TAMPA — It was all by accident.
Donna Christian planted some scarlet milkweed in the backyard of her Davis Islands home last month to attract a few butterflies. Gardening was a hobby she had just taken up, something for the stay-at-home mother to do in her spare time — like jewelry making or painting.
But it’s all different now. The former fourth grade teacher has nearly 120 monarch butterflies to care for and she’s doing a lot of research.
You can see it in the scholarly articles she printed and highlighted, spread across her dining room table. You can see it in her Google and YouTube search history. Christian is on a mission.
Her interest in monarchs comes at a crucial time. The black-and-orange migratory insect that so many people envision when they think "butterfly" is disappearing.
Monarchs have been in a dangerous decline for the last two decades. Scientists aren’t sure what’s causing them to vanish, but the culprits may include global warming, pesticides, drought and deforestation. Everyone from loggers to farmers to suburban developers have been implicated.
Christian thinks she can help.
A solution, she said, is to inspire as many friends, family and neighbors on Davis Islands to plant more milkweed, the leafy green lifeblood of the monarch in its caterpillar stage and the insect’s sole food source early in the life cycle.
"It’s a teeny, tiny thing you can do that can potentially make a small difference," said Christian, 49, a married mother of three teens who has lived on Davis Islands about 20 years.
She started a campaign on Nextdoor, the social networking site for neighborhoods and communities. Some neighbors have taken her up on the challenge. Others have criticized her for not using native milkweed — a mistake she hopes to remedy soon.
"I’m learning as I go," said Christian, who has donated some milkweed stems and monarch eggs for other people’s gardens.
If enough individuals create monarch milkweed habitats in big cities, it could indeed help give the butterfly a boost, said Deby Cassill, a biology professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Many monarchs sweep across the Great Plains from Mexico to Canada every spring and then back again in the fall. Some monarchs in central Florida stay put, satisfied with the warm climate and continuous growing season. Others use Florida as a pit stop before heading to islands in the Caribbean.
But in the last 20 years, as human populations have grown, the marshy land where milkweed thrives has been disappearing, Cassill said. As habitat decreases, so have the monarchs. At last estimate, monarch populations have fallen by 80 percent since 1996.
That’s led some ecologists to look for new places to plant milkweed. In Chicago, scientists from the Field Museum of Natural History have recently begun an urban monarch conservation program, which encourages people and communities in the Midwest to plant monarch-friendly habitats in their neighborhoods.
The Nature Conservancy helped launch a similar program near Orlando in April.
Scientists hope that with the help of individuals, they can double the amount of milkweed and begin restoring the monarch population.
"It’s all about creating an oasis," Cassill said. "If you plant enough of them, you can create something very similar to the migratory pathway and habitat these beautiful creatures have lost."
Christian has learned a lot since she’s started her monarch colony. Some monarchs are shy. Some are outgoing. Others have a temper.
Since moving the milkweed plants beneath the backyard patio at her home on the south side of Davis Islands, the butterflies’ mortality rate has fallen dramatically from 90 percent to about 40 percent.
Still, many don’t make it out of the cocoon. On a paper towel, she carefully collects those that fail so she can study them under a magnifying glass.
When her winged seasonal visitors are gone, Christian hopes to do more study to prepare for next year and maybe help conservation groups tag a new influx of monarchs.
Meantime, her bigger goal — inspiring others to become butterfly farmers — may already be coming to pass.
"I applaud this woman and certainly encourage people to take care in this type of planting," Cassill told the Tampa Bay Times.
"In fact, after I get off the phone with you I might run to the nursery to pick up some milkweed for my balcony."
Contact Tim Fanning at [email protected]