The Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui) is one of the most common butterfly species in the world. However, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. Besides their captivating appearance, there are also many interesting facts you can learn about their migration patterns, behavior, and breeding habits.
These butterflies do many cool things, other than pollinating plants. Keep reading if you want to learn more about these little creatures! I’ve made sure to include details on a wide range of topics, including their preferred habitat, lifestyle, diet, and life cycle.
The Painted Lady is a medium-sized butterfly, with an average length of 2-3 inches, and a wingspan ranging from 2.3-3 inches. Females are slightly larger than males. Newly-emerged adult butterflies have a distinct bright orange body. On the dorsal side, Painted Lady butterflies present a striking mix of contrasting colors.
Black and orange are the dominant colors, and they form beautiful, intricate patterns. The upper and lower inner-sides of the wings also present small, white, oval shapes. Sadly, as time passes, the mature butterflies start losing their vibrant colors. Eventually, the wings start looking ashy and faded.
On the ventral (abdominal) side, the colors are a lot lighter. Pale orange, yellow, and white patches cover most of the underside surface of the wings, with just a few black and light-brown spots here and there. The underside wing patterns closely mirror the dorsal side patterns. The lower underside part of the wings looks a lot like a colorful mosaic of rounded shapes.
On the dorsal side, there are multiple plain, dark dots spreading across the lower wings. Interestingly, when seen from the underside, these dots look drastically different. They have a thick, black outline, and a bluish pop of color inside, looking a lot like small pairs of eyes.
Habitat & Distribution
They’re a common species, as these butterflies can be found everywhere on the planet, except for Antarctica and South America. As long as temperatures are high enough, they can survive almost everywhere on the planet.
They appear all over Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. They’re present in Central and North America too. They can also be found in multiple island groups in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. This includes colder areas such as Iceland and Greenland as well.
Naturally, this species prefers drier habitats, but it can survive in a wide range of warm climates. However, they succumb to the cold winter weather easily.
They prefer sunny, wide-open areas with abundant flowers and vegetation. But they are highly adaptable and can thrive in any type of habitat, including deserts, swamps, rainforests, scrub forests, mountainous areas, and more.
These butterflies are long-distance migrators. They begin migrating in early spring, making their way out of the deserts of North Africa and coming into Europe and Eurasia. When temperatures drop and vegetation withers away, the Painted Lady butterflies begin their round trip from Europe back to Africa.
However, the Painted Lady’s migration is unpredictable. They don’t follow the same south-to-north pattern everywhere on the planet, nor do they always migrate during the same periods. Sometimes, the migration of Painted Lady butterflies can also be influenced by weather events such as heavy rainfall.
Behavior & Lifestyle
Migration and mating behaviors distinguish the Painted Lady from other butterfly species. To take advantage of changes in weather conditions and available resources, the Vanessa Cardui engages in long-distance, multi-generational mass migration.
During winter, these butterflies inhabit various areas of Africa. In early spring, they begin migrating towards Europe. When the temperatures drop, the butterflies then return to Africa to overwinter.
What’s unique about these butterflies is their continuous reproduction. Painted Lady butterflies reproduce year-round, and throughout their long migration across continents. This migration and reproduction style greatly influences the Vanessa Cardui’s behavior.
Because they’re always in a constant state of migration, there’s no need for male butterflies to become aggressive or territorial. Instead, the butterflies travel long distances until they find a suitable breeding place. There, males find a spot where they can wait for females to arrive.
When approaching a potential mate, Vanessa Cardui butterflies perform a courtship ritual. To do so, they fly in circles around one another before separating. By the way, Vanessa Cardui males are polygamous, which means they breed with multiple females throughout their lives.
Combine that with the fact that females produce lots of offspring, and it’s easy to see why this species is so abundant in nature.
Nutrition & Diet
This species consumes different diets depending on the butterfly’s developmental stage. For example, adult butterflies are nectarivores. They derive their energy needs from the sugar-rich nectar of flowering plants. They aren’t particularly picky, as they can feed on a wide variety of plants.
The list is quite long, and it includes plants like the Button Bush, Blazing Star, Cosmos, New England Aster, Joe-Pye Weed, Iron Weed, Mexican Sunflower, Red Clover, Purple Coneflower, Zinnias, Milkweeds, and Thistles, among many others.
Painted Lady butterflies also feed on honeydew, which are small droplets of sticky, sugary fluid produced by small insects. Speaking of honeydew, multiple people have observed Painted Lady butterflies feasting on pieces of watery fruit. They’re even attracted to sugary drinks like sodas and juices. Anything sweet and sugary makes a satisfying meal for them.
Painted Lady caterpillars are herbivores, and they feed on different types of plant leaves. In fact, these caterpillars feed on more than 100 plant species, including Aromatic Aster, Ironweed, Cheeseweed, Red Clover, Dwarf Nettle, Hollyhock, Lupine, Fiddleneck, Purple Coneflower, Thistles, and more.
Basically, they can eat everything in sight, causing extensive damage to vegetation. The larvae are known to damage crops like beans and artichokes.
Reproduction & Life Cycle
As I’ve already mentioned, Painted Lady butterflies breed year-round, as long as they can find a place with suitable conditions. Male butterflies are polygamous, and females give birth to lots of offspring after each reproduction. When they find a suitable spot for reproduction, males perch where female butterflies are most likely to appear.
When he finds a suitable mate, the male butterfly starts performing a courtship dance around the female butterfly. After reproduction takes place, the gestation period in female butterflies lasts around 20-25 days. Female Vanessa Cardui can lay about 500 eggs, each one laid separate on its host plant. The young butterflies reach sexual maturity 5-7 days after emerging from their cocoons.
Painted Lady butterflies undergo a complete metamorphosis consisting of four cycles: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Painted Lady eggs are tiny and fragile. They resemble a pale, skinless grape. Typically, the soon-to-be larva spends 3-5 days inside the egg before hatching. In lower temperatures, hatching might be delayed by a few days.
Once the larvae hatch, they immediately start feeding on the leaves of the host plant. Typically, butterfly caterpillars rarely leave their feeding spot throughout their growth cycle. This is the longest stage of a butterfly’s life, and it consists of 5 instars. When the caterpillar has reached the last instar, it’s ready to enter an inactive state called pupation.
During the pupal stage, the caterpillar envelops itself into a thin, opaque membrane called a cocoon. This stage lasts for about 10 days. When the butterfly inside is fully developed and ready to emerge, the cocoon should be almost transparent.
After emerging from the cocoon, Painted Lady butterflies live for just two weeks. During this time, they start reproducing and pollinating the flowers in their environment.
Painted Lady butterflies can be found almost anywhere on the planet, and for a good reason. Few other species have such an effective reproduction strategy. They’re long-distance travelers, and they can produce multiple generations of offspring throughout their migration.
They’re highly adaptable to various habitats and temperatures, which gives them access to a wider range of resources. Also, like other butterfly species, Painted Lady butterflies are pretty, peaceful, harmless, and they’re useful for pollinating flowers. What is there not to love about them?Butterflies