Mercer volunteer Fred Camarillo didn’t set out to be the butterfly man. He picked up the moniker one day while giving a presentation to students in Spring ISD.
“All of a sudden, a kid yelled out, ‘It’s the butterfly man!’ It wasn’t my favorite name at first,” he said. “But, if that’s what it takes to make a difference, I’ll be the butterfly man.”
The name is fitting. As president of the Spring Creek Education Society, Camarillo now spends his free time advocating for the dwindling monarch butterfly population. The statistics are troubling. Every year, fewer butterflies complete the migration cycle from the United States and Canada into Mexico and California. In the last 10 years, overwintering monarch populations have been the lowest on record, according to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit that focuses on the monarch butterflies, their habitats, and their migration. Summer breeding grounds are also being lost at a rate of 2.2 million acres per year, the organization reports.
To combat the decline, Monarch Watch started the Monarch Waystation Program in 2005, which is a grassroots effort to expand monarch habitats throughout the nation. So far, individuals, schools, and organizations have created more than 5,000 certified monarch waystations in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscaping. “In the spring, monarchs begin migrating back to the United States, laying hundreds of eggs along the way,” said Camarillo. “The habitats Monarch Watch participants create along the way ensure the butterflies have somewhere to lay their eggs.”
In 2014, the nonprofit Spring Creek Education Society opened the first monarch waystation in what was formerly an empty ditch at Precinct 4’s Dennis Johnston Park. Dubbed the Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden, the waystation required more than 300 volunteer hours to build.
“No one knew if the garden would survive considering that area was prone to flooding,” said Camarillo. The nonprofit got its answer in 2016 after the garden survived two devastating floods. When 75 percent of the plants bounced back on their own, Camarillo knew the project was a success.
Now, the organization has a more ambitious plan to simultaneously create a butterfly habitat along the 40-mile Spring Creek Greenway and stabilize the creek banks. Since milkweed is the monarch’s primary food source, Camarillo needed a type of milkweed hardy enough to survive frequent flooding.
“Zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides) have a 15-foot taproot that will anchor the plant to the ground and prevent erosion during floods,” he said. “They also tolerate the high soil pH level, which is common along the banks of Spring Creek.”
Soon after choosing the perfect variety of milkweed, Camarillo ran into problems. To cover such a wide area along the greenway, he would need helpers. When Camarillo found out about Precinct 4’s tree planting program along the greenway, he contacted Mercer Arborist Laura Carlton and the two came up with a solution that would benefit both organizations.
“Commissioner Cagle had already tasked us with planting fruit and nut trees along the greenway,” said Carlton. “When we learned of the Spring Creek Education Society’s plan to plant milkweed in the same areas, we decided to combine the two projects. Now, we can both cover more ground together.
Already, the team has planted milkweed at Mercer Botanic Gardens and along Spring Creek Greenway near Highway 59 and Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center. “It was pleasant to see some of it come up already,” said Carlton. “The plan is to continue planting various milkweed species along the trail.”
With Zizotes milkweed priced at $5 per seed packet, funding was also a challenge. To make the operation more sustainable, Precinct 4 built a greenhouse at Dennis Johnston Park for the organization to grow its own milkweed.
“We’re now producing our own native plants at the greenhouse,” Camarillo said. “Not only does milkweed help monarchs, but it also helps people. It can improve drainage channels and help prevent erosion.”
For more information about the Spring Creek Education Society, visit springcreekeducationsociety.wordpress.com.