Steven Cheshire's British Butterflies
British Butterflies: Species: Species Account - The Painted Lady:
Painted Lady
Vanessa cardui (Linnaeus, 1758)

Painted Lady egg.
ova
  Painted Lady caterpillar.
larva
  Painted Lady chrysalis
pupa
Painted Lady
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Nomenclature
Insecta: Lepidoptera : Family Nymphalidae: Subfamily Nymphalinae : Genus Vanessa: Species cardui:
Description

The Painted Lady is one of our largest butterflies and can be seen in Britain throughout the year although they are at there most common in mid to late summer. The upper wings are buff-orange near the body with dark brown/black markings with white patches towards the tips of the wings. The hind wings are also buff-orange with a row of dark brown/black circular spots. At the tip of the hind wings, a small area of blue colouration is present.

The underside of the wings are pale buff-brown/grey overall but on closer inspection, the pattern consists of a lattice of white veins in-between which are patches of dark browns and orange in different tones. Towards the outer edge of the hind wings, a row of distinctive metallic blue eyespots, circled with cream, red and black shimmer like jewels.

Newly emerged Painted Lady butterflies are often described as being Salmon Pink in colour, but as they age, the colours become more muted as described above.

The Painted Lady is a powerful flyer and is well known for its ability to migrate great distances. In Britain, although the species breeds, it is unable to survive our winters and does not hibernate in Britain. There may be individuals which occasionally survive the winter on the south coast.

The vast majority of the Painted Lady butterflies seen in Britain are the result of migration. Each spring, individuals migrate from North Africa. Some make the whole journey across Europe to the UK stopping occasionally to feed, while others may be 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation individuals which breed and migrate north in stages. Some arrive in early spring but in most years, the main influx of these butterflies starts in late May into early July. Numbers in Britain vary from year to year depending upon breeding conditions in north Africa and Europe and favourable weather systems which help to bring them across the English Channel. In good years, it is possible to watch Painted Ladies flying in from the sea in large numbers.

In 2009, breeding conditions for the Painted Lady in North Africa were perfect. Millions of butterflies migrated north as temperatures rose during the spring months. By the end of May, these butterflies had reached British shores and the obvious northern migration could be seen anywhere in Britain with individuals even being reported to have reached the Shetland Islands and even further north in Iceland.

As the urge to migrate slows by mid summer, Painted Lady butterflies congregate in areas where there is plenty of nectar. Grasslands containing Knapweed are popular while large areas of Creeping Thistle provide not only food for the adults feeding on the flowers, but also food for the caterpillars of the next generation which feed on the thistle leaves. On sunny days, the butterflies are very active feeding on wild flowers but as soon as the sun disappears, individuals tend to leave the nectar source and find a bare patch of earth, stone or rock on which to bask and absorb heat with their wings spread wide open.

When they are feeding, Painted Lady butterflies tend to be easy to approach. When basking or resting they are more weary of any movement and will either quickly shut their wings or fly away only to settle again nearby.

The female may lay up to 200 eggs; each one is laid on a different leaf/plant to the others. When the caterpillars hatch they first eat the underside of the leaf and are vulnerable to parasitic flies which lay their eggs on or inside the young caterpillar. The larvae of the parasitic fly feed on the caterpillars internal organs as it grows before they kill it and emerge and pupate in small silk capsules. As the Painted Lady caterpillar grows, it constructs a protective tent of folded leaves and discarded thorns which the caterpillar cannot eat and this is all fastened together with silk.

The caterpillar is black and covered in short forked spines, with a line of pale yellow/white spots along each side of its body. Fully grown, the caterpillar pupates (turns into a chrysalis), suspended by its tail within a large tend of leaves. (In captivity, the pupae are often suspended on the walls or roof of the cage rather than inside a tent of leaves).

The pupae of the Painted Lady are very similar to other butterflies in the Nymphalidae family having a metallic gold jewel like appearance. The pupae will wiggle rapidly if disturbed. The pupae hang suspended from the larval food plant or nearby vegetation and remain in this state for between 7 and 20 days before the Adult emerges. Between 5 and 24 hours prior to the adult emerging from the pupae the pupae case becomes translucent and the wing coloration of the Adult can be clearly seen while the general overall colour of the pupae is grey/blue in colour. The main emergence occurs in August and September.

As temperatures fall in late summer/early autumn, Painted Lady butterflies either stay in Britain and die here or make the return journey south (weather permitting) to mainland Europe where the species can continue to breed but in lower numbers.

Habitat
The Painted Lady may be seen in any habitat although they do tend to congregate in open sunny areas where there are plenty of Thistles which provide food for both adults and larvae.
Distribution
The Painted Lady is found throughout the UK even as far north as the Shetland Islands. As a migratory insect it is a common sight to see large numbers of rather worn individuals which may have arrived in the UK from as far afield as North Africa Central Asia and the Middle East. Because of its migratory abilities and strong flight, the Painted Lady can be seen in almost every environment in the UK but the best places to see Painted Ladies is in a flowery location, in full sun where Thistles grow or where Common Knapweed is in flower.
Where to see the Painted Lady in the British Isles
The Painted Lady is found throughout the UK even as far north as the Shetland Islands. As a migratory insect it is a common sight to see large numbers of rather worn individuals which may have arrived in the UK from as far afield as North Africa Central Asia and the Middle East. Because of its migratory abilities and strong flight, the Painted Lady can be seen in almost every environment in the UK but the best places to see Painted Ladies is in a flowery location, in full sun where Thistles grow or where Common Knapweed is in flower.
Other notes
The Painted Lady is a remarkable butterfly a strong flyer capable of traveling huge distances making one of the most common butterflies worldwide. Much of the beauty of the Painted Lady is overlooked. The underwing coloration and eye spots have amazing detail which is usually only visible from close quarters.
Lifecycle chart
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Flight chart
JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember
The lifecycle and flight charts should be regarded as approximate guides to the Painted Lady in Britain. Specific lifecycle states, adult emergence and peak flight times vary from year to year due to variations in weather conditions.
IUCN category status 2010 5   IUCN category status 2007 34
--awaiting data-- --awaiting data--

5Fox, R., Warren, M., Brereton, T. M., Roy, D. B. & Robinson, A.
(2010) A new Red List of British Butterflies. Insect Conservation and Diversity.
Least Concern Least Concern

3Fox, R., Warren, M & Brereton, T.
(2007) New Red List of British Butterflies. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham.

4More information about IUCN categories.
Wingspan
58-74mm
UK status
Migrant
Larval foodplants
The female Painted Lady will lay her small green eggs individually on Thistles (Cirsium spp.) and Thistles (Carduus spp.) are the primary larval foodplant. Mallows (Malva spp.) Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) and various other plants are also sometimes used.
Butterflies of Britain ID Chart
Your personal guide to British Butterflies. This 8-panel laminated chart is designed for speedy butterfly identification in the field. Ideal for anyone interested in identifying butterflies, perfect for children and adults and ideal for outdoor use, laminated, shower-proof and robust. Get your copy today.
Butterflies of Britain (Laminated ID Chart).
Online store
Visit our online store for many more butterfly related books and gifts.
Population trends 1
UK Population trend 1995-2004 up by 118%
UK Population trend 1976-2004 up by 520%

1Fox, R., Asher. J., Brereton. T., Roy, D & Warren, M. (2006) The State of Butterflies in Britain & Ireland, Pices, Oxford.
UK BAP status 2
UK BAP status not listed (link)

2For information about the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, visit the JNCC web site jncc.defra.gov.uk.

National Biodiversity Network Gateway
National Biodiversity Network Gateway Distribution Map



Areas in and indicate a contraction in distribution of the Painted Lady except in Ireland where data is only available up until 1999.

* Records shown in outside the natural distribution may be the result of illegal or accidental releases by breeders or, depending upon the species, migrant individuals from mainland Europe.

Key to map*
= 2000 to 2010 inclusive (current distribution)
= records from 1950 to 1999 inclusive
= records from 1900 to 1949 inclusive
Records prior to 1st January 1900 are not shown.

The NBN Gateway records are shown on the map right. (See terms and conditions).

More data is available on the Painted Lady on the NBN Gateway web site.
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References
For full details of books and reports mentioned on this web site, view the references page.

Find out more online*
Painted Lady can be found on Peter Eeles excellent UK Butterflies web site.
Painted Lady can be found on Matt Rowlings excellent European Butterflies web site.

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Photographs of the Painted Lady
Image ID BB2400 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB2400 ©
Image ID BB2399 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB2399 ©
Image ID BB2398 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB2398 ©
Image ID BB2397 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB2397 ©
Image ID BB1935 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB1935 ©
Image ID BB1934 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB1934 ©
Image ID BB1395 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB1395 ©
Image ID BB1394 - Painted Lady - © Steven Cheshire
Painted Lady female (imago)
BB1394 ©
Image ID BB1223 - Painted Lady - © Debbie Cheshire
Painted Lady unknown (imago)
BB1223 ©
Image ID BB1222 - Painted Lady - © Debbie Cheshire
Painted Lady unknown (imago)
BB1222 ©
There are 57 photographs of the Painted Lady in our stock photo library.
View more photographs of the Painted Lady as a thumbnail gallery or as a slideshow.
Aberrations and forms
There are 3 named aberrant forms of the Painted Lady currently listed. Find out more about aberrants here.

ab. carduelina - Alpheraky 1908
ab. ocellata - Rebel 1910
ab. rogeri - Meilhan 1929