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7 Fascinating Facts About Painted Lady Butterflies

Interesting Traits and Behaviors of Painted Lady Butterflies

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Painted lady adult.

Painted lady adult.

Photo: © Flickr user jpockele (CC license)

Are you raising painted lady butterflies in your elementary school classroom? Do these familiar butterflies visit your yard? Learn more about the painted lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui. Here are 7 fascinating facts about painted ladies.

1. Painted ladies sometimes migrate.
The painted lady is an irruptive migrant, meaning it’s a species that migrates independent of any seasonal or geographic patterns. Some evidence suggests that painted lady migrations may be linked to the El Niño climate pattern.

2. When painted ladies do migrate, they often do so in large numbers.
When conditions are right, the painted lady migration may number in the hundreds of thousands of individuals. The population that moves from North Africa to Europe includes millions of butterflies. 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 rather susceptible to colliding with cars.

3. Painted ladies fly fast and far.
These medium-sized butterflies can cover a lot of ground, up to 100 miles per day during their migration. 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 the monarch butterflies.

4. The painted lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world.
The painted lady inhabits every continent except Australia and Antarctica. You can find painted ladies everywhere from meadows to vacant lots. It's sometimes called the cosmopolitan butterfly, because of its global distribution.

5. Painted lady 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 cardui – means "butterfly of thistle."

6. Males use the perch and patrol method for finding mates.
Male painted ladies actively patrol their territory for receptive females in the afternoon. Should he find a mate, he will usually retreat with his partner to a treetop, where they will mate overnight.

7. Painted lady caterpillars weave 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.

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