Monday, June 9, 2008


It was a tiny black caterpillar in a little plastic cup half-filled with a pale yellow goo. M brought it home from school along with a closely printed sheet listing all the stages and care instructions.
Every day the excitement grew, as we tracked the size of the growing caterpillar. "It's getting huge!", M announced excitedly each morning."We have to get ready to put it in a box."
"Mmm-hmm", I mumbled, having skimmed over the instructions to build it a cardboard box home without much attention.
"Amma, it's forming a chrysalid now!" (S decided to be annoying and buzzed around M humming "A cocoon, a cocoon", while M kept shrieking "It's not a cocoon, it's a chrysalid...Anna, stop annoying me!" I had to pry them apart, as usual. Sigh, the story of my life.)
One morning, before I had the chance to carefully transfer the hanging chrysalid to another location, the chrysalid lay on the pile of goo and excrement. Oops.
Was there a way to get it to hang from the lid again? The instructions said explicitly that the chrysalid needed to hang for the wings to develop properly. Not that I could think of anything that would work. A piece of cellotape did not do the job.
M was very worried. "My chrysalid will die if we don't set it up", she was convinced. I promised her to transfer it to a larger plastic bottle lid and see if it would stick to that with a dab of school glue. I gingerly transferred the chrysalid to the bottle lid and waited a few hours for the glue to dry, with the bottle attached upside down.
When I checked to see the chrysalid the next morning, surprise. The small dead thing had turned into a painted lady butterfly, with orange, black and tan wings. One of the wings looked a bit rumpled, so M insisted on taking it out into the sunny deck in hopes that it would harden and straighten out.
The butterfly clung compulsively to the twig we used to transfer it from the bottle lid, and later to M's finger, as she positioned it near a flower, in hopes that it would be able to get to the nectar. I made up a 5% sugar solution, dipped a paper towel in it and placed it in a bottle lid to place the butterfly on it for some sustenance.
And we went inside again.
An hour later, I sneaked a peek to see what had happened. The butterfly had unrolled its proboscis and appeared to be happily imbibing the sugar solution.
The next hour, it had moved from the lid to the dirt on the side of the pot.
Another hour later, there were just the wings left. A bird must have decided to make a meal of it. M came up eagerly to take a look, and was shocked to see just the wings left.
She was extremely upset at the loss of the butterfly.
"It would have been hard for it to survive with the damaged wing," I pointed out. She went silent, pursed her lips in her misery pout and wanted to be cuddled. It took her about 1/2 an hour to get out of that mood.Should I have covered up the death of the butterfly by removing the wings and allowing her to believe that the Vanessa cardui had flown off into the sunset?

It's too late for that. I will never know now.


Lekhni said...

Pretty horrible. Reminds me of the time when, as a kid, I wanted to complete my beautiful arrangement of cut flowers by having a butterfly perch on it. So I caught a butterfly from the garden and placed it on the flowers. It flew up, agitated, and a gecko on the wall promptly ate it :(

Sujatha said...

Ah, the cruelty of nature. It's never just sunshine and the butterflies- there are always evil geckos and birds waiting to put an end to the happy fantasy.

Malathi said...

Should I have covered up the death of the butterfly by removing the wings and allowing her to believe that the Vanessa cardui had flown off into the sunset?

No. kids have to learn about the concepts of life, death, loss, sorrow, food chain, limits of stewardship, etc, just as much as they have to acquaint themselves with the concepts of beauty, birth, nurturing, stewardship, etc.

Don't worry--kids are resilient. I've lost several pet squirrels, dogs, birds as a child. I've survived.

Sujatha said...

M is quite practical for her age and seems to be back to normal today. I think the short mourning helped her get it out of her system. She probably felt it more acutely because she thought it was dead before it suddenly made it out of the chrysalis.She had high hopes for its survival even though I tried to discourage her from thinking it would survive with a damaged wing.

Amit said...

Reminds me of a story attributed to David Brower. He once helped a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, and then watched it die, as he didn't know that the effort a butterfly puts into breaking the cocoon is actually essential to strengthening its wings - probably something to do with release of some chemicals. He said it was a very important lesson.

And while we're on the topic of butterflies, one of my favorite quotes is "Just when the caterpillar thought it was the end of the world, it became a butterfly."

Sujatha said...

Thanks for the story and the quote, Amit. I didn't know that a butterfly wouldn't survive if it was helped out of its chrysalid.