Butterflies have a special significance for Romy McCloskey.
“Before my mother died, almost 20 years ago, she said to me, ‘Romy, whenever you see a butterfly, know that I’m there with you, and that I love you.'”
From there it was just a short step to caring for and raising butterflies. In October 2017, McCloskey found a few caterpillars on a milkweed bush in her yard. She raised them to maturity, then released them. She told Newsweek she could “feel my mom with me” when freeing them.
Since then, she learned how to care for the creatures, and has raised many more butterflies, as she’s shared on her Facebook page. Given her attachment to them, it’s easy to see why McCloskey was distressed when one of her charges emerged from his cocoon with torn wings.
Ordinarily, damaged wings would make it impossible for the butterfly to survive. However, as a master embroiderer and professional costume designer, McCloskey had the skills to help the three-day-old monarch. As she wrote on Facebook:
I was, needless to say, heartbroken at the thought of having to put him down. Then a friend sent me a video on repairing wings. I figured, since I do so much designing, cutting, and putting together of costumes … I could give this a go. And I’m really glad I did!
McCloskey told Dearly that it’s important to know the butterfly sustained his injury while pupating, and not from a genetic defect or parasite that affects monarch butterflies. So by repairing the wing, she would not be releasing an infected (or defective) butterfly back into the gene pool.
Though most people are not aware of the parasites that can infect monarch butterflies, those who raise them know that butterflies or caterpillars with Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or Tachinid fly larva must be euthanized to prevent further contamination. McCloskey explained that performing the wing repair on an infected or deformed butterfly would be “irresponsible.”
However, because this butterfly was injured, not infected, McCloskey was able to proceed with the wing operation. Here, her sewing and embroidery skills were key. She told Dearly:
“My profession was definitely a huge plus. Being that I work with delicate fabrics, small hand stitching and bead-work, the handling of something so fragile and having good hand-eye coordination is certainly important.”
The thought of repairing something as delicate as a butterfly wing might be daunting to most people, but McCloskey told Newsweek it was “right up her alley”:
“The act of fitting a butterfly with a new wing was like making a couture garment.”
McCloskey shared the repair process on her Facebook page. She’d lost a female butterfly about a week earlier, and that butterfly became the source of the replacement wing. McCloskey then set up her operating theater.
She used a hanger to immobilize her three-day-old patient while she cut away the broken parts of his wing. She noted that “[i]t doesn’t hurt. It’s like trimming hair or nails.”
Having removed the damaged wings, McCloskey then attached the donor wing. When the operation was finished, the patient had two whole wings again. The lines may not have matched up, and the new wing was missing the dot that indicates a male butterfly, but the wings appeared secure.
Which meant the next step was a test flight. The day after the repair, McCloskey took the patient outside to test his new wings.
And it was a complete success. She wrote:
We had a successful flight! A quick spin around the backyard, then a little rest on on of the bushes. Then, “like the down of a thistle,” off he flew! My heart soared with him, for sure!
Not only was it gratifying to see her patient take flight, but it also helped McCloskey come to terms with the death of the butterfly that had donated its wing. She’d been sad at the time because that butterfly had never been able to fly outside. but now McCloskey saw that the purpose behind it all. She wrote:
Funny how life shows you there’s a plan for everything. She has given a wonderful gift of flight to this little guy and gotten her chance to fly outside too!
While McCloskey has gained a lot of attention for her successful wing repair, she warns it isn’t a good project for novices or those who aren’t experienced with monarch butterflies. As she told Dearly:
“I would say that someone who is not well versed in the care of Monarchs should not try this, as they may be trying it on a diseased butterfly. and that would do more damage to their population.”