Rarely does a moment go by when Lois Weber doesn't see butterflies fluttering over her back yard. That yard — about an acre of lush, drought-tolerant Florida trees and plants — backs up to the western side of Lake Tarpon. It is a yard with a purpose.
"The whole yard is a butterfly garden," said Weber, who is often called "the butterfly lady" by local garden clubs.
The colorful trees and shrubs include maroon-hued penta plants, milkweeds and a variety of herbs, such as fennel, parsley and dill. Dozens of species of butterflies feed on the many fragrant host plants. Weber has noticed, though, that the delicate creatures are drawn to plants that match the color of their wings.
"I have five kinds of cassia with yellow blooms," she said, "and they all attract yellow butterflies."
The popular orange and black-winged monarch, her favorite, feeds on her orange milkweed plants.
Weber, through the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, teaches children at McMullen-Booth, Sutherland and Tarpon Springs elementary schools how to create butterfly gardens and how to identify some of the 100 or more butterfly species in Florida.
This week she's on a mission: getting people to identify and count butterflies by species for Friday's national count sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association.
"Anybody can count the butterflies in their yard, their street or a local park," Weber said. "Kids can count in their school yards."
The NABA website states that groups of participants select a count area with a 15-mile diameter and conduct a one-day census of all butterflies seen within that circle.
"The main function of the count program is to monitor the butterflies throughout North America," said Jeffrey Glassberg, president of NABA, headquartered in Morristown, N.J. "There are about 500 counts each year, and the number is growing."
Glassberg said the butterfly census, taken in the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico, is used by scientists studying climate change and the effects of urbanization on butterfly habitats, as well as the evolution of the species.
Those taking on the challenge must sign up on the association's website, naba.org, which has additional information on species of butterflies and how to monitor them.
Weber has been given a title by the Florida garden federation — State Schools and Backyard Gardening chairman — and she takes the role seriously.
"I want to get the kids excited about nature," she said. She teaches about plants and birds as well, but butterflies are her primary focus.
She teaches children as young as 5 to bring future butterflies, still in the caterpillar stage, indoors for protection.
"Outside a monarch might lay 100 eggs," said Weber, "and if one survives, that is a lucky thing."
On her kitchen counter, Weber has an old plastic pie container holding a tiny host plant. A small caterpillar clings to the branch, away from the wasps, lizards, spiders and ants that would try to feed on it. The caterpillar will form a chrysalis, a small, cylindrical, protective case from which a butterfly eventually will emerge. It then will dry its wings and take flight.
"I try to convince the children they can do this at home, too, without spending a lot of money on containers," Weber said.
It takes about two weeks of warm weather for a monarch to emerge, but the butterfly is not long for this world after that. The zebra longwing, the Florida state butterfly, can live up to about six months.
In addition to the popular monarch, Weber's yard draws about a dozen other local species, including the giant swallowtail, the American lady and the black-winged polydamas swallowtail.
Weber, an Ohio native, moved in 1964 to Clearwater, where she and her husband, Robert, both taught elementary school while raising four children. The couple built their Tarpon Springs home in 1980.
Ever since then, spreading the word on the life cycle and the beauty of butterflies has become a passion for Weber, who sports T-shirts emblazoned with them and has replicas of various species hanging from her fence.
"This is not a hobby for me," she said. "It's more like a crusade."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]