Garden club member strives to save monarch butterflies

Pinellas Park Garden Club member Mary MacKenzie releases monarch butterflies at the gARTen in the Pinellas Arts Village.

Mary MacKenzie often refers to herself as “the butterfly lady.”

“Everybody else does,” she said.

For the past five years, the member of the Pinellas Park Garden Club has focused solely on butterfly gardening.

The majority of the garden at her Pinellas Park home is comprised of milkweed. Monarchs can’t survive without milkweed, she said. That’s where they lay their eggs, and their caterpillars only eat milkweed. So the plant dominates her garden in an effort to create a safe habitat for monarchs.

“I heard they were going extinct,” MacKenzie said. “So I decided that maybe I could raise some by myself because I could keep the lizards and the wasps from them if I captured the caterpillars and put them in safety.”

She’s constantly chasing litters away from her garden.

“They know me,” she said. “They see Mary with a flyswatter and they’re gone. They’re much quicker than I.”

She scans her garden several times a day for caterpillars then places them in one of her aquariums in her carport out of harm’s way.

Feeding them is time consuming, MacKenzie added.

“It’s very hard when they’re caterpillars,” she said. “They eat 24/7, and only fresh [milkweed.] You can’t go pick a whole bunch of this and save it up. This is their source of moisture and everything.”

When the butterflies hatch and are ready to fly free, she releases them in her garden or occasionally at the gARTen, a community garden in the Pinellas Arts Village. She has taken on several planters in the gARTen and also has three gardens at her church, Unity Church of Clearwater.

In July, she hatched 104 butterflies. August saw her release 85.

“July was amazing,” MacKenzie said. “Keep in mind, if left to Mother Nature, there might have been four.”

She hopes to inspire others to create their own butterfly gardens.

“They’re pollinators and so important,” she said. “If you can save one species, the way Mother Nature goes, you’re saving other species.”