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Butterflies are, by far, one of if not the most beloved insects in the world. Their delicacy, colors, peacefulness, and grace have made them symbols of beauty and favorites of everyone from jewelers and fashion designers to amateur butterfly enthusiasts, including Vladimir Nabokov (yes, really).
That reputation for beauty and grace, however, makes the idea of a butterfly not being able to fly all the more heartbreaking. For such a normally harmless and free creature to be brought so cruelly back to earth pangs the heart in a way a squashed ant or swatted fly simply does not.
But that begs the question – what are some reasons why butterflies can’t fly, and is there any hope of them regaining their airborne brilliance?
Why Some Butterflies Can’t Fly
There are a couple of reasons why butterflies may not be flying, the first and least concerning being that the conditions aren’t right for them to fly. Everything that flies, be it a butterfly or bird or stealth bomber, is highly dependent on the weather – and when the conditions aren’t right, they can’t fly.
For example, a vast number of butterfly species avoid flying in the rain. The reason for this is probably immediately apparent – butterfly wings tend to be thin and delicate, and can thus get soaked easily or else be easily damaged, with neither scenario fitting well with a fierce downpour and the rough winds that can often accompany it.
Think about how much trouble some birds and planes can have flying in the rain. If these larger creatures and our modern manmade flying machines can sometimes only barely navigate the tough aerial conditions brought about by rainfall, it should come as no surprise that delicate little butterflies make the wise decision to sit those flights out.
According to a 2006 article published in Scientific American, an average monarch butterfly weighs about 500 mg, whereas a large raindrop can have a mass of roughly 70 mg. As the article oh-so-helpfully illustrates, that’s the equivalent of a human being getting hit by a water balloon with as much as twice the mass of a bowling ball.
Faced with such conditions, you’d probably choose not to go out in that, either.
Of course, that begs the question of where butterflies hide out, and the answer varies depending on the species and location. For example, some butterflies in the Pacific Northeast like to seek the shelter of the many large trees in the area, with the branches and leaves providing excellent cover.
It isn’t just the rain in a rainstorm that can be a problem. Rain tends to mean cloudy skies, and as the article notes, this limits a butterfly’s ability to gather solar radiation, which can be crucial for helping them fly.
This also hints at another major reason why butterflies may not take flight – cold temperatures. Needless to say, cloudy rainy weather often means colder temperatures, and not only does that mean that butterflies can’t get the solar radiation they need, it also means they can’t warm their flight muscles or the rest of their bodies.
Combine their problems with cold and rain woes, and you get the grim fact that if a butterfly’s wet in freezing temperatures, it’ll likely die.
(If you are keeping a butterfly as a pet, therefore, you need to make absolutely sure you’re keeping them in conditions well warmer than this.)
Finally, there’s the even grimmer possibility that the butterfly has a damaged wing. This may happen any number of ways, from rough conditions to narrow escapes from spider webs and similar scrapes, but no matter the situation, this is by far the most serious reason why a butterfly may not be flying – they simply are no longer able to do so.
What Can Be Done?
Let’s get the worst news out of the way first – the chances of you being able to heal serious butterfly wing damage are slim to none. Butterfly wings are made up of thousands of tiny complexly interlocking scales, and the chances of you being able to fix significant damage to them is about the same as you being able to retouch a centuries-old masterpiece.
However, art fans and historians know that restoration of masterpieces, while extremely challenging, does happen (case in point, the Rijksmuseum is currently restoring Rembrandt’s famed “Nightwatch!”) and the same is sometimes true for expert entomologists. If you encounter a butterfly with a damaged wing, don’t try to repair it (you’ll almost certainly make things worse) but instead take it to an entomologist if possible.
Of course, the cruel reality is that for most people that simply isn’t possible. Unless you know someone who’s an entomologist, the chances of you both finding one in time, them deciding to actually help you, and having the tools necessary for the job is pretty slim.
One sliver of hope you can cling to if you wish is that your chances of helping butterflies are slightly better if, instead of the wing actually being damaged, it’s “just” crumpled. However, that doesn’t mean that you can actually fix the crumpled wing, simply that the butterfly is less likely to die from it.
However, if their ability to fly is impaired, they might not last long in the wild (once the wing is set, it’s typically fixed that way for life), so if you’re feeling particularly compassionate you might attempt to care for it.
Give the butterfly plenty of space and foliage in a cage, and feed it a solution of roughly two parts honey to eight parts water. Soak up the solution with a sponge and place the sponge in the cage for the butterfly to drink.
If weather is the problem, you can help your winged friend wait out the rain by providing them a temporary refuge and then releasing them back into the wild. Again, you want to make sure that the weather is warm enough (at least 60 degrees), since if things are borderline things can always get too cold again, meaning you’ll be releasing your butterflies right into the very frigid conditions from which you had hoped to protect them.
The same goes with rain. Check the forecast ahead of time to make sure that there are no nasty weather systems on the way before releasing your butterfly friends.
To give yourself the best chance at ensuring that your butterfly has a strong chance of survival once you release them back into the wild for them to fly free once more, you should release them at dawn or a little afterward.
Doing so at this time ensures that they are released at the point with the most warmth ahead of them, since the day should hopefully continue to grow warmer for several hours after you release them, thus allowing them and giving them the best chance of having their bodies and wings warm up and get acclimated as well as possible.
Butterflies are elegant creatures while in flight, but may resist or find themselves unable to fly for a number of reasons. Some of these are more fixable than others, but by familiarizing yourself with the conditions in which butterflies flourish, you can give them the best chance to fly free once more.