Feeding crippled butterflies – how have you done it?

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  • #37384


    Hi there, this is my third season raising monarchs, and it’s been a crazy year. My first season I had only two butterlfies, last year I had five and this year I lost count around twentyfive or so. I’ve just moved house and it seems to be a popular with the butterflies!
    With an increase in butterflies, I’ve also had a few that weren’t quite right. One formed a chrysalis with a bend in the middle, and once it hatched (Saturday) one of the wings, legs, and antennae is bent, as well as a slight curve in the body. It’s still alive and well, and can fly a short distance downhill, but I’m keeping it in a 20 x 30 x 100 cm net cage I’ve rigged up. I’m feeding it honey-soy-water mix, I’ve tried giving it milkvine flowers which I’ve seen wild butterflies drink from but it’s not interested. A second butterfly formed a cocoon very early, and lost a lot of fluid during the process, so the cocoon was only a cm or so long! It got stuck while hatching (Saturday), but I managed to help it out and it’s wings extended fully- but they were quite small. Tiny butterfly! I suspect OE, but there’s no sign of black spores. I fed it watermelon juice and honey-soy-water, and it eventually managed to figure out how to fly! I let it go this evening (Tuesday) and I’m very pleased. Today a black cocoon fell off the chopstick I leave out for the caterpillars to pupate on, and cracked open. The butterfly hatched, but I suspect a day early. It’s about 3 hours later, and the wings still haven’t hardened – they’re all floppy and crinkly still. Its proboscis is completely forked, and I suspect it will not fly.

    So, long story short, I’ve got a few butterflies that I’m keeping until they learn how to fly, or if they don’t learn how to fly until I learn how to fix their wings (I will not euthanize them unless they are very clearly suffering), and this looks like a situation that is going to occur fairly often. What I am concerned about is this: Are they getting all the nutrients they need? There’s a lot of compounds in nectar that aren’t in honey or soy, and if I’m going to be keeping these butterflies for weeks then I want to make sure that they are getting everything they need. Has anyone here kept a butterfly for more than a week or so, and if so, what did you feed it? What recipes have people had the most success with? What flowers are most tempting to a monarch? Does anyone know the dietary requirements of a monarch? How much do they eat in a day? How often do they need to eat?

    …also, do butterflies get bored?

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  • #37403



    “I will keep them in the cage where they have food, foliage, flowers, water, company, netting to grip and room to try flying until I can give them new wings, they learn how to fly on their own, or they show signs of being unwell and pass away. I do not see how this is cruel, but if anyone can think of a way in which I can improve their life, I am happy to try it!”

    A couple of points here, butterflies do not need to “learn to fly” as it is instinctive and as soon as their wings harden they go. If a butterfly cannot fly because of deformed wings it may well be a case of Oe or other disease, affecting the butterfly in other ways also, so new wings still may not help. I this case you are prolonging the life of a sick butterfly which surely in not humane if it is suffering.
    I think also if you refrain from releasing any Oe infected butterflies into the environment then you will need a huge cage to house them all.



    Hi Ollie

    Answer to some of your questions:

    Oe and other diseases/pathogens can be responsible for deformities in the pupal stage (incidentally not cocoons – no butterflies in NZ have come from cocoons, rather chrysalises) or when butterflies are eclosing or emerging.

    I don’t keep butterflies long-term. I prefer to put them on natural flowers outdoors so can’t advise about natural food. If you want to keep them in a cage, why not pick fresh flowers each day and let them nectar from those? Even if they’re weeds – weeds like dandelion and hawkweed probably provide the best nectar.

    Caryl, a deformed butterfly is not going to produce “deformed” eggs but rather if it has Oe then it is in the egglaying (ovipositing) that Oe is spread.

    Hope that helps!


    PS If you’re interested there’s a helpful glossary under the Resources tab above.



    A question Perpetuna, Are you saying that a deformed butterfly if it breeds is going to produce deformed eggs? I don’t think we know that. Many of the deformities happen at chrysalis stage when they fall off leaves and in gales and suffer damage, I think Ollie has amazing compassion to do what she’s doing. This season I have had about 25% of chrysalises with obvious black markings and I do give the enclosed butterfly a chance to be born. Yes I saw a pair mating in the air and when they landed on a leaf I was able to hold them and have a close look then I let them go still mating and fluttering. The female looked very pale with tattered wings. I wonder if she will live long enough to lay those eggs.



    I only suspect OE in one case and that’s due to the fact it seems to be the most common disease out there. The other deformed butterflies I have are all due to injury to the cocoon stage or exposure to pesticides, and hence the deformities are neither heritable nor contagious, so I don’t see the harm in releasing the butterflies into the wild.
    Regarding the one case which may or may not have been OE, I kept the butterfly for some days and saw no evidence of spores or loss of vigor, once it had got some energy back. Therefore, either there is no OE (in which case why not release the butterfly), or there is OE in trace amounts (which is present in the environment already as the butterfly has it, the butterfly is not shedding large numbers of spores, and the butterfly may or may not be resistant to the disease, in which case the resistance can be inherited by future generations). I wouldn’t release a butterfly showing any visible signs of OE into the environment.

    I don’t think that releasing a crippled butterfly into the wild where it is unable to fly, will starve to death and may very well be smacked around by the local cats is very humane. I will keep them in the cage where they have food, foliage, flowers, water, company, netting to grip and room to try flying until I can give them new wings, they learn how to fly on their own, or they show signs of being unwell and pass away. I do not see how this is cruel, but if anyone can think of a way in which I can improve their life, I am happy to try it!

    In regards to food, I keep the food in the fridge and defrost a small amount as needed once a day, so I’m not concerned about spoilage. Glad to hear that this should be sufficient, but I’d still like to hear from others with experience keeping butterflies long-term.



    Ollie, I don’t want to upset anyone, but I don’t think we should be releasing deformed or diseased butterflies, which can only weaken the population if they breed. If they do have Oe (and a crippled butterfly doesn’t always mean Oe) they can land on the milkweed, drop spores on it which the caterpillars eat, thereby spreading the disease on to a new generation.

    In answer to your other question, yes you can keep butterflies much longer than a week, by feeding them artificial nectar (can be as simple as sugar and water) and keeping them cool. But unless you have some purpose to keeping them, it seems a bit cruel, and I believe we should release them to have a natural butterfly life. The only reason to add anything else to the recipe for the artificial nectar is to add salts (can be in a few drops of soy sauce) which the males need to breed, or add some kind of preservative so the mixture doesn’t ferment.

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