4 Vanessa Butterfly Species Overview and Comparison

Vanessa butterfly belongs to the largest family of butterflies, and 4 of them are the most common kinds in North America, known for their presence around vacant lots, gardens, and open fields.

Vanessa butterfly and its subfamilies

Vanessa belongs to the order Lepidopterafamily Nymphalidae — the second-largest family of butterflies, known as the brush-footed butterflies. With over 6,000 butterflies in this subfamily present globally, 4 are most common in North America:

  1. The Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
  2. The Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)
  3. The American lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
  4. The West coast lady (Vanessa Annabella)

The fifth subspecies, the Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea), is an endemic species of Hawaii and has the smallest range of all the US Vanessa butterflies.

Red Admiral – black and orange beauty

Red admiral butterfly
Red admiral butterfly

The Red admiral has a small white spot and a noticeable orange median band near the edges of both forewings and hindwings. The dorsal side of its wings is brownish-black. Its hindwings have a reddish marginal band. Its wingspan is 1 3/4 to 3 inches (4.5 to 7.6 cm), with females being a bit larger than males.

Painted lady – bright orange and fluffy

Painted lady butterfly
Painted lady butterfly

Painted lady also shows variation based on its geographical range. Their summer form is large and bright, while their winter form is small and dull in color.

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The Painted lady butterfly’s upper side is orange-brown with a dark wing base and 4 submarginal eyespots. Its forewing has a black apex patch and a white line close to the edges. The hindwings have a row of 5 tiny spots, sometimes with bluish scales. The Painted lady has a wingspan of 2 to 2 7/8 inches (5.1 to 7.3 cm).

American lady – similar to the painted lady

American lady butterfly
American lady butterfly

The American lady is similar to the Painted lady, with slight differences. For example, an American lady has a tiny white spot on her hindwings. The underside of the forewings has more prominent eyespots compared to the Painted lady. Its wingspan is 1 3/4 to 2 5/8 inches (4.5 to 6.7 cm).

West coast lady – another “painted” sister

West coast lady
West coast lady

Finally, the West coast lady has an orange-brown upperside and an orange line on the edge of the forewings. Its hindwings have 3 or 4 blue submarginal spots. The underside of the wings has a complex pattern, with eyespots mixed in with other markings. Its wingspan is 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches (3/8 to 5.7 cm).

Vanessa Caterpillar Physical Description

The Red admiral butterfly’s larva is about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in length. Its coloration is variable, yet most of them are black with a thin yellow line, some white spots, and spines that stay around during the pupa stage.

The Painted lady butterfly’s larva is similar to a Red admiral, with few yellowish patterns and spines.

The American lady’s caterpillar has bright yellow rings around its body, with tiny dark red spots below each spike. The side of its body contains an almost uninterrupted yellow line.

The West coast lady’s caterpillar is brighter and creamy-colored, with many whitish spikes coming out of its body.


The Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is present around the Holarctic area and North America — all the way from Central Canada to the Mexican highlands and Central America (Guatemala). This butterfly overwinters in the southern US states — Texas and Florida.

The Painted lady butterfly is located in:

  • Europe
  • Asia
  • North America
  • Central America

This kind is migratory, and its route includes the southwestern US and northern Mexico.

The American lady can be found around southern Canada, the entire US, Central America, Colombia, and the Galapagos Islands. Migrates to the northern US, southern Canada, the West Indies, and Europe.

The West Coast lady is mostly limited to western North America:

  • Southern British Columbia
  • Baja California Norte
  • Montana
  • New Mexico
  • Colorado

Occasional migrants will stray to central Kansas, North Dakota, and south areas of Ontario.


These are usual habitats for the 4 Vanessa butterfly species:

Red admiral:

  • Bottomland woods
  • Streams
  • Moist fields
  • City parks
  • Marshes
  • Seeps
  • Moist woods

Painted lady:

  • Old fields
  • Vacant lots
  • Gardens
  • Prairies

American lady:

  • Open areas with low vegetation
  • Vacant lots
  • Beach dunes
  • Meadows
  • Forest edges

West coast lady:

  • Weedy areas
  • Gardens
  • Roadsides
  • Fields
  • Disturbed areas

Host Plants

These butterflies lay eggs on the following host plants:

Red admiral:

  • Stinging nettle
  • Tall wild nettle
  • False nettle
  • Pennsylvania pellitory

Painted lady:

  • Thistles
  • Hollyhock
  • Mallow
  • Various legumes

American lady:

  • Sunflower family everlasting
  • Plantain-leaved pussy toes
  • Wormwood
  • Ironweed
  • Burdock

West coast lady:

  • Tree mallow
  • Globe mallow
  • Bush mallow
  • Alkali mallow
  • Hollyhock
  • Checkerbloom


The Red admiral adults usually eat tree sap, fermenting fruit, and bird droppings. This butterfly species will visit flowers only when these food sources aren’t available. When that happens, they’ll drink nectar from milkweed, red clover, aster, and others.

The Painted lady butterfly food plants include:

  • Boraginaceae
  • Malvaceae
  • Common mallow
  • Legumes
  • Thistles
  • Ironweed

The American lady’s larva will feed on a limited range of food plants, such as:

  • Sweet everlasting
  • Pearly everlasting
  • Plantain-leaved pussytoes

Adults will drink nectar from dogbane, marigold, vetch, and goldenrod.

The West coast lady larvae feed on the host plants, while adults drink flower nectar.

Vanessa species Behavior

The Red admiral butterfly has an erratic fast flight, but it’s considered people-friendly. During the afternoon, males will perch on ridgetops, looking for females. They’ll court a female for a few hours before the mating session begins. Females will select the male based on the traits that will increase mating success.

Once the mating process is done, females will lay eggs on top of the host plant’s leaves. This butterfly has 2 broods, one from March to October and the other that winters from October to March (in South Texas).

Males are quite territorial and like to keep an oval-shaped area for themselves. They patrol the place from 7 to 30 times each hour and interact with intruders 10 to 15 times during that period.

They’ll chase off the intruder in a vertical path to disorient them. Then, they’ll come back to their area. This behavior is correlated with temperature — warmer temperatures make males patrol early in the day.

The Painted lady males perch and patrol in the afternoon, looking for females. Those located in the West will perch on shrubs, while those in the East rest on bare ground. Females lay eggs, one by one, on the top of the host plant’s leaves. Adults hibernate only in the South during mild winters.

This butterfly is known for massive migrations of up to 9,320 miles (15,000 km) around the Palearctic. Millions of butterflies participate in these migrations to take advantage of the seasonal change.

The American lady behaves similarly to the Painted lady. Its caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves connected with silk. Adults hibernate. This butterfly has about 3 broods annually. However, it’s unknown whether adults can survive cold winters.

The West coast lady life cycle includes several flights all year round in California. Overall, their behavior is similar to the other three — males perch and look for females, females lay eggs on the upperside of the host plant leaves, and adults hibernate.


The Red admiral butterfly and the West coast lady have similar predators, including birds, mammals, other insects, and similar.

Birds, frogs, and reptiles are the major enemies of the Painted lady butterfly. Luckily, this species is highly sensitive to light and movement, so they can easily escape predators.

When it comes to the American lady, wasps, spiders, and ants are targeting its caterpillars.

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