Painted Lady

2012 October 20

We had a huge migration of these butterflies coming into our area for most of this past spring, and Sam netted this one for me on May 18, 2012. Like most butterflies, I had a hard time getting it to hold still while displaying the tops of its wings, but it did give this shot:

And here is the underside of the wings:

This is a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, one of the more well-known butterflies in the world. There is a very similar butterfly, the “American Lady” (Vanessa virginiensis), but there is a nice side-by-side comparison on BugGuide that makes it pretty obvious that the Painted Lady is what I have here.

These are migratory butterflies, and are found practically all around the world. They don’t overwinter well, but they fly large distances, so once it warms up in the spring they can recolonize cold areas pretty quickly (and their descendants kind of meander generally southward again in the late summer and fall). They also reproduce and mature quickly, which is why we had so many of them this past spring. The winter in North America was quite mild, and so they were able to start multiplying fairly early to the south of us. Then when it finally warmed up completely in May, the invading hordes were ready.

Not that there is any particular problem with these butterflies. For one thing, their food plant as caterpillars include things like thistles and burdocks and a whole bunch of other foul-tasting, toxic, and often noxiously invasive plants which most people would probably prefer to have eaten. And for another, they are quite pretty.

Speaking of their food plants, on July 2, 2012 I happened to see this black, spiky caterpillar eating some of the tansy growing by the side of the road. Tansy is a highly invasive, toxic plant that hardly anything eats (although the blossoms do smell nice, and the bees like it), so I wanted to find out what it was and brought it home.

It used a loose web of silk to pull together the tansy leaves to make a sort of shelter.

I thought it was a misplaced Mourning Cloak caterpillar at first, but after browsing through the field guides I realized that it was probably a Painted Lady caterpillar. To confirm, we kept it until it turned into a chrysalis:

And on July 23, a nice Painted Lady did in fact emerge. It was identical to the one at the top of the page, except that it was less worn and its colors were brighter.

Like most butterflies, the adults are drawn to flowers and fly during the day, so they make a nice addition to one’s flower garden.

They’re also very popular with kids. You can buy painted lady rearing kits from any number of places pretty easily, and they are apparently durable, fast-growing caterpillars that are well-suited for this purpose. With the added bonus that, since painted ladies travel all around the world on their own, you don’t need to be excessively concerned about introducing them somewhere that they don’t already exist. There are artificial diets formulated for them so that the caterpillars can be reared year-round, even when there aren’t any suitable food plants available. These are also one of the popular butterflies that people release at weddings instead of throwing rice (although, I understand that if a wedding butterfly release gets bungled, it can be pretty gruesome, with dead and mangled butterflies everywhere).

2 Responses
  1. October 23, 2012

    Have you ever tried shooting butterflies with a video camera and then extracting the open-wing shots from the stills?

  2. October 23, 2012

    No, but it sounds like a good idea. I should probably look for a moderately-priced videocam that can accept an add-on macro lens, and give it a shot.

    Tim Eisele

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