Painted Lady Butterfly

Much later in the day, after the morning of meteors – early afternoon, under a sunny, cloudless blue sky, with a light breeze and fall colors spreading quickly now – Golden-crowned Kinglets were calling high, elusive ti-ti-ti in trees all around the back yard, but I still could not manage to see even one among the brown, orange and green leaves of the oaks, or even in the pines.

An orange and black butterfly with white spots flew into the butterfly bush beside the deck and stayed for several minutes. It was a Painted Lady – a medium-size deep-orange butterfly with black spots and other black markings, and black upper wing-tips with bright white spots.

A Painted Lady is one of the most widespread butterflies in the world, but I am sorry to say that I seldom notice one – I’m sure that’s purely because I am not observant enough, and haven’t taken the time to become familiar with them. One of the reasons it is so widespread is that its preferred host plant is thistle, which grows almost all over the world. Though Monarch butterflies are best known for their migrations, Painted Ladies also migrate in large numbers and for great distances – and in some cases, the nature and extent of their migrations remain unknown.

A recent study of Painted Lady migration in the United Kingdom has solved a long-standing mystery about where they go each autumn there. The butterflies travel from Africa to the Arctic, making a 9,000-mile round trip, not by individual butterflies going the whole distance, but in a series of steps that takes up to six generations.*

The Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) I saw here just a few days ago is a close relative of Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui), and they also migrate, sometimes in spectacular numbers.

In trying to learn more about Painted Ladies and their migrations, I soon began to appreciate how much about butterflies – even the most common – I do not know, and realized that it would be easy to get lost for days, following a kaleidoscopic trail of more and more information – and more and more questions. These small, colorful parts of the natural world that we take so much for granted are full of intricate mysteries.

*Butterfly Conservation.

Leave a Reply