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Flight Lines: Lonely insect touches lives of many

Tyler and Callie, Dave and Annie Samson's nephew and niece, play with Flutter, a male monarch butterfly rescued last October, in the Samson home in West Fargo. David Samson/The Pioneer

That we tolerate winters here in the Red River Valley is not in doubt. We may not like it, we may even despise it, but we somehow soldier through until the last of winter's snows have melted away and we get another go at a brief but glorious summer.

But more amazing are the creatures outside our door, none more so than the insects. Many millions of different species inhabit nearly every corner of our globe. But to think some have evolved to withstand months of bitter cold and still carry on with life is truly astonishing.

Some bugs freeze completely solid, some actually incorporate amounts of glycerol to prevent freezing. Usually only one life stage is the overwintering one. Mourning cloak butterflies actually do it as adults; emerging in spring with ragged wings and faded color, quite often with snow still on the ground. Unfortunately, mosquitoes are well-equipped to last a winter, usually as eggs. Our woolly caterpillars spend the long cold months in the larval stage. There's even a woolly caterpillar species rather near the North Pole which will spend up to 14 years as a caterpillar before finally emerging as an adult moth during the brief Arctic summer.

Migration - a tactic favored by birds - is quite rare in the insect world. Of the few species which actually migrate, easily the most celebrated in this country is the monarch butterfly. Indeed, these large black-and-orange beauties whisk their way south in the fall to wait out the colder months on a few Mexican mountainsides.

Around here, if monarchs haven't departed by late September, the chances of making it grow slim. Frost, the great monarch killer, is too close. Lingering individuals play dice with their very lives, most often losing the bet. This brings us to the real story.

Grade school chum and fellow long-time West Fargo resident, Dave Samson, approached me last October telling a curious tale. It seems he had encountered just such a late monarch in his yard and had taken it inside his home. Now, I've been to a few butterfly "houses" around the country. Such facilities are typically associated with zoos and offer patrons a hands-on encounter with all manner of flitting, pupating, and feeding butterflies. Never, however, had I heard of someone taking one into their homes (The Silence of the Lambs notwithstanding). But Dave and his wife, Annie, had ideas of their own and began an odyssey rich with tenderness and care.

I had to wonder just how long this guy (it was a male) might live. Adult monarchs typically last a short few weeks. It turns out the year's last generation - the one which migrates - is the one endowed with month's worth of longevity. Might this individual survive the winter in Samson's home?

For weeks, whenever I ran into Dave I would ask for updates. Does it have a name? Yes, Annie calls him Flutter. What do you feed it? Mostly apple juice. Dave relayed how Flutter would just sit on his finger, sometimes for an hour. Other times the insect would sit on Dave's chest, feel his warmth, maybe his heartbeat, and exercise its wings.

Inevitably, Flutter began to show signs of age. His legs began to atrophy. Updated photos no longer showed boldly colored and smoothly outlined wings. Instead, the old fellow looked somewhat ragged and faded. Still the Samson's tenderly persisted with their delicate charge.

Flutter died on Feb. 11. Shortly thereafter I got an email from Dave summing up the whole affair nicely. It read...

"A month ago my five-year-old niece and I were paging through the recent 'Great Migrations' issue of the National Geographic. We came to the pages featuring the journey of the monarch butterflies. She looked at me with amazement, 'Is this Flutter's family?' Yes it is, I told her.

A week later she told me she wished it was summer so Flutter could be with his family. On Saturday I had to tell her he was. He died when I was at work on Friday night.

Our four-month adventure, watching him fly around our home, sometimes ending up in the kitchen sink, getting stuck behind the couch, joining us for breakfast each morning, and taking him on weekend road trips has sadly come to an end."

Not every story ends the way we would wish. But the true lasting impact is quite often recognized in the journey, not the destination. The lives of insects might be measured in days, but I suspect the effect this lone monarch had on the lives of my friends might just last forever.

(Editor's Note: Dave Samson was photo editor at the Pioneer for several years before joining the photography division at The Forum.)