The word “monarch” means king or ruler. There’s probably no better word to describe this regal insect of bright orange and black with white spots. Monarch butterflies have a 4-inch wingspan and glide about in a most dignified way.

Now it’s time to welcome the monarchs back. Last year we saw the first one on May 31. Each year they winter in Mexico, where they congregate in trees on mountainsides in an area west of Mexico City. They leave Minnesota from late August into October, and the first ones arrive to the wintering site about Nov. 1. It’s a most amazing flight for an insect. In late February, as spring approaches, the monarchs start migrating northward, following the development of milkweeds on which they lay their eggs.

Spring migrating monarchs enter Texas from Mexico during March and April. Females lay their eggs on milkweeds, and their progeny appear in April or May. So by mid- to late May, when common milkweeds are about 6 inches tall in Minnesota, a few fall migrants and many of their offspring find their way here.

The monarch is the only butterfly to truly migrate to and from overwintering spots. It is also the most readily identifiable butterfly in our country. If the United States had a national butterfly, this would be a good choice. The monarch has been Minnesota’s official state butterfly since 2000.

Monarch butterflies are found throughout North America. Straying migrants have occasionally reached England and the South Pacific. The northern limit of their range is around St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Churchill, Manitoba. Monarch females lay their eggs on milkweeds or closely related dogbane plants — and the larvae dine on the leaves. Adults feed on nectar of various wild and cultivated plants.

Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio (830-AM) at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.