Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui

Painted Lady

Vanessa cardui


The Painted Lady butterfly, also called the Cosmopolitan or Thistle butterfly, is one of the most familiar butterflies in the world, found on nearly all continents and climates. They are a favorite subject of study in elementary school classrooms and are a familiar visitor to most landscape gardens.

Above, the Painted Lady is an orange butterfly, with a black apex with white spots in the forewing, and thick dark lines in the forewing. Below, this species has four small circular spots on the hindwing that are much harder to see than the two larger spots of the American Lady.

Thistle, which can be an invasive weed, is one of the painted lady caterpillars favorite food plants. The painted lady probably owes its global abundance to the fact that its larvae feed on such common plants. The painted lady also goes by the name thistle butterfly, and its scientific name—Vanessa cardui—means "butterfly of thistle."

Unlike other caterpillars in the genus Vanessa, painted lady larvae construct their tents from silk. You will usually find their fluffy shelters on thistle plants. Similar species, such as the American lady caterpillar, make their tents by stitching leaves together instead.

On overcast days you can find them huddling in small depressions on such days. On sunny days, these butterflies prefer open areas filled with colorful flowers.

Unlike many other species of butterflies that migrate to warm climates in winter, painted ladies die once winter hits in colder regions. They are present in cold regions only because of their impressive ability to migrate long distances from their warm-weather breeding areas.

Found in a variety of open habitats including old fields, meadows, disturbed areas and roadsides.

Overwintering Strategy:   Small Migration

There are usually two broods, and this species can be expected from May through October.

Caterpillar Host Plants:
More than 100 host plants have been noted; favorites include Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum). Others include Asters (Aster species), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Joe pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Sunflowers (Helianthus species), Liatris (Liatris species), Black eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta and R. Subtomentosa), Cup plant and Compass plant (Silphium species), Goldenrods (Solidago species), Milk vetch (Astragalus species), Prairie clover (Dalea species or Petalostemon species), and Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)

This species is the least common of the Vanessa sp. (which include the American Lady and Red Admiral) in Wisconsin.

Overwintering Strategy

Two-way migration: Adult migrates from Wisconsin to Central Mexico
Small migration: Adult migrates from Wisconsin to southern US
Immigrant: Adult migrates into Wisconsin from warmer areas and don't fly south in winter
Adult Butterfly: Hibernates overwinter as an adult butterfly
Eggs: Eggs laid on stems, twigs or foot plants overwinter in diapause
Caterpillar: Caterpillars make nests on the base of plants and hibernate until spring
Chrysalis: Caterpillars shed their last skin, form a chrysalis and enter diapause.

For more information, read: Where Do Butterflies Go In Winter?

Further Information:   

 Design A Butterfly Garden
 Take The Butterfly Quiz
 Monarch Life Cycle
 Butterflies and Moths of North America
 Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Assn (NABA)
 The Butterfly Site

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