Dr. Rob Niederhoff began raising monarch butterflies last year. A biology professor, he has given talks at the Liverpool Public Library and his children’s schools about the importance of boosting the monarch population. (Courtesy of Rob Niederhoff)
Dr. Rob Niederhoff’s yard is full of weeds.
No, he’s not a sloppy gardener — he’s purposely planted goldenrod, milkweed and other plants sometimes considered pesky to those seeking perfectly manicured lawns and flowerbeds. Those plants — milkweed in particular — are pivotal to Niederhoff’s mission of raising butterflies.
Since he began raising monarch butterflies, Niederhoff has given talks at the Liverpool Public Library and local schools about the importance of protecting monarch butterflies. The Orange Clovers — Liverpool’s 4-H Club, of which the Niederhoff family is a part — have maintained a tank of monarchs at the library, raising them from egg to pupa to butterfly before releasing them into the Dinosaur Garden.
“That’s turned into a really big success this year,” Niederhoff said, adding that nearly 30 butterflies have been released at LPL this year.
“As soon as the chrysalis starts to turn dark, that’s when it’s getting ready to emerge. Everyone at the library, even the staff, get excited,” he said. “Seeing it coming out of the chrysalis is like seeing a birth. It’s really fun to see that enthusiasm.”
The Orange Clovers even brought their butterflies to the New York State Fair.
“That was the hit of the Onondaga County 4-H booth,” Niederhoff said.
An adjunct biology professor at Onondaga Community College and stay-at-home dad, Niederhoff grew up in Bridgeport and lives in Liverpool with his wife, Julie, and their children.
“There are far fewer butterflies, especially monarchs, than there were when we grew up,” Niederhoff said.
Increasing residential development, changing weather patterns, and destructive deforestation and pesticide use have caused the population of monarch butterflies in Mexico and the eastern United States to plummet, reaching a record low in 2012.
“Their overall numbers are down 90 percent from the late 1990s,” Niederhoff said.
Niederhoff began planting milkweed to try to boost the butterfly population around his home.
“It’s the only thing the caterpillars can eat and it’s the only thing they can lay eggs on,” he said. “The flowers attract any kind of pollinator you can imagine: flies, bees, butterflies, even hummingbirds. Monarchs absolutely require the milkweed, but milkweed is important for so much more.”
As Niederhoff’s field of weeds flourished, so too did the butterflies.
“Last year someone asked if I was raising them, and I didn’t even know you could do that,” he said.
A few YouTube videos later, Niederhoff was collecting eggs and fattening up caterpillars until they curled into chrysalides, emerging as the graceful orange, black and white butterflies we all know. Later, Niederhoff discovered the book “How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids” by Carol Pasternak, which he recommends to anyone who wants to raise monarchs too.
“This book is everything I wish I had known last year,” he said.
While you can purchase monarch eggs online, Niederhoff said, “If you see monarchs and you have milkweed, there’s a really good chance in a couple of days you’ll find eggs.”
Milkweed produces latex, a toxic, milky liquid (hence the plant’s name) that can actually kill the caterpillars. The caterpillars who survive remain toxic to predators as adult butterflies.
“Bringing them in and making sure the milkweed leaves are clean boost their success rate considerably,” Niederhoff said.
Niederhoff said he found about 120 eggs in his “milkweed forest” this summer, but there could have been as many as 300 or 400 if it wasn’t for a virus that struck. Since monarchs hatch between June and September, Niederhoff’s butterflies are just about done for the year. The last generation of butterflies will migrate to Mexico or southern California, flying about 3,000 miles to escape the harsh Northeast winter.
“Every single monarch matters so much,” Niederhoff said. “Too many things in nature are becoming rare now.”
Niederhoff posts photos of his butterflies during all stages of their life cycle on Facebook with the hashtags #sonsofmonarchy, #daughtersofmonarchy or #niederhoffbutterflyranch. He said the family has been naming the ones they release alphabetically — “like hurricanes,” he said — and they’re running out of names, especially ones that start with Q and Z.
“It’s a happy problem to have,” he said.
To learn more about monarchs and the Orange Clovers’ other 4-H projects, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.