Courtesy of Hannah Gurholt grad

Hannah Gurholt grad launched Seniors Assisting Monarchs to bring aspects of her monarch butterfly research to Ithaca assisted living centers.

September 21, 2023

Cornell Graduate Student Brings Butterflies to Ithaca’s Elderly Community

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Aiming to brighten up assisted living centers around Ithaca, Hannah Gurholt grad, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, launched Seniors Assisting Monarchs earlier this year. By partnering with assisted living programs in Ithaca, Gurholt is working to increase the milkweed population and aid the monarch butterfly population in Ithaca by bringing the plants and butterflies to the facilities.

In the last two decades, the monarch butterfly population has declined by 85 percent in the United States. This sharp decline stems from a decrease in milkweed plants, as female monarch butterflies require milkweed plants to lay their eggs onto. Much of the decline in the milkweed population results from roadside management practices, intensive agriculture and the extensive use of herbicides.

Gurholt was inspired to create this program by her lab research, where she is exploring how artificial light at night affects the development of monarch butterflies. After she learned that the milkweed she was using for this research often gets discarded, Gurholt said she decided to instead repurpose the plants in an attempt to make her research as sustainable as possible.

Gurholt reflected on her life experiences in order to decide what to do with her some 400 milkweed plants. She recalled reading the novel “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande, which explains how both the mental and physical health of residents of assisted living facilities significantly increases when they interact with plants and with their community. 

Gurholt said she has first-hand experience with the gloom of nursing homes after she watched her nature-loving grandmother, Donna, move into an assisted living center devoid of nature. 

“You would look outside this assisted living center in rural Wisconsin and there was nothing,” Gurholt said, noting that she created this project as she did not want anyone else to have to experience what her grandmother did.

At the start of her project, Gurholt brought the milkweed she used for her research to two assisted living centers in Ithaca, Kendal at Ithaca and Brookdale Senior Living. At both of these facilities, Gurholt led events where residents could help plant the milkweed. 

Hazel Gunn, a Kendal resident and the co-chair of Kendal’s resident-organized sustainability committee, said that Gurholt’s efforts have been well received. 

“Residents at Kendal are becoming more aware of the benefits of pollinator gardens,” Gunn wrote in a statement to The Sun. “We are grateful to Hannah for her addition to our gardens.” 

The residents were also able to assist Gurholt with her endeavor. When Gurholt was struggling to reattach a chrysalis to the plant, a resident told her to try to thread a needle to help reattach it, and the method worked. 

“Hearing these stories… might actually help your research as well,” Gurholt said.

Later, when one of the residents said that she also wanted to watch monarch butterflies develop, Gurholt brought the butterflies to Brookdale. The residents watched and monitored the monarchs’ progress every day, and Gurholt said it provided residents a fun activity to look forward to.

The residents would often tell stories from their youth about their own experiences with monarchs. Joan Lawrence, a resident at Brookdale, said the monarchs have enriched her experience at the assisted living center. 

“Years ago I always had butterflies in my yard and in the last few years I had none, and it made my heart sad,” Lawrence wrote in a statement to The Sun. “Everyone stops to and from meals to see how they were growing and got excited as they emerged.” 

Gurholt mentioned that although many monarch education programs are aimed at grades K-12, this initiative fills the niche that many senior citizens have been missing.

Gurholt also noted that Kendal houses a large number of retired Cornell professors, who may have a vested interest in this project.

“They probably have so many stories to share [and] want to be involved in conservation efforts,” Gurholt said. “There is a group of people that we could be learning so much from.” 

In order to further educate these residents on conservation efforts, Gurholt left information guides at both facilities detailing the monarch’s life stages, the factors impacting their endangerment and ways to help this environmental cause. She also wants to garner feedback from these residents in order to figure out how best to further the program.

Gurholt believes more labs should reuse milkweed, a plant essential to pollinators. Caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed, and the butterflies use milkweed as a source of nectar as well as a place to lay their eggs. 

“[Milkweed] can fuel the monarch at all stages of life… I’m hoping by doing things like this we can encourage more people to rehome their plants instead of composting them,” Gurholt said.

The monarchs were released at the end of this summer and are likely currently en route to Mexico to escape the cold climate in Ithaca.

In the future, Gurholt aims to expand the project to other long-term care facilities in Ithaca and hopes to create more conservation-centered programs for residents. 

Anushka Shorewala ’26 contributed reporting.

Dina Shlufman ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].