With natural habitats threatened, some butterfly species are on the decline. One Mississippi woman is on a mission to save the monarchs and educate others.
Written by Sarah Hooper | Illustrated by Eden Flora
In 2012, Linette Walters received an unusual gift from a friend: a tiny caterpillar. For the next few weeks, she watched it closely, as it did what caterpillars do. It ate. It grew. It made a cocoon. Then the magic happened: Days later, it emerged a butterfly, glistening wings ablaze in fiery orange and black.
“From there, it was just ‘Oh my goodness!’” Walters said.
Her humble little caterpillar, it turns out, was a majestic monarch butterfly. Known for their vibrant orange wings with fine black lines and white pinpoint details, monarchs are among the most widely recognizable. With no consideration that it might be a life-changing decision, Walters, then the manager of a nonprofit horticulture pro-gram, began growing milkweed in her yard.
“For every butterfly, there is a plant that it has to have to lay its eggs on,” Walters said. “For the monarchs, it’s milkweed. So, I planted one milkweed in my yard in a pot, and the story began from there.”
It wasn’t long before her one small milkweed became many large milkweed plants. Towering stalks with orange and red flowers turned Walters’ garden into a butterfly haven.
“It’s cliche, but plant it, and they will come,” Walters said. “The only thing I do to encourage the butterflies is plant the plants that they need to lay their eggs. It is an amazing journey.”
What began with one little caterpillar became a butterfly empire, and Walters found herself in the butterfly business. She sometimes has more than a thousand caterpillars under her wing. To protect them from predators, she collects the eggs and larvae and moves them to a screened enclosure, where they can grow in safety.
Felicia’s Butterflies (Felicia is Walters’ first name) sells butterfly habitats consisting of either a monarch chrysalis or caterpillar in its preferred “plant materials” (seeds, flowers, leaves, etc.). A monarch caterpillar grows from the size of an eyelash to the size of a pinky finger in just two weeks. Once it forms a cocoon, it takes about 10 days for metamorphosis to occur. Walters also grows plant materials and habitats for half a dozen other native butterfly species.
Monarchs are migratory butterflies. Those we see in Mississippi spend the winter in Mexico, travel across the United States all the way to Canada each spring and summer, then return to Mexico in the fall. Of course, no single butterfly makes the entire journey. The migration happens over the lifespan of several generations. So the availability of native plant life all along the way is critical for nourishment, mating and nesting.
Monarchs have a special relationship with milkweed. They can smell it from up to 20 miles away. They sip nectar from its flowers, lay their eggs on it, and the caterpillars feed on the milky sap. The sap is poisonous to birds and, as a result, so is the monarch.
But the monarch is now threatened with extinction. The Environmental Defense Fund reports that the number of monarchs has dropped by 90% in the last 20 years.
John Guyton, an associate professor of entomology with the Mississippi State University Extension Service says the loss of native plants is the main cause. Invasive plant species mimic milkweed but are poisonous to the monarch. And due to land eradication, herbicide use and mowing along the roadsides, the natural population of milkweed is on the decline and, thus, so are the butterflies.
“When they don’t find the milkweed they need, they die,” Guyton said. “We have mature plants that are fabulous in this state, and the seed stock is still in the soil, but mowing is a problem. The ecosystem is a very, very complex thing. There is nothing out there that doesn’t have these insect-plant interactions. Getting rid of any one of these will have a huge ripple effect — and we’re starting to have a lot of those ripple effects.”
Gentler mowing policies by highway and county officials could have a significant positive impact. So can planting milkweed and other native flowering plants in your own yard.
Walters is doing what she can to protect monarchs in Mississippi. In 2019, she purchased a piece of wooded land near Enid and moved Felicia’s Butterflies to its new, permanent home. She plans to develop a discovery trail and outdoor teaching space for ecology lessons as time and funds permit.
Walters believes sharing information about and exposing people of all ages to the butterflies will encourage the habitat restoration that is so critical to the monarch’s survival. She sells her plant materials, butterfly habitats, caterpillars and chrysalises at seasonal markets. She is a regular at schools and garden clubs and loves doing presentations for kids. She also provides monarchs for butterfly releases, a lovely way to commemorate any special occasion, and one of her favorite events.
“Butterflies mean so many different things to so many different people,” Walters said. “Renewal, hope, amazement.”
For information on upcoming lectures, creating butterfly habitats, attending releases and more, search for “Felicia’s Garden” on Facebook or email Linette Walters at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more ways to help by visiting edf.org/what-you-can-do-help-monarchs.