And I’m already helping by raising monarchs indoors, away from predators. Of course I felt like I had to help her.

Luckily, my husband was at home that morning to assist. I cut down the chrysalis, and we gently laid her on a towel. It didn’t take much to pull the chrysalis off.

gloved hands tugging at the top of the chrysalis

Her wings were limp, which I thought meant she might be new enough that she still had time to finish drying. I struggled to get her back into the cage because she was desperate to climb up my hands rather than be set down. She knew she needed to be able to hang to let her wings dry.

monarch with wings unfolded in a pair of gloved hands

Unfortunately, when I got home from work that night, her wings still weren’t straight. I thought she flew a tiny bit but then realized it was more of a jump with a flutter. I had already decided to keep her inside overnight, and in the morning, not much had changed.

So what to do? It was the migration season, and she couldn’t fly. She needed to get to Mexico, or she would freeze or be eaten. Would it be more humane to euthanize her? Or should I keep her inside as long as she could survive?

There’s not a lot of advice for a situation like this. The only thing I could find was along these lines: “If the butterfly can’t fly, you should feed the butterfly sugar-water or rotten fruit.” Well, of course we should feed her. But then what? Do we keep her for the nine months that the migration generation lives? And even then, if she can’t fly, we wouldn’t be able to let her out even when the others returned to Minnesota in the spring. This was pretty stressful.

I mashed up an old banana and somehow managed to set her down near – or more accurately, in – it. By the time I had a chance to wonder whether she’d know what to do, I noticed her proboscis was already in the banana.

Later she was standing on top of a slice of plum, so I was assured she could move around on her own (even with fruit-covered feet). But it was obvious that her wings weren’t correct.

monarch with its wings back, the bottom two bent inward and the tips of the top two folded outward

With the lack of a better option, we kept feeding her as the days passed. When I had first told people weeks earlier that I was raising monarchs, several people asked me if I planned to keep them. I thought they were crazy. The whole point is to raise healthy butterflies so they can be released. And now we were keeping one as a pet.

I took her outside when I released a healthy monarch. She seemed to enjoy sitting in the sun and made a couple attempts at flying.

Five days after she emerged, she was very active. For an entire hour, she sat near the mashed bananas: drink, drink, drink, rest. Repeat. It even seemed like she was doing exercises, waving her wings and lifting her abdomen. And then she was trying very hard to fly. It didn’t work so well when she was on a flat surface, but if I picked her up, she could jump and fly away – except I eventually realized that she wasn’t so much flying as she was gliding; her path was always gently to the floor.

monarch with its wings expanded on a white towel

The following night she was even more spunky. She wouldn’t sit still anymore, walking all over the table and gliding over to the window and climbing the curtains.

monarch on a window screen

Many times I picked her up and she jumped off my finger. She seemed determined to fly, and she seemed mad that it wasn’t working.

blurry image of a monarch rapidly fluttering its wings

It seemed that she got discouraged after this. The next night, she would barely eat and only briefly tried to fly.

The next morning she was listless on the floor of the cage, one of her legs already folded up. It was time to help her go. Fortunately Bill was home to help me. We put a tissue in a jar to give her a soft spot to rest, and then placed a cotton ball soaked in nail-polish remover in the jar and sealed the cover. Almost immediately, she was gone.

I never intended to have a butterfly as a pet, but this one stole our hearts. I’m sad that something was wrong to prevent her from flying, and that we couldn’t fix her. Though if we hadn’t helped her out of the chrysalis, she would have died anyway. We did the best we could to help her.

So what went wrong? Everything seemed normal when she was a caterpillar. The one thing I noticed was that it seemed to take her a really long time to get into the J position: she was at the top of the cage for a whole day before making the silk pad and falling back into the J.

monarch in J position

But I watched her transform, and that process seemed fine.

newly formed chrysalis that is still bumpy, not smooth

She’s the chrysalis in this photo:

monarch chrysalis above a caterpillar that's eating a milkweed leaf

But of course, she ended up stuck in the chrysalis. Also, her abdomen had irregular white marks instead of the usual defined lines.

wings flat, abdomen raised to show white splotches

Because of those two things, I thought it might be OE, a parasite that lives inside monarchs and related butterflies. We collected a sample of her scales and used our microscope but couldn’t find anything. But since it’s a very cheap model and we weren’t sure it was powerful enough to see tiny OE spores, we sent it for testing.

scales in clear tape, sitting on a microscope slide

Edith at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm didn’t find even one OE spore, proving that tests are needed to determine OE, not just observation. Here’s what she told me via email: “The problem is that the spotlight is so bright on OE that other diseases are openly doing their nasty work and no one blames them. They treat for OE and sometimes OE treatments won’t take care of the other diseases. … It reminds me of magicians imitating pick pockets. We are so busy looking at their right hands with the flashy tricks that we don’t see their left hands picking the subject’s pockets, right there in plain view.”

Another parasite, or a virus or disease, could have been the culprit. A younger butterfly – which had been raised in the same container as this one – was fine, though, which makes me think it wasn’t a contagious problem. Still, it’s a good reminder for next year that we will need to thoroughly clean the caterpillars’ cages daily (which we did this year anyway) and bleach them between generations (likewise) to try to prevent issues.

monarch with wings expanded on a white towel, with one wing visibly bent under

More about our monarchs

20 Comments

Leave a Comment

  1. This helped me too! I found a monarch butterfly in the park today when I was jogging. It just sat on the ground and flapped its wings once in awhile but didn’t fly off. I tried to feed it water and moved it to area with flowers, but it still just hung out. I took it home because it seemed to not be healthy or it would’ve flown away, I thought. It’s still on my kitchen table in a pot saucer on a small rock with some water and fruit juice. I used dropper to let some juice flow over the small rock it was on and it seemed to feed on it. I would rather put it outside in the garden but worried about it dying that way, i.e., sooner. Your story helped me to see things like this happen and we can’t help it sometimes. I bought some milkweed plants also and put them near him, but he doesn’t seem interested. Thanks for writing your story!

  2. I have a male monarch butterfly and a female monarch butterfly – they both can’t fly. Clover (the female) has crippled wings and only one functioning leg. On the other hand Kiwi (the male) is flightless… that’s why we called him ‘Kiwi’. Although, his wings appear to be fine – and his hatching process was fine, he can’t seem to fly. He takes frequent leaps of faith – luckily I am quick to catch him safely. But he won’t fly. And most importantly – he can’t! Despite how frequently he’s eating and how healthy he is, he can’t fly. With Clover she literally can’t fly due to her many problems. They both feed on honey solution recommended by a person called Dr. Lund. He’s very helpful may I say and you should definitely check out his youtube channel as his topic revolves somewhat around Monarch Butterflies. But I’m not sure what to do with Kiwi. I am rather happy to look after him for his lifetime if that’s what is needed – but I’d prefer if he had a normal life. Much like I wish Clover could have. Everyday (unless it’s raining), I take them outside so they can soak up some vitamin D and enjoy the sun and flowers.
    I’d appreciate any help.
    Thanks, AB.

  3. Hi, one of the butterfly hatched with deformed left front leg and seemingly weak wings. I tried to fly several times but fell off the ground. I am keeping it inside hoping the wings will become stronger to fly. Meanwhile how often and how much do I feed her?

    • I am not an expert, so please keep that in mind! Is she in a cage? If so, you may be able to leave some food all the time. If that doesn’t work, try in the morning and evening, or more if you have time. Mashed bananas worked great for me. You may also want to try some flowers, though that didn’t work for me. Good luck!

  4. Thank you so much for your story. I have a caterpillar with one wing that is slightly bent under. I thought I had somehow injured her when taking them outside on a blustery day but she looks just like yours. I had 5 hatch at once and I must not have noticed the defect. She does the same as yours, hops, flutters, lands. She’s less than 48 hours old and not accepting food yet. I am still debating a long term solution. I’m just relieved it wasn’t anything I did. Thanks again.

  5. I have a 4 day old male Monarch who cannot fly. He has no obvious defects but just flusters his wings. He often has what appears to be tremors or seizures and his entire body and wings shark. He drinks sugar water and seems to enjoy fruit juices being added to the solution. He seems generally content but I feel bad for him. Thanks for sharing your story. This is my 3rd year raising Monarchs.

    • I’ve only raised Monarchs for a short period of time, but I had the same problem, too. I had to bring in the late bloomers because it was winter and they wouldn’t survive out in the cold. One of them, a male named Kiwi (yes, I know – what a name), he was perfectly fine compared to the others. He ate regularly and seemed pretty active when climbing my indoor plants, but he couldn’t fly! He just sort of took a leap of faith and his wings would sort of shudder and then he fell to the ground. But Kiwi being Kiwi, he never gave up. I was confused at first but I just decided to take him outside a few times and see if he could fly then. It didn’t work, but I feel like it helped a bit because after nearly a week, he began to fly.
      I’m not sure how or why or what happened, but he must’ve just picked it up. Also, I rarely gave my Monarchs sugar water because there’s a rumour going around that it’s not actually that good for Monarchs and it could be a part of the reason behind it. I mainly fed them honey which they seemed to enjoy far more than sugar water.
      Anyway, I’m just an amateur who helped the late Monarchs and shared the same experience with one of them. But I’m sure he’ll pick it up eventually, just keep trying!
      Hopefully this helps.

    • We raise Painted Ladies every year with our now 6year old daughter. This year one of the chrysalides fell down onto another caterpillar, ppand squashed it Dorothy’s house on the witch style. I managed to rescue the uppermost fallen chrysalide, and hung it off a cotton bud (QTip) with a base of air drying clay. The chrysalis has a dent in it, so we thought the butterfly might not emerge OK.
      Sure enough, it had one set of wings smaller than the other, and its proboscis was permanently hanging out. It could jump and flutter but not fly. We fed it banana and strawberry and when we released its fellows, we left it out in the garden with fruit and flowers. It was gone by the evening, so I assume it made another creature a meal, but at least it got to enjoy the garden for a while first.

  6. Yes. It is very frustrating when they emerge and their wings don’t fully open but I remind myself that we are saving many more from predators. I have observed that those that stay in Chrysalis form longer have problems with sticking to the chysalis when emerging. Perhaps they have dried out more the longer they are in that form.

    Another observation I have made is that many flutter their wings really fast when they are ready to take off. I keep my caterpillars in separate glass jars to avoid the spread of parasites. Its more work but I have noticed a higher number of monarchs released.

    Does anyone know if there is something going around this year that is causing the caterpillars to die in J formation? I have had several more die this year than in years past.

  7. Tinkerbell was slow to emerge taking 20 days in chrysalis. It was late in season and getting colder at night. I was prepared to hold her in cage for a few days until weather was warm enough to release. Sadly she could not fly. As with others who have similar flightless angels – she just floats on the breeze a few feet but lands on the ground. She is within a netted cage when unattended – both inside or out depending on weather. We put her outside on what remains in bloom, checking on her frequently. She enjoys butterfly bush and some Longwood Blue blossoms which are very limited mid October in Indiana. Supplementing each morning with dilute honey water which she takes easily ONCE you get her to the puddle. She hangs at night on what every blooms and in a small vase in her cage. She seems content to just latch on to our shirts and wander about with us during day but I see her frustration when she is trying to fly. It has been 11 days. Tomorrow is always a gift. I will continue to find her a place in the sun each day that we have. A covid diversion indeed.

  8. Thank you for this post, I am grateful to read this as I am currently trying to rehabilitate a painted lady butterfly who can not fly. I thank you for your insight. However I’m sorry, I do not understand the euthanasia… why do people euthanize butterflies? It is probably not a pleasant way to pass being poisoned by nail polish remover? I mean, who would want to experience that? I don’t think anyone would want that to happen to them. Wouldn’t it be more natural to let them pass on their own terms? I have read that butterflies do not feel pain, so if that is true, isn’t it more humane to let them live and let them experience life for as long as they can?
    Wondering your thoughts on this,
    Sincerely A.Y.

  9. In the same way honey should never be given to hummingbirds due to fungus issues, I never give honey to butterflies. A butterfly proportionate, simple sugar “nectar” is preferred by experts. In the wild a butterfly is unlikely to encounter honey due to bees protection instinct. To me, this fact says giving butterflies honey is illogical. Yes, they may drink it, but so will hummingbirds til attacked by the fungus.

    It’s hard for newbies when things go wrong. My first batch were all healthy, strong, beautiful and I thought would never stop producing…roughly 48+ from 3 tiny plants from the nursery. (Picture me driving all over town OFTEN, trying to find more milkweed!) I set them free out in various places in the wild hoping to scatter their healthy genes far and wide.

    Shortly afterwards, my yard crew who were likely non-migratory population and not as healthy and I’ve weathered a couple cat-black deaths, mild to serious OE and wasp infestations (really creepy gross) and two stuck in their chrysalis, I only managed to midwife one, the other one eclosed in a short step away trying to multitask. Through all those, I still had fly ready babies who did well.

    Like a previous poster said, because I am planting tons of *** NATIVE LOCAL*** milkweed, I am helping to my small degree and it’s helped deal with the sad occasions nature throws our way.

    The biggest issue with one stuck in its chrysalis is that the abdomen begins pumping when the case opens and results in deformed wings when they don’t get out quickly. I suspect it’s partly due to dry conditions caused by air conditioning, so now I try to watch every time as doing so resulted in healthy butters, except the one I missed. I mist my cats plants with spring water often in days when they feed – and the chrysalis as well when I remember, to alleviate dryness. I haven’t devised something to keep their area humid yet but I should. I’ve read more experienced testimonies that this helps.

    Now that my milkweed is making pods, I plan to become a “Mary Milkweed-seed” in every wild spot I can find, like ole Johnny did with apple seeds!

    It wasn’t planned,I just bought milkweed for my yard…but finding dozens of cats on them, here I am months later still thrilled by watching them and releasing them to the wild!

    Wishing everyone happy and healthy ecloses!

  10. It is so wonderful reading everyone’s stories. I as well just started raising monarchs because a patient gave me a milkweed plant because she was raising them. The first couple of batches were nice and healthy and right before pupating, they all died. I was devastated to say the least. Now I keep them outside until they get big enough and then move them to my porch in my netted cages. I live in Florida so it’s always humid. In my 2 tents I had a total of 16 that ALL firmed their crystallizes within 7 days. I was in heaven. Since Tuesday, I have had 11 emerge. 9 are beautiful and healthy. I had one stuck yesterday and when she came out her wings had dried before they could come down and she died. This morning I had another one emerge and found her in the plant. She is upright and ganging on to the netting but I don’t think she’ll ever fly. She is still trying to flap her wings. With all the disappointments I am still so proud I was able to release 9 this week. I still have 5 more waiting to come into the world. With that being said. Don’t give up. They need us

  11. My daughter got a caterpillar kit for her birthday, and today the first butterfly emerged from its chrysalis. It was a beautiful little thing. Sorry, I can’t tell you what kind. Anyway, we let it go free, and it didn’t seem anxious to fly anywhere. It fluttered into a bush and just sat there. To our horror, we watched as a couple of, well, I assume they were large wasps, came along and attacked and ate it. I still feel bad about it. Not sure what we should do different when the next one emerges. It really broke our hearts, this first one.

  12. I’ve been nursing a butterfly whos wing came out crooked and eventually broke off due to him trying to fly so much :( I feel terrible for him and don’t know what to do. He has the milkweed in the enclosure, bought him some flowers, offered fruits and honey water. He doesn’t care about the flowers or fruit, but loves the honey water, but I need to feed him with the syringe. Sigh. I am so sad I can’t do more. I cannot imagine euthanizing him though. Is that my only option other than keeping him for months on end in this sad life? :((

    • Melissa, I hope that it’s not a sad life. My son said my flightless monarch is probably stressing all the time. Dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. We do what we can, right? I can’t euthanize. I don’t understand the syringe. They don’t have mouths. I’m baffled on that.

      • Hi, so a friend who is an avid gardener and butterfly enthusiast and he told me he wasn’t going to make it no matter what. I took him outside and let him feel the sun, the wind and the plants. I knew he wouldn’t make it, so I spent some time watching him and letting him crawl around on me. I put him on my tomato plant and watching him pump his wings and then I turned away and went inside. I cried on and off for hours because I felt like I let him down and abandoned him, but it was better than letting him die in an enclosure. He got to feel the wind on his wings and sun on his body before he disappeared. I checked on him intermittently and at one point he was gone. :( hopefully it was quick. But yeah. Sad and guilty for it but I felt better about having him die in a tent.

  13. Hi, My name is Dee and I also went through almost the same experience as you, There were two girls a were one day apart. On July 17, 2021 The first one emerged sometime before dawn. When I awoke and checked on them she had fallen and was at the bottom of the cage. And she was unable to fly. The second was like yours. The next morning on July 18, 2021 I found her stuck and also could not fly. She lived for about a week.
    Today is October 22,2021 and tomorrow the 1st butterfly, which I call “little girl” is turning 15 weeks old. She’s amazing.

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s