Bob Erlich, of Evergreen Park, holds a newly emerged swallowtail on his finger. | Ginger Brashinger/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 8, 2014 10:31AM
Bob Erlich said he never intended to raise butterflies, but six years and thousands of released monarchs and swallowtails later, the Evergreen Park man is hooked on a hobby that consumes him.
“It takes all my time, but I need to have something to do,” said Erlich, 67. “I can’t just sit and watch TV all day like a lot of people can.”
When 15 years of coaching boys and girls baseball with the Evergreen Park Athletic Association ended in 2003, Erlich said he found himself with time on his hands. His long career in sales didn’t fill all of his hours, so he decided to ramp up his gardening, a pastime he’s had since he and his wife Joan moved into their home in 1977.
Erlich said he spent a couple of years changing the cookie-cutter-style landscaping at the front of his house to give it a flower garden look, and he intended to expand his vegetable garden as well. The neighbors across the alley agreed to let him use the spaces behind their garages for gardens in exchange for mowing the alley, Erlich said, and he went to work on that project, too.
“After I spent all that time for two years getting things ready, I realized I didn’t need any more tomato plants,” Erlich said. He wanted to garden with a purpose.
About the same time in 2007, he read an article in the SouthtownStar about a woman who raised monarch butterflies, and it fascinated him.
“I got inspired,” he said.
With the intention of attracting the migrating monarch to his own gardens, Erlich dug up six milkweed plants from along some railroad tracks — the life source of monarchs from egg to chrysalis — and discovered the plants had caterpillars on them.
“I never set out to raise butterflies,” Erlich said. “That was not a thought in my mind, but the thought was to attract them and to help them, but now I had caterpillars and that’s the beginning. That’s how it started.”
Erlich said he started slowly, taking in small numbers of insects at first. In his second year, he had two aquariums and several containers to hold the caterpillars at different stages of development.
Through research and trial and error, he learned how to feed and care for them, adding swallowtails in 2013 to his mission. He increased the number of containers to about 50, he said, and filled half a dozen aquariums with dozens of chrysalises in each.
By the third year, he said, the numbers ballooned.
“It was just unbelievable the amount of work that was,” Erlich said.
Erlich said he had so many soon-to-be butterflies to tend to in his garden, garage and basement that he began giving caterpillars to others who were interested and taught them how to do what he was doing.
“What I’m most proud of is the other people I have involved,” Erlich said. “I have about five or six young couples (raising butterflies) in Evergreen Park.”
Erlich said everyone from teachers to grandmothers are among his followers, but he is “wary” of handing them out to just anyone, he said.
“They’re my babies,” Erlich said. “I want people to do things the right way.”
Doing things “the right way” takes a lot of work.
The process — from late May to October for monarchs — means tending to the plants needed for caterpillar food and the flowers for butterfly nectar. Erlich maintains two kinds of milkweed for the monarchs and grows dill, parsley and fennel for the swallowtails because store-bought products have been treated with pesticides, he said.
Evolving caterpillars require the most time, and Erlich keeps insects at four different stages separate from each other, continually moving caterpillars from container to container as they grow. He cleans the caterpillar droppings out of the containers twice a day and replenishes the food supply of the voracious insects who, he often worries, will run out of food and turn on each other or die.
To avoid that, Erlich tends to gardens at the Evergreen Park Library and Ronald McDonald House in Oak Lawn several times a week, getting food for his caterpillars in return for his volunteer gardening.
The end result each year for the past seven years or so is that Erlich raises a great many caterpillars to adulthood and hands out hundreds more to his volunteer force.
From his own collection, Erlich said, he already has released 550 swallowtails this year, up from about 250 from last year, and he estimates that he will release 800 by the end of the season.
“Swallowtails need as much help as the monarchs,” he said. Unlike the monarch, which migrates to warm climates, the black beauties “winter over” in back yards and need our help to survive, he said.
“We can revive a population just in our area,” he said.
The greatest challenge is to bring monarchs back to their earlier numbers. Erlich said only the fourth generation born from late August to October each year will migrate to the same place in central Mexico, an area that about 10 years ago saw nearly 1 billion monarchs winter over. That number has diminished considerably.
“Four or five years ago, 90 percent of them were gone,” Erlich said. “Then 90 percent of those were gone by last year.”
Erlich feels the urgency and is giving the effort to rebuild their numbers all he’s got. He will release about 1,000 monarchs by the time the butterfly season ends in October, he said, a number that has been fairly consistent over the last few years.
His total, he said, is at about 5,000 butterflies released.
In recent years he has tagged about 300 monarchs per season as part of a national effort at documentation and received confirmation that some have reached their Mexican destination, validating all the time and effort he has put into raising them.
“I’ll do this ’til I die,” he said, and that includes his mission “to pass the knowledge on to people.”
Erlich spreads the word among friends and acquaintances, gives lectures at garden clubs, volunteers at events where he can promote butterflies and shares his knowledge and living teaching aids with teachers who give their students hands-on experience with butterflies in the classroom.
Not only the butterflies benefit.
“Everybody wants to have them,” Erlich said. “Everybody loves butterflies.”
For more information, visit monarchwatch.org.