The Death of a Butterfly

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Photo Credit: "Painted lady butterfly" by dmushrush is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This morning I watched a butterfly die. 

She was a Painted Lady, part of a nature kit purchased online for my two-year-old niece but wondered at, primarily, by me. The first chrysalis, hardened and hanging from the plastic lid of the caterpillar cup, opened sometime in the night, and we woke to one of nature’s original miracles that morning. His wings were closed, rising above his body without showing off the vibrant orange and black patterns folded inside. I stared at the butterfly, perched on the shell of his own chrysalis. 

Metamorphosis—the subject of so much mythology and pop psychology. The mighty transition from caterpillar to butterfly, the ultimate progression. Only sometimes, the metamorphosis fails. 

The second butterfly poked her nose from her chrysalis while we were awake and marveling at her sibling. I pulled up a stool to watch. At twenty-eight-years old, I’ve never seen a butterfly emerge before. I set up my cell phone camera and waited. She wiggled back and forth, pushing away bits of chrysalis with her legs and antenna. It looked like hard work, trying to complete a metamorphosis, but that made sense. After all, everything—everyone—must fight to survive. Transitions are difficult. The butterfly kept at it, breaking off pieces of her self-made container and then batting them away. But she seemed to be having trouble freeing her wings. No matter how many passes her antenna made over the filmy brown shell, they couldn’t seem to pull the pieces loose. After twenty minutes of struggle—a full-body, writhing struggle—I started to worry. I kept my camera running and ran upstairs to my laptop: How long should it take a butterfly to break out of a chrysalis? 

Four to five minutes. After fifteen, something is likely wrong. 

The answer made my heart drop. 

I kept reading, and the website said that it’s possible to try and help, to split the chrysalis to ease the transition. I grabbed a pair of tweezers and rushed back down to the plastic and mesh enclosure. The first butterfly spread his wings, flapping without taking off. The second, I noticed with dread, had stopped moving. 

Slowly, I unzipped the top and reached in with the tweezers. I removed one loose piece of the chrysalis, and the butterfly fell from where she hung to the net-covered countertop. Part of her wing had split, and the ruined orange and black skin dangled listlessly with the remains of the chrysalis. The butterfly, I realized, would not survive. 

I eased the little creature, still alive and slowly working her legs, toward the sugar water sponge. But the rest of the article I’d read, the part I hoped I wouldn’t need, was clear. 

Not all butterflies emerge successfully. If they don’t, the kindest thing to do is take them outside and leave them among the flowers. 

After waiting a minute or so to see if she had any interest in the sugar water, I scooped the broken butterfly up in a spoon and then, as gently as I could, slid her body into my hand. Her wings were so badly damaged that she kept rolling onto her back, so I cupped her in my palm. She seemed calmer when her legs were secure against something. 

The overcast sky didn’t dampen the brightness of the flowers, and I laid the tiny insect on a leaf surrounded by the Syringas.

Growing up, I always loved nature. I think I inherently recognized its importance in my life. I could watch documentaries where lions killed antelope, and grizzlies snapped up salmon. As I got older, the harshness of the wild caused me to look away. I knew things died—by then I’d lost people and other animals I’d loved up close—and not just on a screen. I knew survival of the fittest made sense, but I turned my attention away from it because it was painful. 

On that morning, the first butterfly I’ve ever seen emerge died. I have a 43-minute video of her struggling to survive and failing. Evidence of a metamorphosis that proved to be fatal. But for the first time since I was a kid, I would rather have witnessed it than not. Nature can be devastating. The evidence of that lay curled in a leaf in my backyard. But it can also be beautiful. In fact, right now, there’s a brand-new Painted Lady in my kitchen, soon to be fluttering into the trees. If I look away from the bad, it will happen regardless. And then I won’t see the good, which is happening too. 

Three more chrysalises dangle in the enclosure. They somehow manage to contain the memory of what could have been—and the hope of what’s to come. The metamorphosis continues. And I will be watching.  

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  • Grace Hansen

    I'm a millennial born and raised in Idaho. After attending law school in New York City and then moving back to the mountain west to work as a tribal prosecutor, I left the law to teach high school, walk my dogs, and watch nature.

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