The Brief Life of Butterfly Number 2

Two weeks ago, Quinn and Sawyer, who have birthdays 18 days apart, got a butterfly kit as a gift from their aunt: two cups with five caterpillars each, with tan muck at the bottom that they eat.

In a video on the Insect Lore website, little girls sweetly gaze at butterflies perched on their fingers, and even giggle after they kiss their wings.

The emotions wrapped up in our butterfly project ended up being a little more complicated.

It was shocking how fast the process was. They fattened to five times their original size in a week and were chrysalises nine days after we took them out of their box. We put them in their mesh house and waited.

The first butterfly emerged unseen. Suddenly there he was on the mesh wall. The kids went nuts with excitement.

Then came Butterfly Number 2. He got out okay, but then his head got caught on a piece of silk the caterpillars had made. I’d gotten almost all of that stuff off, as instructed, but I was worried about disturbing the chrysalises, and didn’t get every last shred. I lowered scissors into the butterfly habitat,feeling like a surgeon doing a life-or-death operation, and snipped the thread. He was free.

Then we noticed he had no antennae. His head was a slightly different shape, too, and on it there was a black bump that he kept trying to scrape off with his white needle legs. We thought it might have been a withered stump of ungrown antennae. He also seemed to have no proboscis, the thread-like tube they drink nectar with. (Was it because of the bit of the goo we hadn’t removed? We couldn’t know for sure. But let’s just say that if we ever do this again, I’ll be much more anal about getting every last shred of the silk off.)

butterfly number 2
Number 2

Quinn kept hoping he’d grow antennae. He didn’t. He kept wondering whether I’d cut them off with the scissors. I hadn’t.

The other eight all emerged over the next 24 hours, in what looked to be tip-top condition.

But Number 2 struggled. He couldn’t stay aloft as long as the others and didn’t drink any sugar water droplets. While the others liked to sit vertically or even upside down, Number 2 stayed on the habitat floor.

Quinn wished he were as active as the rest. He knew his prospects were dim.

As time went on, Number 2 moved less and less. He was dying.

Do we let the kids place him out in the yard to watch him die? Do we sneak him out ourselves?

With the kids at school, in Number 2’s second full day of life, he was fading fast. I took him outside and put him on some flowers in the sun. The breeze sent his wings shivering. A few hours later, he was in the same spot. A goner.

That night, the others were flapping like mad inside their little house. They had auditioned enough. They wanted out.

“I want to let them go, but I don’t want to let them go,” Quinn said. We said we understood how he wanted to make them happy, but would miss them. He didn’t resist much. Once loose, they shot up 20 feet in seconds, shrinking to a drunken speck that was soon gone forever.

Later, Quinn asked Jen about Number 2 when I wasn’t in the room. She told him we must have released him and didn’t notice. A lie, but in her defense, it was getting near bedtime, and he had homework to finish. It was not a time for trauma.

And for now, we’re content to let him savor the image of butterflies that, once set free, soar to the heavens.

butterfly quinn 1

butterfly quinn 3


butterfly quinn 2

butterfly quinn 4

butterfly launch 1

butterfly launch 2


quinn butterfly
Quinn with one of the lucky ones
sawyer butterfly
Sawyer, the launch pad


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