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…
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…
But not our young heroine. Icarus instead thought it best to build her chrysalis on the throttle of my immobile scooter!
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.
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…
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…
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.
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 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.
And now to prepare the donor…
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.
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.
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!
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 😉
Let’s see how far we can take this!!