Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Butterflies Are Not Hardy And Not Always Very Smart

We study butterflies in Pre-K in late April of every year. All of the kids are familiar with "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle, making it pretty easy for them to grasp the concept of egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly cycle. To further enhance the experience, our preschool director orders us live caterpillars that we can watch turn into butterflies.

It's pretty cool, really. Four or five Painted Lady caterpillars are shipped in a clear plastic cup with a lid that is lined with a disc that seems to be made out of the same paper as a coffee filter. The bottom half of the cup is filled with caterpillar food, which looks rather like damp brown sugar. The caterpillars love it, and after two weeks, they go from skinny caterpillars about a quarter of an inch long to big, fat caterpillars measuring a good inch and a half in length. They eat and poop and crawl around inside their cup and practice hanging from the top in the shape of a "J" (this is what they do when they turn into a chrysalis). When they hatch, we take them outside, open the butterfly house, and watch them fly away.

Our caterpillars did just what they were supposed to do. They ate. They got fat. They practiced making a "J" on the lid. Then one day, we came in and had four chrysalises. I got out the butterfly house, opened the lid of the jar, peeled off the paper disc from the lid, and safety pinned the disc to the inside of the butterfly house.

Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

Monday morning, we came into class, and we had a butterfly! Its wings were still crumpled, but by the end of the morning, it was dry and fluffed and fluttering its wings. I showed the kids at Circle Time, and they oohed and ahhed over the miracle of a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. After school, I mixed up some sugar water and placed it in the bottom of the butterfly house, but as I did, I saw that one of the chrysalises had detached from the paper disc and was now lying on the floor as well. This was not good, but what are you going to do?

Tuesday morning, before school started, I checked the progress of the other chrysalises. (NOTE: the butterfly house is in my Pre-K room, where the kids come three mornings a week. There is no class in there on Tuesdays and Thursdays.) Two were still hanging from the disc, with the fallen one still on the bottom of the butterfly house. Also on the bottom was our butterfly from the day before. It was lying there, wings spread (not their natural resting position). I swear it was panting. When I jiggled the butterfly house, it fluttered its wings slightly and gave its antennae a wiggle, but that was it. This was not good.

After my Primary kids left at noon, I did a well-being check and found another chrysalis had opened, and a second butterfly was fluttering around the cage, checking out its surroundings, trying to find the escape hatch. Butterfly #1 was still on the bottom. Its breathing was slow and labored (I'm pretty sure, anyway). I decided it would be in this fella's best interest to be turned loose outside. 

The trick was going to be getting him out without #2 making a break for it. I reached into the butterfly house and tried to coax #1 into crawling onto my hand. With great effort, #1 heaved himself across the floor of the house and wedged himself partway into the seam where the floor met the wall and just laid there. In the meantime, #2 was crawling across my hand and being playful, and I had to wait for him to crawl off again before I could retract my hand.

Next, I tried slipping something under #1 to lift him up and free him. I was on the playground (and barefoot, as I had kicked off my shoes in the room and didn't wear them outside, thinking this would be a quick exercise), so I picked up a flat piece of mulch to use as a stretcher. I gently, gently worked it under one wing, slowly lifted #1 up, and he promptly tipped off the stretcher and landed on his back like a turtle. I was afraid to try to pick him up with my fingers, for fear of hurting him, although I just found out (thank you, Google) that touching a butterfly's wings will NOT kill it, although he may be less aerodynamic if he loses too many of the tiny scales that cover his wings. #1 was certainly not exhibiting ANY aerodynamic qualities at this time, so I said the hell with it and took them both back inside the school.

They aren't supposed to lie on their backs, are they?

As soon as I got to school this morning, I tentatively peeked into the butterfly house, hoping for a miracle. I had one butterfly fluttering around, one lying flat on his back on the floor, one chrysalis hanging from the disc, and one chrysalis lying on the bottom of the house. This was not good.

This was also our last day of Pre-K for the school year, and if we didn't take them out and free them that morning, the kids wouldn't get the joy of watching them fly away. Unfortunately, it was also raining buckets outside. This was not good.

I told the kids #2 had emerged yesterday, and I walked around the circle with the butterfly house so they could see him. 

5 year old: Why is that one on the bottom?
Me: Umm. He's not doing well.
5 year old: What's wrong with him?
Me: He's kind of dead.
15 5 year olds: HOW DID HE DIE?!
Me: It happens.

The rain finally stopped, and we went outside to free #2. He climbed onto my finger (he's a good sort, that one), but stubbornly refused to fly, so I deposited him onto a bush. He wasn't thrilled with the wet leaves, and he didn't fly away, but he didn't fall over dead, either, so we told him goodbye and went back inside.

Fly! Fly! 

The kids left at noon, I walked by the butterfly house, and found #3 had emerged and #1 was still dead. It was time to do a removal (no stretcher needed this time). I reached into the butterfly house to pick up #1 from the bottom, bumped into #3, and knocked him onto the floor of the house, where he laid on his side and kicked his feet. This was not good. 

I left #1 on the bottom of the house. In the meantime, #3 proved to be a resilient one and made his way onto his feet, climbed back up the side of the butterfly house, and hung out next to his empty chrysalis, and after a long afternoon of putting the classroom to bed for the summer, #3 was fluffed and ready to fly away. Out again to the playground (in shoes this time), opened the cage, convinced #3 to (reluctantly) climb onto my finger, and tried to get him to fly away. Which he didn't. His wings looked a little whoppy-jaw to me, and I was hoping it wasn't from the little spill into the bottom of the butterfly house. I sat him on a bush. He didn't fly away, but he didn't fall over dead.

Seriously, FLY.


Maybe we just got dumb caterpillars this year?

I picked up poor, dead #1 and laid him on the same bush. 

RIP #1

I'm Dyanne, and I'm a butterfly killer. Sigh.


  1. I knew you were hiding a dark side in there somewhere!

    Hatching butterflies is so much fun. When my boys were small I used to make sure I planted Parsley - caterpillars that turn into Swallowtails seem to really like it. I'm sure your Pre-K's will get over the trauma of their teacher being a butterfly killer.

    1. What kind of person kills butterflies, anyway? Oh, wait, that would be ME.

  2. Wow. Lucky for you, parents had purchased end of the year gifts before the mass butterfly killing that traumatized their babies. ;)

    1. I'm sure that, in spite of all the fun activities we did all year, the one thing they will remember will be that THE BUTTERFLY WAS DEAD.

  3. I killed butterflies before. The bad ones which didn't make it out of their chrysalids, or which came out wonky. Not mad about it.

    Were they humid enough? *sigh*

    Ancient Chinese Proverb - sometimes butterflies die.

    It's all learning for the kids, innit.


    1. I killed lab mice in college. Freak accident. I have a post about it somewhere.

      Have you ever seen this?

      whoppy jaw = crooked

  4. I think you should have named them. I'll do it. Zed, Sally, and Marcus.

    1. Yes, Sarah, because personalizing them makes it SO much easier to handle KILLING THEM.

  5. I suppose I shouldn't be laughing about things dying -circle of life, and all- but that post was a riot! Better luck next year!

    1. My 16 year old daughter was horrified that I told them #1 was dead. Kind of dead. Okay, dead.

  6. Merciless Nature!