10 Fascinating Facts About the Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady Butterfly
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The painted lady 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. As common as they are, though, painted ladies have some interesting attributes, as these 10 facts demonstrate.

They Are the World's Most Widely Distributed Butterfly

Painted lady butterflies inhabit every continent except Australia and Antarctica. You can find painted ladies everywhere from meadows to vacant lots. Although they live only in warmer climates, painted ladies often migrate to colder regions in spring and fall, making them the butterflies with the widest distribution of any species. 

They Are Also Called Thistle or Cosmopolitan Butterflies

The painted lady is called the thistle butterfly because thistle plants are its favorite nectar plant for food. It is called the cosmopolitan butterfly because of its global distribution.

They Have Unusual Migration Patterns

The painted lady is an irruptive migrant, meaning that it migrates independently of any seasonal or geographic patterns. Some evidence suggests that painted lady migrations may be linked to the El Niño climate pattern. In Mexico and some other regions, it appears that migration is sometimes related to overpopulation.

The migrating populations that move from North Africa to Europe may include millions of butterflies. In spring, painted ladies fly low when migrating, usually only 6 to 12 feet above the ground. This makes them highly visible to butterfly watchers but also makes them susceptible to colliding with cars. At other times, painted ladies migrate at such high altitudes that they are not observed at all, simply appearing in a new region unexpectedly. 

They Can Fly Fast and Far

These medium-sized butterflies can cover a lot of ground, up to 100 miles per day during their migrations. A painted lady is capable of reaching a speed of nearly 30 miles per hour. Painted ladies reach northern areas well ahead of some of their more famous migrating cousins, like monarch butterflies. And because they get such an early start to their spring travel, migrating painted ladies are able to feed on spring annuals, like fiddlenecks (Amsinckia).

They Do Not Overwinter in Cold Regions

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. 

Their Caterpillars Eat Thistle

Thistle, which can be an invasive weed, is one of the painted lady caterpillar's 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 carduimeans "butterfly of thistle." 

They Can Damage Soybean Crops

When the butterflies are found in large numbers, they can do serious damage to soybean crops. The damage occurs during the larval stages when the caterpillars eat soybean foliage after hatching from eggs.

Males Use the Perch-and-Patrol Method to Find Mates

Male painted ladies actively patrol their territory for receptive females in the afternoon. Should a male butterfly find a mate, it will usually retreat with its partner to a treetop, where they will mate overnight.

Their Caterpillars Weave Silk Tents

Unlike other caterpillars in the genus Vanessa, painted lady larvae construct their tents from silk. You'll 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, They Go to Ground

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