The Sorrow of Daedalus: Performing Prosthetic Surgery on a Monarch Butterfly


When young and foolhardy Icarus fell from the sky into the sea and drowned, poor Daedalus was forced to watch helplessly as his child floundered before him. Inexorably plummeting earthward to fatally kiss the face of Poseidon.

The guilt and sadness that Daedalus must have felt is appreciated by me more than ever. For today, I have failed one of my flock in a similar fashion. Today I was unable to successfully perform prosthetic surgery on a poor wayward monarch butterfly.


I was going to name her Jamie Sommers (The Bionic Woman). I thought we had the technology. I thought we could rebuild her. Faster. Stronger. But I failed and now she will be called Icarus. Here is her story…


Monarch munching milkweed
young Icarus full of promise

Icarus was born in the midst of my scattered milkweed plants that I added to my yard in to help give the monarchs a safe haven on their long journey from Mexico to Canada. It was part of my work to make my yard a certified wildlife habitat. All official like!

She and her siblings voraciously devoured the milkweed until they were fat and happy. Many of her siblings then wandered off to find a nice quiet place to begin their transformation. Much like this one here…

The Sorrow of Daedalus 02_Monarch preparing for chrysalis
A nice cozy spot!

But not our young heroine. Icarus instead thought it best to build her chrysalis on the throttle of my immobile scooter!

The Sorrow of Daedalus 03_Icarus at full throttle
Icarus at full throttle.

I could tell by her selection that this was a monarch to watch! She already had such style and a daredevil personality that surely she would be the very best of stunt fliers! Sasha and I had such high hopes for little Icarus.

However life sometimes has a way of humbling people (and critters). Icarus’ daredevil dreams didn’t work out for our poor little lady and she was doomed with a deformed left wing and leg.

The Sorrow of Daedalus 06_Icarus Bad Wing
Poor Icarus and her puny wing.

I first noticed her in the morning when I was heading to work. She was flopping around on the sidewalk close to the the now empty chrysalis on the scooter throttle. My heart sank when I realized that she would not be long for this world. For a monarch butterfly that can’t fly has no way to evade predators or forage for food or find a nice handsome fella to love.

I had precious little time as I had to get to work so I gently scooped her up and placed her on one of the milkweeds that had some nice blooms…

The Sorrow of Daedalus 01_Feature Image
Icarus getting her first taste of nectar

Hoping that she would survive the day, I rushed off to work. She never left my thoughts though as I plowed through my busy morning. While eating lunch I had an epiphany! What if I could somehow repair the bum wing?! There must be a precedent out there in the world of someone else who has dreamed of helping a poor little butterfly. So I visited The Interwebs with a heart full of hope.

I was not disappointed! There are several sites and videos from like-minded saps such as myself. So with a renewed fervor I began hatching a plan. But where can I get the spare parts for a monarch butterfly? Oh wait! I work in Balboa Park, home to many great museums and cultural institutions. If there was one thing I learned from being raised by scientists on a college campus, it’s that specialists typically love it when an outsider shows a particular interest in their field.

So I quickly finished my sandwich and rushed over to the San Diego Museum of Natural History…

The Sorrow of Daedalus 04_San Dieog Natural HIstory Museum
The San Diego Museum of Natural History

Being a museum staff member has its privileges! I flashed a badge at the front desk and said, “If you please, I would like to speak with your head entomologist regarding a matter of great urgency!”. She called Michael Wall PhD and he told her to send me up.

I could sense a smidgen of skepticism from the good entomologist, but I felt that he was moved by my quest so he graciously led me through their storage vaults in search of the perfect donor butterfly. They had some insects that are designated for educational purposes and not part of the museums permanent collection. It was in those stacks that he found a lovely monarch who had fortunately checked off the little organ donor box on her flyers licence! Dr. Wall asked to receive any documentation of the results of my mad science experiment and sent me on my way. Thank you so much Dr. Wall!! Now I had all I needed to proceed.

The Sorrow of Daedalus 05_SDNH Museum Entomology Department
Monarch butterfly spare parts kit!

It was now time to prep for major prosthetic butterfly reconstructive surgery!


The next group of photos are woefully laden with blurriness and for that I am sorry. Trying to manage this delicate procedure while taking my patented sharp and lovely photographs proved a wee bit more difficult than I had hoped for. It is my sincere hope that you can find it in your hearts to understand and forgive.

The Sorrow of Daedalus 07_Icarus in the fridge
Icarus needs to chill out!

The first step was to slow down the poor girl’s metabolism a bit so she won’t panic too much. I’m certain that what’s coming next will give her The Fear. So I popped her in the fridge for about fifteen minutes while I prepped for surgery.

The Sorrow of Daedalus 08_Prep for surgery
Butterfly prosthetic reconstructive surgery room.

And now to prepare the donor…

The Sorrow of Daedalus 09_Perp for surgery 2
For science!
The Sorrow of Daedalus 012_Prosthetic wing
A successful operation.

Now for the really tricky part! Now I am known for my steady hands. Working at The San Diego Museum of Art handling objects of antiquity and fine art for well over a decade has honed my steady-handedness to that of a skilled surgeon. But I’ve never had to work on a live specimen! Here’s where the photos get really blurry as I attempt remove the bad tissue of her wilted wing and attach our new prosthetic.

This is much easier said than done! The damage on her forewing was very close to her thorax so I had precious little to attach to and it was very close to her wiggly little body. Twice I had to stop and put her back into the dark fridge to calm down again. Poor thing must’ve been scared to death.

But I eventually got her in a “comfortable” position and glued on her new wing. It was tricky getting the veins to line up properly while juggling all these other issues.


After allowing the glue to dry I gently brushed a small amount of baby powder over the glued section of the new wing to ensure no tackiness remained before releasing the patient. Once that was done, I gently began removing her restraints.

Icarus immediately began flapping her wings. Clumsily at first, but then with better rhythm and loft.  She hovered above the makeshift operating theater an inch or two. Then five inches. Then soared heavenward a good sixteen inches!


Now, here’s the point in our story where any children should read no further. For sadness is too bountiful in this world already and I will not contribute to any more.

Just as my heart was beginning to swell and burst with joy and pride, tragedy struck!

Just like the terrible Greek tragedy mentioned in the beginning of this tale, our little heroine began to sputter and spin out of control. She spun down towards the table in tight circles followed by a broken portion of the prosthetic wing.

Crash! Right into my shaking outstretch hands.

You see, dear reader, the new wing wasn’t new at all. It was old and far too brittle for successful flight. The glue held fast and Icarus was able to fly for the first time, but the old fragile wing couldn’t handle the wind resistance and fractured further towards the tip of the forewing.

The Sorrow of Daedalus 017_Too close to the sun
Shattered like my heart

It’s funny to me how a tiny bug like this can affect me so strongly. Countless butterflies are born every day with deformities that keep them from flying or eating or breeding. Yet, this little one felt different to me.

I coaxed the monarchs into my life with delicious milkweed. I tempted them with flowers and yummy nectar and babbling brooks. As a result, I have taken ownership and stewardship of their well-being. I am invested.


To have had a glimmer of hope for Icarus only to watch her spiral earthward just as poor Daedalus did was almost too much to bear. Pardon me…I need a moment…


Unlike Icarus the Greek, Icarus the monarch did not perish from the fall. Nor is she any worse for wear, all things considered. She has gained an extra smidgen of wing in fact. Not enough to fly though, but it’s something right? But I will not give up! If I can find a fresher specimen during my daily walks through the park, or if a friend like you finds one, there is still a chance!

In the meantime, I will continue to move her twice daily around the yard to harvest fresh sources of nectar. Once before I go to work and once when I get home. For three days now, this has become my sorrowful burden. A twice-daily reminder of how I let little Icarus down.

The Sorrow of Daedalus 018_Icarus in the milkweed
The morning milkweed
The Sorrow of Daedalus 019_Icarus in the lavender
The afternoon lavender

I just pray that she can stay safe from hungry birds which are very prevalent in my little backyard oasis! I will continue this every day for as long as it takes to find her a new fresh wing or until a bird ends her torment. I will never give up on our poor little Icarus and one day soon, I WILL be calling her Jamie Sommers, my little bionic woman.

So to all the little dreamers out there. To all the so called runts and born losers. You keep your chins up! Just think of little Icarus who refuses to give up despite overwhelming odds and you keep reaching for the sky. Mind Your Dirt is on the case, and we NEVER say never!


Here she is in all her humble beauty. Spread the love!


UPDATE:

There has been a wonderful outpouring of support from my readers regarding the plight of poor Icarus. I have some scientists and engineers actively trying to come up with both weight and material solutions to this type of prosthetic wing. Based on this amazing collaboration I wanted to provide a little more information on the dimensions of the fore-wing of the host butterfly I received from The San Diego Natural History Museum which was a good average size and matched the dimensions of Icarus’ wing.

Here’s an excerpt from an email I received today on the matter from a reader:

Hello James!!
My daughter and I are now completely engrossed in your butterfly wing repair.  Hope you don’t mind that we are following you  and researching?  The nerds are here!  The REALLY funny part – most butterfly research is interested in the optical properties of their wings.  I’m an electro-optical engineer.  Optics is my business.  And yet – of zero interest in this project.  Materials science, here we come!!
So far, we have VERY little information that can help us in synthetic materials that could be used for prosthetics.  Even livemonarch.com assumes you have a “donor” butterfly. I’d rather assume we don’t!
You had asked about weight balance… and there is data that scientists have glued sensors to a butterfly wing, sensor weight about 10% of the wing, and the butterfly can still fly.  So… as long as we are CLOSE-ish to the weight, we should be good.
If there is any way you can photograph the (sadly failed) butterfly wing against graph paper or a ruler, and email it, that would help immensely.  Weight of any wing part would be fantastic.
I’m going to head into our laser lab at work tomorrow and see how accurate our scales are 😉
Well dear reader, I couldn’t be more happy to aid in this noble venture! If we can come up with a design and material, we can offer a second chance to many monarchs in similar situations! Perhaps even some custom designs! Racing stripes would be sweet! Although, I’m not certain as to what draws in mates so Id have to check that before changing what evolution has so carefully crafted 😉 Either way, here are the photos I took:
Monarch Forewing

Monarch Forewing Detail

Let’s see how far we can take this!!


25 Replies to “The Sorrow of Daedalus: Performing Prosthetic Surgery on a Monarch Butterfly”

      1. If it makes you feel any better I have been pulling off those glorious tomato worms and don’t have the heart to dispatch them. I have been moving them somewhere else and I know deep down they will make it back to my plants. Do no harm. 😉

        1. haha, very considerate of you. It’s times like that when I hire my chickens to do the thug work and I look the other way. Technically, I never harmed the garden pests…

  1. I applaud your efforts! As a recent transplant to San Diego from Chicago, my daughter and I have been growing milkweed and fostering monarch caterpillars (because we almost never saw them in the Midwest).
    As an engineer…. Is there any other material that could be used in place of the natural wing? I’m thinking a reinforced silk (although it isn’t waterproof, it does breathe). I need to run a Google search… Although if we happen upon any donors, I’ll let you know 🙂

    1. Thank you Christine! I did try to explore other materials, but was concerned about weight ratio differences. I was thinking about a thin mylar perhaps. I like the idea of silk as it is a natural material. I also don’t think it would break down before the butterfly lives out her lifespan.

      I may be on to a very specific business model here; customized butterfly wing prosthetics! pinstripes and flames!

      As an engineer, what are your thoughts on weight balance? Do you think it’s as critical as I was thinking? It’s not like they are an extremely aerodynamic flyers like a hummingbird. They do just kind of flop around…I wonder.

      1. Weight balance is crucial.. However they can obviously stand some imbalance (tagging, for instance). Appears that 1/4 of total wing area is a limit.
        But my daughters example of “Toothless” the dragon from “How to train your Dragon” pretty much sums it up.
        Had a whole dinner conversation on this… We were thinking photographic film might be a good substitute…? Any chance you know the weight of the missing wing section, and could draw it on an 8 1/2 x 11 paper and pdf/email it?

        1. It’s so funny, I was calling this operation Toothless. Your daughters were right on the money. And I watch too many cartoons for a man my age. No apologies.

          I do have access to mylar at work and was thinking about that. Film is essentially that but also has either silver halide emulsion (b&w) or a vegetable emulsion (color). Both of which wouldn’t be good for outdoor environments. My degree is in photography so I could go on about the chemicals used.

          Icarus is now missing! She’s disappeared before for a day or two, but it still worries me. Fingers crossed that she returns safely!

          I don’t have any scales here so I’m not sure about the weight of her missing wing. It must be recorded online somewhere I’d imagine. An average forewing weight. I’m gonna check that out now and see what I find.

          Regardless, thanks to you and your daughters for helping me with this Operation Toothless! And Icarus thanks you as well.

  2. This is an amazing story. I would think mylar would be a good substitute, but I don’t know much about monarch wings (we don’t have them up north). Can you keep her indoors and provide flowers, rather than expose her to predators? Or build a nice cage for outside? Good luck to you and Daedalus!

    1. I’ve thought of that, and I do have an enclosure to keep her in. But, to cage a butterfly seems too cruel to me and I can’t bring myself to do that. Even if she can’t fly and even if there’s is danger. I’m no butterfly psychic, but I imagine they have a free heart. More so than most critters. Confinement would be worse than death to a free heart.

    1. Thank you! And I agree, that was my thinking as well. A few extra days of light breezes and a belly full of nectar. I thought about bringing her inside to care for her, but to do that to a butterfly seemed cruel.

  3. I have a monarch butterfly that my mailman brought me today that was attacked by bird while he was walking his route. It is down to four legs and is missing half of a wing on one side. It is basically immobile. I may try to use this template to make wings out of starched silk.

    1. A noble effort indeed! I wish you luck. In a pinch, you could just put her somewhere she can eat and check on her every other day. Their lifespan is short, like a month I think, so it wouldn’t be a huge burden. If your wing surgery does work that is.

      1. I took a closer look and one of the wings is slightly detached from it’s body. So I think I will just leave it be. I don’t mind hand feeding it.

  4. I have a male monarch that has only one wing (both quarters on right are ok, both quarters on left are gone. He can’t survive outside, so I have him in a medium net cage that I leave outside. He has nectar in a tiny water bottle lid and he’s become quite adept at getting to it. I’m trying to fashion some aspect of a left wing so that his efforts to move around are not so frenetically difficult. He feeds well…he just needs some counter balance on the left side. Any ideas?

  5. Hello Barb, so sorry to her about your asymmetric boy! Is there anything on the left side to attach to at all? If so, you can super glue some form of a counter weight to whatever stub is available. Not an easy task by the way.

    However, due to the short lifespan, I’m sure that a temporary fix will be fine so long as it lasts a couple months. Another, and more barbaric, option would be to remove the right wings and simply have a walking butterfly.

    If the former is applied, it will be a challenge to get the weight right. You would need a rather precise scale to determine what the wings should weigh and then find some organic material that equal that weight for a proper balance. Something that won’t disintegrate during those couple of months.

    Good luck!!! And keep me posted.

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