PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Wendy Risk looked at the patch of dirt in her backyard that was once home to a beautiful mango tree.
“It broke my heart,” the grandmother said. “When the mango went down, all my butterflies went away.
The tree had become home to the butterflies she’d raised in her house. Its branches were the first place Risk would set her insects after they hatched from the pupa stage.
“I was heartbroken,” she said.
Risk moved into her Pinellas Park house after coming to Florida in 2004. Her mother built it in 1992 and was dealing with congestive heart failure.
The butterflies were always a family passion.
“It’s a big part of my life,” she said after a hearty chuckle as a monarch straddled her index finger. “I don’t care if it’s a baby being born, or a kitten, or a butterfly, it just does your heart good, doesn’t it?”
Risk grew up with butterflies as a child in northern Michigan. Her parents introduced her to the animals during summer camping trips. They would pay a farmer to set up a family tent in the field and watch the insects.
Her passion has only grown over the decades.
“I’m pretty crazy about butterflies,” she said. “The colors are beautiful.”
Monarchs are her favorite. The insects only lay eggs on milkweed plants. Risk spends two hours per day gardening and tending to her native plants. Now that the mango tree is gone, she’s stopped raising monarchs in her house. She hopes adding milkweed to her yard will bring them back.
“The goal is simply to save the butterflies,” she said. “It’s a big part of my life.”
Risk’s friend, Albert Risemberg, first called her the “Butterfly Whisperer.” The nickname stuck.
Risk now gives speeches at her garden club and around Pinellas Park in hopes of sharing her passion for the beautiful bugs with neighbors.
Risk speaks at the Pinellas Park Garden Club regularly. She shares the importance of growing milkweed in yards to attract butterflies. There are 21 native varieties of milkweed in Florida.
Ellie McVeigh, who has lived in Florida for over four decades, has known Risk for five years through the Garden Club. The duo spends time working on their gardens together.
“I would say so,” she said when asked if Risk’s nickname fits.
Risk wants them to know the happiness she’s experienced with butterflies since childhood.
“He’s eating that leaf down,” she said while watching a caterpillar inch its way up a plant near her front porch. “That’s his job.”
Another good sign in the “Butterfly Whisperer’s” yard.
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