Bob Erlich wasn’t always known as The Butterfly Guy.
Before he started raising caterpillars and releasing monarch butterflies back into the wild, he was a traveling salesman. He peddled jewelry for 30 years. Twice, he was robbed. Finally, he grew disgusted and quit.
Meanwhile he and his wife, Joan, raised five children. When they were younger, Bob spent his summers coaching Little League baseball and growing peppers and tomatoes in his back yard.
He coached for 15 years. Then, when the bats and balls were stashed away and the last of his bunch left the family nest, he went looking for something else to fill a time void in his life.
He read an article. He was inspired. And he became The Butterfly Guy.
“Yeah, I decided to plant a butterfly garden to attract monarch butterflies,” said Erlich, an Evergreen Park resident who now works to save a species in addition to spending two days a week in a pawnshop in Harvey. “This was in the fall of 2007. I went out and bought some plants. The plant that is crucial for monarch butterflies is milkweed.
“You have to have milkweed. But the garden centers don’t sell it. I was told by a garden center owner to go out and dig it up because it’s wild and it’s everywhere. I went out and dug some up, brought it home and there were caterpillars on it.”
Raising Butterflies: On-the-job Training
Erlich quickly learned how to care and raise the butterflies in plastic containers and aquariums. He turned his house and his garage into a sanctuary for monarch butterflies and black swallowtails.
He turned on friends and relatives, neighbors and complete strangers to a cause, too.
“And releasing that first group of butterflies—I said, ‘I want to do this lots,” Erlich said. “It was fun. So, for the next couple of years, I learned a lot of things. I ended up releasing 960 butterflies one year and 760 another year. And, then, in 2009 and 2010, I started passing caterpillars out to people—grandmas with their grandkids, teachers with their classes, just people that were interested, gardeners.
“I passed out 1,000 caterpillars. I have too many. I don’t know what to do with them. And everybody wants to do it. There isn’t anybody who isn’t interested in helping the butterflies, whether they’re a gardener or not. Butterflies are beautiful.”
Monarch butterflies are not endangered. But they are fighting a battle to survive against both man and Mother Nature. Old prairies in the Midwest where milkweed used to be plentiful have given way to cornfields and subdivisions. And, in some areas, pesticides have eradicated milkweed.
Drought conditions, such as those experienced by many in the Southwest last summer, have taken a toll. The monarch’s migrate from Canada to Central Mexico and back in the spring. They stop and search for places to rest and drink water along the way. When there is no water—even the puddles are dried up—they parish.
Erlich is working to make the monarch’s journey—one he calls a compelling story—a little easier. He tells tales of how monarchs can fly at speeds of 20 mph if the wind is right and cover 80 miles in a single day. He has lectured on butterflies since 2009. He also has been monitoring 40 milkweed sites and distributing milkweed seeds.
He is a member of the University of Kansas Monarch Watch, an outreach program with a goal of creating 10,000 way stations for the butterflies. And, to that end, he has created a way station in a garden he cares for at the Evergreen Park library.
A colorfully painted rock sits in the garden to mark the accomplishment. The inscription: Butterfly Garden, Bob Erlich, curator.
“We love working with Bob,” Evergreen Park library director Nicki Seidl said. “I met him originally on our first garden walk. That was four years ago. He volunteered to show his garden. Who knew he had this amazing butterfly garden in his back yard. He’s a special man. He’s passionate about raising monarchs. He’s an evangelist for that cause.”
For Butterfly Guy: No Pain, No Gain
Erlich won’t accept payment for any of his efforts. His is an intangible reward.
“I get such feelings out of it—that I’m doing something good,” he said.
A female monarch can lay as many as 400 eggs. Only small fractions survive to become butterflies. Tiny caterpillars grow rapidly from the eggs. Each time they molt, they show bolder black stripes. The caterpillars attach themselves to twigs or leaves and spin into a chrysalis.
After two weeks, orange and black monarchs emerge. Typically, they dry their wings for a couple hours before taking flight. Erlich keeps watch over the evolutionary process. He emailed a note to friends on Sunday night with the following subject line: “The monarchs have arrived.”
“Hi to all,” Erlich said. “I collected 68 eggs today from only two of the 40 sites I monitor, a full week earlier than I have ever found them before.”
“He’s such a remarkable man,” said Nancy Block, District 8 director for the Garden Clubs of Illinois. “I can understand why the butterflies love him. He walks through my garden, flips over leaves and says, ‘Oh, you’ve got eggs.’ He takes them and hatches them.”
Block has recruited Erlich to speak in front of the Southwest Community Garden Club at 6 p.m. on July 11 at Chicago Ag School. She knows his voice will be well received by members of the club.
“He rubs this energy off on you,” Block said.
Many area elementary school teachers know of Erlich and his work. He has become their Monarch—King of the Classroom—even if his schoolwork often is done in absentia. He prefers to educate adults on how to educate children, rather than trying to speak to a group of 5-year-olds.
He teaches the teachers how to develop a lesson plan around butterflies.
“The kids in their classrooms will learn something about monarchs and their life cycle and the plants to protect them,” Erlich said. “There are thousands of people like me. I’m not somebody out there by myself. There are many people that do what I do.
“They may not raise as many butterflies as I do, but they’re just as active in helping other people and going to schools.”