Description of the Sweet Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted lady butterfly, also known as the Thistle butterfly or Cosmopolitan butterfly, is among the most widespread butterfly species and is unique for flying in circles while forming a group as a sign of courtship.

Painted lady species summary

Scientific NameVanessa cardui
Family NameNymphalidae
KingdomAnimalia
GenusVanessa
HabitatParks, meadows, gardens
RangePresent globally, except Antarctica and Australia
Host PlantsThistles, mallows, asters, legumes
Butterfly DescriptionOrange base wings’ upperside, with black marks and white spots on the edges of forewings
Caterpillar DescriptionPurplish-black or grayish-brown bodies marked with yellow stripes with black spines

What color is the painted lady butterfly?

Painted Lady Butterfly on a Flower
Painted lady butterfly on a flower

The Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan reaching up to 3 inches in both males and females. Unlike American lady butterflies (which have two eyespots on each of their hindwings), Painted lady butterflies have four eyespots.

Regardless of its gender, this butterfly has black and orange-colored wings. When it emerges from its chrysalis, the Painted lady butterfly appears to be a salmon pink shade that gradually decreases when it advances into adulthood.

Similarly, the shape of their wings changes as they start to feed on the nectar of their preferred food plants — especially that of brambles and thistles. Because these plants are lush, the apex of the wings sometimes gets caught up in the stems or leaves, damaging the wings but not affecting the butterfly’s flight patterns.

Painted Lady vs. American Lady: upperside and underside comparison

It’s easy to confuse the Painted lady with the American lady, as these butterflies have similar coloration on the upper side of their wings. The Painted lady has slightly thicker black spots and patterns on the forewings, and the American lady has fewer white spots on the edges of its forewings.

Caterpillar Description

Painted lady caterpillar
Painted lady caterpillar

The larvae have purplish-black or grayish-brown bodies marked with yellow stripes on the lateral parts during their early instars. They have yellow and black spines on both sides of each segment.

Their bodies will turn dark and light green at some point during their lifespan.

The Painted lady caterpillars undergo 5 stages of growth before spinning silk around the thorax and forming a pupa. They can reach about 1.5 inches once they become mature.

Painted lady caterpillars initially feed on the cuticles of the leaves’ undersides.

Where do you see painted lady butterflies?

Generally, this butterfly species love to live in open areas and dry spots but can adapt to most types of habitats if needed. The Painted lady butterfly thrives in these areas:

  • Desert fringes
  • Parks
  • Meadows
  • Gardens

Host Plants

The female butterflies lay their eggs, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves of the following food plants:

  • Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.)
  • Plume thistles (Cirsium)
  • Plumeless thistles (Carduus)
  • Knapweeds, Star thistles, or Centory (Centaurea)
  • Mallows (Malva spp.)
  • Hollyhock (Alcea)
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
  • Legumes (Fabaceae)
  • Cotton thistle (Onopordum)
  • Asters (Aster)

Adult butterfly Diet

Painted lady butterflies get their nectar from the following plants:

  • Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.)
  • Plume thistles (Cirsium)
  • Plumeless thistles (Carduus)
  • Knapweeds, Star thistles, or Centory (Centaurea)
  • Mallows (Malva spp.)
  • Hollyhock (Alcea)
  • Cotton thistle (Onopordum)
  • Asters (Aster)

Strange seasonal migratory Behavior

Because they normally can’t tolerate cold weather, they usually migrate to places with warmer climates during the fall season. They also can’t overwinter or hibernate.

It usually takes about 6 generations of Painted lady butterflies to reach their destination and return to their former habitat. The Painted lady facts show that butterflies that migrate travel around 9,000 miles away from their habitat.

What currently boggles the experts is that Painted ladies do not follow seasonal migratory behaviors even if they don’t favor the harsh winter conditions. Instead, their instincts seem to “sense” the prevailing weather conditions in a specific area and decide to move based on that.

In some instances, Painted lady butterflies have been observed to avoid areas under La Niña. This behavior is usually associated with above-average rainfall density in a given area within a specific time.

How do these butterflies survive the cold?

They periodically vibrate their wings and may look like shaking. Doing this helps them increase their bodies’ metabolic rates, which in turn helps increase their total body temperature.

Do the Painted Lady Butterflies sleep?

Strangely enough, Painted lady butterflies don’t sleep. They remain motionless during the colder parts of the day and at night. This state is sometimes referred to as quiescent.

usual Predators

The following animals and insects prey on the Painted lady butterflies:

  • Spiders
  • Ants
  • Wasps
  • Birds

Is the painted lady butterfly poisonous?

Chemical defense is one of their many techniques to survive a predatory attack. When they land on some of their preferred host plants, they extract toxic compounds from them and store these in their blood.

When at least one of their natural enemies comes to threaten them, they will then secrete the poisonous chemicals. These will make them unpalatable or cause an upset stomach if the predator eats them.

Where do painted lady butterflies live?

There have been sightings of the Painted lady butterflies in North America, Northern Mexico, and Canada, especially during the late summer. Additionally, this butterfly lives in all other continents, except Antarctica and Australia.

Are painted lady butterflies rare?

Currently, the Painted lady is the most widespread butterfly in North America and globally. It’s not rare and is far from the “endangered” status.

What does the painted lady butterfly symbolize?

There is no specific meaning assigned to the Painted lady butterfly. Still, people often associate butterflies with positive events, messages from deceased loved ones, and good omens. Therefore, the Painted lady butterfly shouldn’t be the exception.

If you see the Painted lady, pay attention to what happens around you. Maybe something good is coming your way.

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