Romy McCloskey is a costume designer by training, with a specialty in intricate bead work that demands precision. She also raises and releases monarch butterflies at her Texas home.
It just so happened that these two skills intersected on a recent day when she actually performed surgery on one of her injured monarch’s wings, an operation that saved its life and allowed it to fly away to migrate.
“Hopefully he’s having a margarita down in Mexico with his buddies,” said McCloskey, 43, a mother of two boys.
The butterfly catastrophe-turned-victory tale began a few weeks ago when McCloskey was at her home in suburban Houston and looked over at her cocoons, only to see her house cat Floki swatting at them, thinking they were toys. Floki’s paw had knocked one down, fatally injuring it, and left another damaged.
“It had a crack in the cocoon,” McClosky said. “I thought, “please don’t let it die.”
A few days later, she watched as butterflies started to emerge, from the cracked cocoon and eight others. The one with the cracked cocoon came out with a mangled wing and was unable to fly.
McCloskey felt badly about it, knowing this meant the monarch could not make its famed migration to Mexico. Monarchs are renowned for their annual journey, often thousands of miles, to Mexico, and for their multi-generational trip back to the northern United States and Canada.
She put a picture of the broken wing on Facebook, and a friend sent her a step-by-step tutorial video that showed how to fix it.
McCloskey said she didn’t hesitate.
“Because of the work I do, it was no-brainer,” said McCloskey, who is a master embroiderer by trade, mostly doing work for independent films through her company, Faden Design Studios.
She took out the tools she needed: tweezers, small scissors, glue, a wire hanger, a towel and talcum powder. She also had a spare wing from a butterfly that had died days earlier. She had kept the butterfly thinking it was beautiful and that she might display it in a shadow box on her wall. But instead, she said she found a better use for it.
A migrating monarch — which can live for several months — doesn’t have nerve endings in its wings, so she wasn’t concerned about hurting it. As the video instructs, she immobilized the butterfly by placing a wire hanger over its body, then carefully cut the mangled wing away and glued the replacement wing on what remained of the injured wing. She waited for the glue to dry, then sprinkled a small amount of talcum powder on the wings to prevent them from sticking together due to any glue that had not fully dried.
The whole thing took 10 minutes.
“You have to be sure the donor wing you have fits,” she said. “It overlaps by less than a millimeter, and I used the tiniest bit of glue. It is such a scant amount of glue.”
She put the butterfly back in its cage with some food and left it overnight.
“I woke up the next morning and said, ‘Please be alive,'” she said.
She saw it moving, and knew the surgery was a success.
“I said, ‘All right, buddy, let’s go,'” she said.
She went into her garden and released her other eight butterflies. Then she looked at the one with the prosthetic wing.
“He climbed on my finger, checked out the surroundings and then took off,” she said. “He landed on some bushes, and sure enough, when I went to reach for him, he flew up in the direction of the sun.”
That was the last she saw of him, she said, flush with pride.
“He was on his mission,” she said.