Painted Lady Butterfly

Vanessa carduiThe Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is also known as the Thistle butterfly and the Cosmopolitan. By some accounts it has the widest distribution of all the butterflies.

Females generally lay single, light green eggs on top of a host plant leaf. Over a hundred different species of host plants have been identified.

Painted Lady ButterflyAfter four days the caterpillar hatches and feasts on leaves of the host plant. The caterpillar molts several times during its two week larval stage as it continues to grow.

The caterpillar then finds a spot to attach itself, and forms a chrysalis. This pupal stage usually lasts less than two weeks.

At this point, the adult Painted Lady butterfly emerges. During this stage, the butterfly spends its time consuming nectar, mating and in many cases, migrating.

Thistle ButterflyThe Painted Lady is a resident of warmer areas, but migrates in the spring. Huge migrations occasionally occur between Northern Mexico and the Western USA. Similar migrations take from North Africa northward. Painted Ladies have been said to reach speeds of 30 miles an hour and travel distances of 100 miles a day. Even at such high speeds, the limited lifespan of the painted lady makes this a multi-generational migration.

It wasn’t until 2012 that scientists discovered what happened to the Painted Ladies that migrated to the UK each summer. Up until this point many believed that they simply died off. It is now known that the butterflies undertake a journey covering up to 9,000, miles originating in Africa, traveling as far north as the Arctic and then back again. Along the way the adults stop to eat and mate, and then they die off, leaving the next generation to carry on with the migration. The extent of this “tag team” migration was previously unknow, partially because the Painted Ladies’ autumn return trip was made at higher elevations (around 1,600 ft. average).

These mass migrations sometimes get the Painted Lady confused with the Monarch butterfly. Although the two are similar in general coloration, the markings themselves are very different. The speed of the painted lady tends to get it to northern areas well ahead of the monarch. The length of Painted Lady migration is close to double to that of the the well known Monarch migration in North America. Another difference is size–the Painted Lady is considered a medium size butterfly with wingspans ranging from 2″ to almost 3″, whereas the Monarch is much larger with specimens reaching between 3.5 to almost 5″.

Painted Lady/Monarch wing pattern comparisonEven with its great migrational feat, it may be that the Painted Lady is best know because it is included in popular science kits used by elementary and preschool classrooms to demonstrate the life cycle of butterflies in general.

Issues have been raised by some butterfly enthusiast groups concerning the negative effects of rearing Painted Ladies or any butterflies and releasing them into the wild.

After a little looking into the subject, it appears to me that both sides of the issue seem to have valid points. I came to the conclusion that I do not have a great enough understanding of the topic to make any kind of judgement.

Perhaps the best way to study the butterfly would be to plant a small butterfly garden. This way, these amazing creatures can be enjoyed in their natural habitat.


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11 Responses to Painted Lady Butterfly

  1. montucky says:

    Great photos and interesting information! I especially like the first photo!


  2. Bruce Hagen says:

    Rick, great photos. I had no idea their migrations were on such a grand scale and multigenerational.


  3. mariekeates says:

    Very interesting and some lovely pictures


  4. What an amazing story. I didn’t even know that they migrated! it’s easily one of the most beautiful butterflies and I love its name.


  5. Finn Holding says:

    Glorious shots Rick. I too posted about painted lady migration in August after I photographed them on holiday ( And they also feed on the buddleia bush in my back garden!

    Do you have a map of the whole migration route? I’m intrigued to see how the route includes both the UK and the western US, both originating in Africa.


  6. Pingback: My Painted Lady Makes the Big Time | btweenblinks

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