Tampa advocate on mission to save the endangered monarch butterfly

Butterflies have fascinated Anita Camacho since childhood.

“I just thought, how cool would it be to fly? You start off with this little lumpy thing and you get to fly off a beautiful colorful butterfly,’’ she says. “Who wouldn’t want that kind of metamorphosis?”

Camacho, who is president of the Tampa Bay Butterfly Foundation and the Tampa Bay chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, owns the Little Red Wagon Native Nursery on Henderson Boulevard in Tampa, which sells native plants with a focus on pollinators. She holds camps for kids to teach them about the insect and how it transforms from an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a flying work of art. She schedules butterfly releases for party gatherings and she’s planning to build a butterfly conservatory at the back of the property. 

“We’re in permitting, waiting,” Camacho says.

She addresses school kids, garden clubs, the Sierra Club, local businesses and other groups to spread the word about butterflies and how they are threatened, partly because they lack habitat and food for the caterpillars, and how that could ultimately affect the human food supply.

“She’s a real go-getter,’’ says Dr. Marc C. Minno, author of four books on Florida butterflies, noting her current campaign to keep the monarch butterfly from becoming extinct. 

The sign outside Camacho’s nursery beseeches: “Save the Monarchs/ Got Milkweed?”

“She is able to get resources together on this and bring people together and to get the word out about the monarch butterfly,’’ says Minno, who recently retired as a research associate with the McGuire Center at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, the largest butterfly and moth research facility in the world. “I can’t speak highly enough of her and her efforts there.’’

The striking black and orange monarch butterfly, which migrates thousands of miles each year, was put on the “Red List’’ in July by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning it is endangered, two steps away from being extinct in the wild. The organization declared both the western and eastern populations of migratory monarchs endangered. Camacho expects the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to also declare the monarch butterfly endangered in its next re-evaluation, which she understands will be in 2024.

Camacho’s message to developers, farmers, neighborhoods, homeowners and business owners is to plant native milkweed, the plant on which monarchs lay their eggs, which soon become caterpillars that feed on the plant. It also provides native plant nectar for the adult butterflies, and the more nectar and host plants the better.

“If everybody in the neighborhood did it, well, there would be a lot of monarchs in that neighborhood,” she says.

The lack of milkweed is just one of the problems. Pesticides have been killing butterflies for years and climate change is a real problem, she says, adding that the western migratory monarch population has declined by 99 percent over the last 35-40 years, and the eastern population has dropped 85 percent. The western population has had a harder time of late because of drought and wildfires in California, Camacho says. It takes several generations of monarchs, all imprinted with the mission, to make the round trip from the northernmost United States and southern Canada to its wintering roosting spots along the southern California coast and in the mountains of central Mexico. They start back north in late February and March.

Higher average temperatures can trigger migrations to occur earlier, Camacho notes. It fools the monarchs into beginning their journey too soon. Consequently, they make it to the next stop, where they should be able to lay eggs on milkweed plants, but the milkweed plants haven’t been triggered to come up yet.

“When you have that happen, you’re going to have a very low population year,’’ she says. “If that does happen two or three years in a row, we may not see the species anymore, is what I would think.”

Native milkweed, which has evolved in Florida’s sandy soil, is easy to care for, Camacho says. She says the root ball should not be broken up; the milkweed should be planted with the top of the root ball about a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch above ground level, which she says makes the roots dig deeper to establish the plant more quickly. Water it daily to get it started, and during the dry season, every two or three days. Many people who plant milkweed attract monarchs to their gardens very quickly, if not immediately, she says. 

“They’re very quick to find their food (host plants) because they’re in dire need of more habitat to grow their population,” Camacho says. “They will what I call ‘egg-bomb’ the milkweed plant. They’ll be loaded with caterpillars and everyone’s excited. I’ve got monarchs!” 

Butterfly enthusiasts call that beginner’s luck. The excited new enthusiasts buy more milkweed, but not as many caterpillars will make it to adulthood the next cycle because predators have discovered them. Spiders and fire ants may feed off the eggs and caterpillars. Wasps and lizards feed on caterpillars, and while adult monarchs have a natural defense against most birds – they taste awful – some species of birds can eat them, Camacho says.  This is all an important part of getting your garden’s ecosystem in balance, she says. Despite predators showing up, you will still have monarchs.

She says about 90 percent of flowering plants require pollination, and butterflies are among the top 10 pollinators. The honeybee and wild bees, which are also struggling with population decline, are at the very top. Flowering plants are said to make up about one-third of humans’ food sources, Camacho says.

“But it’s really way more than that,” she adds. “If we continue to lose insects to extinction, our food supply is threatened.’’

Camacho planted her first butterfly plants when she was a girl growing up in Land ’O Lakes. 

“As a kid, I was a nature nut,” she recalls. “I was out on my horses, I was chasing butterflies and snakes, I was investigating everything.” 

She had a garden outside the sliding glass doors of her bedroom and was allowed to pick out some plants she wanted to grow. 

“I picked a couple of rose bushes and butterfly plants and that’s what stuck with me to this day,” Camacho says.
She kept the two gardens far enough away from each other so that the pesticides she put on the roses didn’t get on the milkweed. She became a champion rose grower.

Her mother, now 76, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 50, and Camacho says she started researching it, trying to understand the disease.

“There was a lot of information, and all the science tied it to toxic pesticide exposure,’’ she says. “So immediately I just stopped using any chemicals. Nothing with pesticides and a lot of other things besides, fertilizers and fungicides and herbicides – nothing.’’

Her rose garden went through a struggle for six months after she stopped putting chemicals on the roses.

“I just kept dead-heading the roses and the next thing I knew they looked better. And all I did was water and prune,’’ she says. “No fungus, no bugs ever since.’’  

The plants, she explains, regained their own defense systems. Pesticides and even soapy water strip the cuticle off of the plant. 

“So what you’ve done is you’ve stripped it to where it continually needs those chemicals to protect it against these predators,” Camacho says.

Monarch awareness campaigns over the years seem to have had some positive effects, Camacho believes. 

“We’re not done,” she says. "We’re not out of the woods, not by any stretch.” 

But she thinks some people have regrouped and thought of better ways to garden with native plants to help the environment.

“There are so many groups, I think over 50 groups, studying the monarch in North America,” Camacho says.

One big push is to persuade farmers in the farm belt stretch of the monarch migration path to plant milkweed around the perimeters of their fields, away from the herbicides and pesticides, she says. Milkweed once grew wild in between rows of crops, but the rows are so much closer together now, and they wouldn’t survive the herbicides.

By declaring the monarch endangered, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has drawn a lot of attention to the cause, Camacho says. 

“So the monarch has done a favor for, I believe, the whole insect order,’’ she says. “It’s an opening. If you start caring about the monarch, chances are you’re going to plant for that and you’re going to think about what it needs to survive, and you are by proxy helping other creatures without necessarily realizing it.’’

For more information please go to Tampa Bay Butterfly Foundation.
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.