Barbara Huebner doesn't mind if people call her "Butterfly Barb" or "The Butterfly Lady" when she releases a batch of homegrown monarch butterflies into local parks.

"But it's the caterpillars I have more of a connection with," the Clintonville resident said. "I call them my 'cater-kids.' "

Huebner, who has been raising and releasing the large, brightly colored butterflies for the past three years, spends two weeks with the caterpillars, feeding them milkweed she grows or finds in the wild. Once the metamorphosis is complete and the butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, Huebner keeps them for less than a day before going, more often than not, to Whetstone Park to free another batch of monarch butterflies.

"It always starts a conversation," Huebner said. "I call it spreading the love."

In some instances, those conversations have resulted in others pitching in to help a species whose numbers have dropped in recent years, she said.

Experts estimate the eastern population of monarch butterflies has diminished by 90 percent over the past 20 years, according to an October 2016 publication from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.

"Once you start doing research, you can't help but think they're the canary in the coal mine as far as what's going on in the world," Huebner said. "These guys are warning us that we need to do something different."

Sarah Roney Dalton of Pataskala, a retired naturalist who ran the nature center at Blendon Woods Metro Park for 27 years, maintains a Facebook page, Monarch Maniacs of Ohio, for people who try to boost the monarch butterfly population.

"I think it says something about our wish to preserve species and share the earth with them that somebody who is so urban, because she lives in the middle of Clintonville, is doing this wild thing," Dalton said. "I think it's cool."

Huebner said she developed her passion for butterflies "a little by accident."

Three years ago, she and her spouse, Brenda Millhouse Huebner, attended the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Huebner spotted three caterpillars on a patch of milkweed, the host plant that provides nutrition for butterflies in that phase of their development. To spare them being run over in the parking lot, Huebner brought the plants into their tent and eventually took them home, deciding to raise the caterpillars to adulthood, along with others she found in the neighborhood.

A breast-cancer survivor, Huebner underwent reconstructive surgery shortly after returning and was told not to lift anything over 4 pounds.

"I figured butterflies don't weigh much," she said.

Although Millhouse Huebner wasn't thrilled by the caterpillar waste that accumulated on their dining-room table, she recognized that participating in the process meant a great deal to her spouse.

"I love the butterflies," Millhouse Huebner said. "It's a lot of fun watching her ... "

"... coming out of my shell," Huebner said, finishing her wife's sentence.

That first year, Huebner raised 18 monarch butterflies to adulthood. Last year, she released about 150. This year, she has released 640. She also has fostered out more than 600 other caterpillars and eggs, many to other Clintonville residents.

"I consider myself an enthusiastic beginner," Huebner said.

Butterflies are very much a part of the couple's lives.

"They went on our honeymoon with us," Millhouse Huebner said.

"Luckily, they're quiet travelers," Huebner said.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1