It’s hard to see a battered butterfly struggle. Learn if it’s really appropriate to try to fix a broken butterfly wing.
Finding a butterfly in your garden is usually a cause for delight. These winged beauties hold a special place in the hearts of most folks, and for good reason. Their delicate and colorful presence feels like a gift, especially when you’ve done the hard work of creating a butterfly garden just for them to enjoy. But the more butterflies you see, the more likely you are to see one that looks battered and worn. To human eyes, they seem injured, and the natural response is to want to help. Can you really fix a broken butterfly wing?
Let me preface this by saying there’s a good chance you won’t like my answer. Stick with me for a bit, though, because I’m going to explain my thinking. Can you fix a broken butterfly wing? The better question to ask is – should you try? My answer is no.
A little background: I’ve spent the last 8 years working at a science museum where we raised all of our own native Florida butterflies for guests to enjoy in our butterfly Flight Encounter. I’ve raised thousands upon thousands of butterflies and moths, comprising dozens of species. I know their life cycles inside and out. I’ve never lost my wonder for these amazing creatures. In fact, it’s due to my respect for them that I share these thoughts with you.
It’s important to start by remembering that butterflies, like most insects, have short life cycles. The migrating monarch generation that lives for 9 months is actually the exception to the rule. Most adult butterflies live for 2 – 4 weeks, at most. Their delicate bodies and wings have evolved to allow them to make the most of that time. If a butterfly lives long enough to mate (and a female to lay eggs), it has served its purpose in the natural cycle. Even if it doesn’t, it’s probably helped to pollinate flowers, and will serve as a food source for other organisms after it dies.
But knowing that butterfly lives are short doesn’t make it any easier to see one that seems to be struggling. We want to help – that’s our nature. What if I could glue that broken butterfly wing back together, we think to ourselves. It could fly for a few more days! The truth is, just handling a butterfly long enough to try to “help” it is likely to do even more damage.
Butterfly wings are covered in minuscule scales that help add structure to the wing, as well as provide the colors that serve as either camouflage or warning signs to deter predators. Just brushing a wing with your finger removes hundreds of those scales, which can never grow back. The oils from your fingers can add small amounts of weight, which matters when you only weigh as much as a paper clip to begin with.
A butterfly is very unlikely to sit patiently while you try to “repair” it. So during its struggles, you’ll probably damage it even further. What’s more, a battered butterfly can fly surprisingly well. The butterfly pictured above was missing huge portions of all its wings, but still managed to make short hops from flower to flower.
Trying to glue a broken butterfly wing back together is neither necessary nor useful. The wing will never “heal”, unlike when you set a broken bone. If you find a butterfly with a piece of wing hanging loose, you can pull off that piece of wing and let the butterfly go. Otherwise, it’s best to leave it be and let nature take its course. It’s a little difficult for the human heart to handle, but it’s truly what’s best for the butterfly.