Painted Ladies

~ Kentucky Pollinators & Backyard Wildlife ~


Painted ladies look similar to another, closely-related, butterfly found in Kentucky called the American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis). One way to tell them apart is to look at their hindwings. Painted ladies have 4-5 smaller spots along the edge, while American ladies have 2 larger spots along the edge. Photo credit: Claude Bélanger, cc-by 2.0

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are common Kentucky butterflies that can be found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. It is often considered the most globally widespread butterfly in the world. Painted ladies are primarily orange and brown with some white highlights. Their wingspan is only 2-3 inches wide. While this little butterfly may not be as flashy as some of the larger butterflies, it is really an interesting species.

Another common name for the painted lady is the thistle butterfly because they love to feed on thistles and other members of the Aster family such as blazing stars, asters, joe-pye weeds, and ironweeds. However, they will also nectar on red clovers, milkweeds, buttonbush, and flowers in other families. Unlike some other species, painted lady caterpillars are not picky eaters and have been found on over 100 different species of plants.

Each year, this small butterfly migrates thousands of miles. On our side of the world, the painted lady migration starts in Mexico in the spring and spreads north and northeast before doing the reverse in the fall. How far north they migrate each year depends on the weather and other factors. On the other side of the world, the painted lady migration starts in sub-Saharan Africa and under favorable weather conditions can go as far north as the Arctic Circle – a distance of over 9,000 miles and much further than the migration route of the monarch butterfly.

Unlike the more familiar monarch migration, the painted lady migration isn’t as structured. Monarchs have very precise wintering locations. They also arrive at and leave the wintering grounds around the same time every year. Not so with the painted lady. The painted lady doesn’t have set wintering locations and its arrival and departure time varies from year to year.

Painted ladies can be found on almost every continent in the world and can migrate further than the more familiar monarch butterflies. Photo credit: AJC1, cc-by-sa 2.0 

Like the monarch migration, much of the painted lady migration is accomplished through successive generations. Migrating through successive generations just means that the first generation of butterflies migrate a certain distance, lay eggs, and die, then the eggs hatch, mature, and the new generation of butterflies migrate further, lay eggs, die, and so forth. Each generation of butterflies moves the migration a little further north or south, depending on the time of year. The butterflies that return to the wintering grounds in the fall may be the great- or great-great- grandchildren of the butterflies that left in the spring.

However, new research on the painted lady migration in Europe has discovered something very exciting and interesting. Some painted ladies will migrate the entire one-way trip – up to 2,500 miles! That’s incredible for a little butterfly that only has a wingspan of a couple inches!




Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.



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2 thoughts on “Painted Ladies

  • Midge Krebs

    Just discovered this. How amazing! A real little winner with such flexibility. Enjoyed learning about the successive generations on the migration route and then that surprise of the 2,000+ marathon of a little one! I will appreciate these little visitors even more.