American Lady Butterfly Overview

An American lady butterfly, known by its other common names, Thistle butterfly, Lady butterfly, or Red admiral, is a butterfly that lives in North America and is unique for having a ventral wing pattern that looks like a cobweb.

American Lady Species Summary

Scientific NameVanessa virginiensis
Family NameNymphalidae
HabitatPlaces with low vegetation, woodland clearings, weedy and uplands fields
RangeNorth America, South America
Host PlantsCommon milkweed, aster, ironweed
Butterfly DescriptionSimilar to a Painted lady, with 2 eyespots on the underside of its wings
Caterpillar DescriptionYellow base with thin black lateral lines that run across the dorsal and ventral surfaces

Butterfly Physical Description

American lady
American lady

The average wingspan of the American lady butterfly can measure as long as 2 inches or more (5 cm), meaning it’s a small butterfly.

The dorsal sides of the wings have a brownish-orange base with black bands surrounding the costal areas of both forewings and hindwings. Aside from the dark bands, the area is littered with small white markings.

The ventral sides of the wings have a dark olive shade with an intricate, subtle pattern resembling a spider web. A pale band surrounds the edge of the wings, and 2 eyespots sit on each forewing, near the apex.

Some varieties may show streaks of orange and yellow patterns on either the upperside or underside of the wings. Their summer appearance looks brighter than their winter counterpart.

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What is the difference between a Painted Lady and American Lady butterfly?

painted lady
Painted lady

American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) is similar to Painted lady (V. cardui), with the biggest difference being its eyespots — American lady has 2, Painted lady has 4. Furthermore, the American lady has a white dot on the forewing, set in pink.

Caterpillar Physical Description

Some larvae have a yellow base with thin black lateral lines that run across the dorsal and ventral surfaces. Each side of each segment of the caterpillar’s thorax has scoli.

The ventral side has lateral white spots and a dirty white line running through the entire length of the species’ body.

A fully-grown American lady caterpillar can be as long as 1.5 inches (3.8 cm). After that, it will transition into a chrysalis for the next few days or weeks, depending on the area’s general climate (a warmer climate means a shorter pupal phase).

Ideal Habitat

The American lady butterflies usually thrive in places with low vegetation, woodland clearings, and weedy and uplands fields, but you may also notice them around:

  • Hilltops
  • Dunes
  • Open areas
  • Meadows
  • Gardens
  • Parks
  • Vacant lots
  • Forest edges
  • Warm and dry areas

What is the host plant for the American Lady butterfly?

The female American lady butterflies lay their eggs, and leave their brood on the host/food plants, which the larva will eat once it hatches. These plants include common milkweed, aster, ironweed, and others:

  • Spoonleaf purple everlasting or Spoonleaf cudweed (Gamochaeta purpurea)
  • Plants under the sunflower family
  • Western pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
  • Pennsylvania everlasting or Pennsylvania cudweed (Gamochaeta pensylvanica)
  • Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii)
  • Plaintain Leaf Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)
  • Cudweed or Gnaphalium (Gamochaeta)

Favorite food plants

Adult butterflies eat the tree sap, decaying fruit, and the nectar of the following plants:

  • Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)
  • Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Joe Pye Weeds (Eutrochium spp.)
  • Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)
  • Ironweeds (Vernonia spp.)
  • Asters
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Common milkweed

Usual Behavior

The male adult American lady butterflies love to land and stay on hilltops, especially during the mating season. They’ll either look for a suitable mate or scout a site where they can puddle with the other adult male butterflies.

How do the American Lady butterflies adapt to the cold weather?

Adults located in the southern US overwinter because they can’t withstand colder climates. Those located in north central Florida migrate to the north, but there’s no evident south migration in the fall.

How long do these butterflies get to live?

This butterfly spends 4 to 14 days in the egg, 2 to 4 weeks as a caterpillar, and 7 to 14 days in a chrysalis. Adults live 6 to 20 days.

Common American Lady Predators

Many animals and insects can be considered the American lady butterfly’s natural enemies, such as:

  • Small mammals
  • Birds
  • Wasps
  • Spiders 

Are there American Lady butterflies in America?

American lady butterfly is common in Europe and North America, and lives in all US states, especially in:

  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Michigan

In Canada, it’s seen in Newfoundland, and it may also frequent South America (Colombia).

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