‘Butterfly Man’ helping save monarchs, swallowtails

EVERGREEN PARK, Ill. — Inside his Evergreen Park garage, Bob Erlich lifts the lid from a glass aquarium. Careful not to disturb the lime green chrysalises hanging from it, he dips his hand inside and gently guides a black swallowtail butterfly into the world.

The insect flutters in his palm, spreads its wings and then takes flight, landing atop a pink coneflower growing along the edge of the driveway.

The butterfly is one of more than 60 monarchs and swallowtails that have been released into the wild this last week of July, bringing to nearly 1,000 the number that have joined the local environment so far this year, thanks to the elaborate metamorphosis lab Erlich has designed on his property.

Inside four aquariums and 10 containers grow caterpillars and butterflies at all stages of life. Erlich finds them as tiny eggs on plants along walkways and roads, and then brings them back to his home for safekeeping until they can complete their precarious cycle to maturity.

The 72-year-old devotes four hours a day to counting, monitoring, labeling and cleaning away tiny specks of waste from the containers.

The monarch butterfly undergoes one of the most arduous migrations in the animal world. Because its numbers have been declining, there has been an international push to protect them. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a study is currently underway in America to determine whether the species warrants federal protection.

Meanwhile, many including Erlich believe the insects, and other pollinators, are in desperate need of attention.

They’re part of our natural story, he said. They belong here, he adds. They contribute and their numbers are declining, he points out.

But not in Evergreen Park, where Erlich’s daily release system often has neighbors distinguishing good butterfly days from average ones.

“This is a rewarding thing to do,” he said. “I’m doing something to help.”

His devotion to butterflies has consumed his free space and heartened his soul. And it bloomed at a time when he needed inspiration most.

Erlich wasn’t always a butterfly guardian. He wasn’t even an avid gardener until a decade ago. The father of five is a relative newcomer to the world of monarchs and swallowtails and the plants they thrive on.

His foray into the natural world began in the dark economic days of 2007, when his career as a traveling jewelry salesman ended abruptly.

Inspired by a newspaper story about a woman who nurtured a caterpillar through the stages of metamorphosis, he one day walked into an Oak Lawn garden shop hoping to buy some milkweed.

“All I wanted to do was attract some butterflies,” he said.

The owner told him to go outside and look around. Milkweed, she’d said, was everywhere.

“So I walked to the end of my block and found 40 milkweed plants,” he said.

“But when I dug six of those plants out of the ground, there were caterpillars on them. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what do I do?'” he recalled. “I had to take care of them.”

Now, 12 years later, Erlich’s front and back yards, his garage, part of his basement and his time are dedicated to growing and releasing butterflies, and tending to all the plants necessary to make that happen.

Last year he released 1,700 monarchs and 1,300 black swallowtails into the environment. Hundreds more got their start in his homegrown labs and were then transferred to his “recruits,” friends and fellow gardeners who delight in monitoring the winged creatures until they are ready to be released.

“People like to watch them grow and emerge,” he said.

But it’s a rare thing to see it happen in the wild, he said. And so, like him, many have opened their homes or garages to caterpillars and larva and pupa.

So far this year, Erlich has released 1,000 butterflies. Others in his network have released even more.

But he has yet to meet anyone who fronts the operation the way he does, what with his 300 fennel plants, 70 pots of parsley and countless square feet devoted to milkweed, dill, asters, coneflowers and goldenrod. The milkweed that sprouts from a crack in the driveway is just as celebrated as the plants featured in his landscape design.

“I have three to four people come here when they run out of food for their swallowtails,” he said. “Nobody can grow enough food to take care of them. But I do.”

Everything he grows, from the blue vervain to the shasta daisies, are either sustenance or a stopping point for his beloved butterflies. Everything growing outside fuels everything that is happening inside.

To accomplish his goals, his home had to undergo a metamorphosis of its own. At the same time that he began searching along railroad tracks for milkweed, he decided it was time for the 40-year-old evergreen bushes in his front yard to go. He pulled them out, dug down a foot and a half, removed the rock and fertilized the soil.

Where annuals such as impatiens and geraniums once sprinkled a bit of color there are now tall native perennials, which serve to both beautify the neighborhood and protect pollinators.

Erlich has shared his talents with the Evergreen Park Public Library, where he gives presentations and tends to the flower gardens he started more than a decade ago.

Along the south and west side of the library, tall compass plants sway their yellow blooms on the breeze, drawing bees and butterflies. Out front, a plot of zinnias, daisies, tropical milkweed and lantana are an example of what average gardeners might grow if they want to attract their own butterflies.

Library director Nicki Seidl calls Erlich “an amazing individual, one of our local heroes.

“He is such an evangelist for his cause. He gives away plants, he collects eggs, he visits people’s home to help them do the same,” she said. “Yes, it’s a beautiful garden, but he has such passion for the monarchs and the swallowtails and these native plants. They all beautiful but they also preserve their environment.”

Because the library doesn’t have a “green can” for yard waste, at the end of each growing season, Erlich chops down the foliage and hauls it away in his “gardening” car, a 1998 Pontiac used only to haul plants and dirt. Back at his house, he grinds the plants down, mixes them with horse manure and dead leaves and uses the mixture to fertilize the soil.

“It’s all useful,” he said. “It’s good stuff.”

Each Memorial Day weekend, the library and Erlich host a native plant sale.

“People are really getting into native plants. They want to help the bees, they want to help the butterflies,” he said.

All of it helps the natural environment, he said.

“Butterflies don’t go to petunias, they don’t go to impatiens or geraniums. They go to zinnias. They go to native plants,” he said.

The plants provide the fuel they need for their long journey south to Mexico each fall.

But for a short time, Erlich said, he savors the notion that “when they see my garden, they think they’re home.”

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