The Butterfly Effect

Sep 20, 2018

On this date in 1906, the Courier Democrat of Langdon, North Dakota reported on an unsettling and slightly alarming phenomena. A particular species of insect had appeared in “unprecedented numbers.” Concerned citizens were sending specimens to the North Dakota Agricultural College.  However, the colleges reported that there was no cause for concern. The mysterious insect was none other than the harmless monarch butterfly.

North Dakota hosts about 150 species of butterflies, and the monarch may be the most easily identified. In fact, it is so recognizable that it has been called the American robin of the butterfly world. But in 1906 North Dakotans were unsettled by the “great swarms” of the monarchs.

Although the butterflies appear fragile, they manage to migrate three thousand miles from Canada and the northern United States all the way to Mexico. This journey takes several generations. Tens of thousands of butterflies overwinter in Mexico from November to March, clustering together for warmth. The adults that leave Mexico in March don’t live to see North Dakota. They mate in Texas and their offspring will continue the journey north. The monarchs that eventually return to Mexico are four generations removed from those that came north. They leave their northern breeding grounds in September or October and return to a forest preserve in Mexico that they have never seen before.

North Dakota is fortunate to have two types of wildflowers that attract monarchs: the showy milkweed and the common milkweed. The butterflies lay their eggs on the milkweed, and the eggs hatch into caterpillars. The milkweed provides food for the caterpillars, which undergo an amazing transformation when it goes into the chrysalis stage, emerging from the cocoon as the colorful monarch. Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of a variety of attractive flowers, like the blazing star, which is native to North Dakota. Monarchs also like cornflowers, bee balm, and zinnias.

Today the monarch population is in decline. There were an estimated one billion monarchs in 1996. In 2013 that number had plummeted to 35 million. The primary cause is loss of habitat. Some scientists fear this colorful and beneficial insect is in danger of disappearing forever.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Courier Democrat. “Our Butterfly Visitors.” 20 September 1906. Langdon ND. Page 1.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “The Monarch Butterfly.”      Accessed 18 August 2018.

North Dakota State University. “Butterfly Gardening in North Dakota.”    Accessed 18 August 2018.