It began with a few milkweed plants, arranged carefully in her garden, to feed the Monarch butterflies.
A year later, Astrid Gunnarsson’s Bridgewater home has become a sanctuary to over 100 Monarch caterpillars, all drawn to her ever growing milkweed hedge.
And in many regards, as their caretaker, she has also become their queen; what began as a gardening project has blossomed into a commitment to the insects.
“When I planted the milkweed, I was just thinking about feeding them,” she said during an interview with the South Shore Breaker. “You have to commit about six weeks and can’t leave overnight.”
She added she first became interested in Monarch butterflies during a trip to Mexico in which she visited a world renowned sanctuary. The experience stuck with her.
And, years later, when reading about the destruction of the insects’ natural habitat, she vowed to do her bit by planting milkweed plants at her home along the LaHave River.
But she never expected to see so many and definitely didn’t plan on protecting the Monarch caterpillars until adulthood.
Her cat was the first to discover that the butterflies were laying eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves. She said the average butterfly can lay around 500 to 700 eggs.
From there, Gunnarsson began to collect the eggs and help the caterpillars reach adulthood.
The caterpillars undergo a transformation under her care; they begin as hungry larvae before shedding their skins as they become a chrysalis — or, in other words, form a cocoon.
Eventually, the caterpillar will emerge as a Monarch butterfly, at which point Gunnarsson releases them back into the skies.
But it’s not easy work.
Monarch caterpillars are a hungry lot and require daily milkweed meals and also excrete alarming amounts given their size.
Still, Gunnarsson said she’s happy to do her part for conservation given the insects are becoming increasingly threatened by things like climate change.
And although the caterpillars have taken up much of her life this summer, Gunnarsson said she’s still as drawn to them as the first time she saw them in Mexico.
In fact, she expects she’ll play host to a whole new gang of Monarch guests next year.
“They are a beautiful looking thing,” she said. “It would be hard not to do it now.”
When asked if she ever expected to become a hobby conservationist, Gunnarsson could only laugh.
“Life is full of twists and turns. You never know what you’re going to be doing,” she said.
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