Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui)

Painted lady butterfly on a flower

Mario Pfeiffer/EyeEm/Getty Images

The painted lady, also known as the cosmopolitan or thistle butterfly, inhabits backyards and meadows throughout most of the world. Schoolchildren often recognize this butterfly, as raising these butterflies is a popular science activity in elementary classrooms.


The aptly named painted lady wears splashes and dots of colors on her wings. The adult butterfly's wings are orange and brown on the upper side. The leading edge of the forewing appears black with a prominent white bar and smaller white spots. The underside of the wings is markedly duller, in shades of brown and gray. When the butterfly sits at rest with wings folded together, four small eyespots are noticeable on the hindwing. Painted ladies reach 5-6 centimeters in width, smaller than some other brush-footed butterflies like the monarchs.

The painted lady caterpillars are more difficult to identify, since their appearance changes with each instar. The early instars appear worm-like, with light gray bodies and a darker, bulbous head. As they mature, the larvae develop noticeable spines, with a dark body mottled with white and orange markings. The final instar retains the spines, but has a lighter color. The first few instars live in a silken web on a leaf of the host plant.

Vanessa cardui is an irruptive migrant, a species that occasionally migrates without regard to geography or season. The painted lady lives year-round in the tropics; in cooler climates, you may see them in spring and summer. Some years, when southern populations reach large numbers or weather conditions are right, painted ladies will migrate north and expand their range temporarily. These migrations sometimes occur in phenomenal numbers, filling the skies with butterflies. The adults that reach the colder areas will not survive the winter, however. Painted ladies rarely migrate south.


Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Arthropoda
Class - Insecta
Order - Lepidoptera
Family - Nymphalidae
Genus - Vanessa
Species - Vanessa cardui


The adult painted lady nectars on many plants, especially the composite flowers of the Asteraceae plant family. Favored nectar sources include thistle, aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, and joe-pye weed. Painted lady caterpillars feed on a variety of host plants, particularly thistle, mallow, and hollyhock.

Life Cycle

Painted lady butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis with four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

  1. Egg - Mint green, barrel-shaped eggs are laid singly on the leaves of host plants, and hatch in 3-5 days.
  2. Larva - The caterpillar has five instars over 12-18 days.
  3. Pupa - The chrysalis stage lasts about 10 days.
  4. Adult - Butterflies live for just two weeks.

Special Adaptations and Defenses

The painted lady's mottled colors look much like military camouflage and provide effective cover from potential predators. The small caterpillars hide in their silk nests.


The painted lady lives in open meadows and fields, disturbed areas and roadsides, and generally any sunny place that provides appropriate nectar and host plants.


Vanessa cardui lives on all continents except Australia and Antarctica and is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world. The painted lady is sometimes called the cosmopolite or cosmopolitan because of this wide distribution.

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Your Citation
Hadley, Debbie. "Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hadley, Debbie. (2023, April 5). Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui). Retrieved from Hadley, Debbie. "Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).