Ladies’ day out in my garden

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), that is.

Painted lady and monarch on verbena October 4, 2017

Painted ladies are sometimes referred to as cosmopolitans because their range is nearly worldwide. They are not resident in New Jersey, but they often migrate to this region from the deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Their abundance here varies by year. This year, 2017, has been an irruption year for painted lady migration. Online sources from across the continent, from Colorado to Iowa to Montreal and spots in between, have reported their epic migration. They have been abundant in my New Jersey garden this fall for sure, as have monarchs. What a joy.

Painted lady on verbena September 11, 2017

Painted ladies are smaller than monarchs but usually larger than American ladies, with whom they are often confused. Female painted ladies are somewhat larger than males. Painted ladies have an orange spot enclosed by a black median band forming a semicircle on their topside forewing, as can be seen above, which distinguishes them from American ladies.

A sure identification of a painted lady is the 4 or perhaps 5 eye-spots on its lower hindwing, as can be seen in the photo below.

Painted lady on verbena September 25, 2017

American ladies have 2 big eye-spots as opposed to the painted lady’s 4 or 5 smaller ones. I don’t have photos of American ladies yet, but photos of them can be viewed at the NABA North Jersey Club website. Look under True Brushfoots.

In Butterflies of North America, Glassberg names red admirals as the third lady that migrates to this area. I photographed a red admiral in my garden on July 10, 2015. See the post Red admirals for details. On October 13 of this year, I spotted a red admiral in my garden but did not get a photo of it.

Larval host plants for painted ladies are first and foremost thistles, which I don’t have. I’m not sure that I want them. Gochfeld and Burger, in Butterflies of New Jersey, suggest burdock and hollyhocks as other possible host plants. I allowed a burdock to grow once, just to see how awesome it might grow to be. I pulled it out and sent it curbside for municipal pickup when the absolutely frightening seed pods appeared, so I think burdock is out for me as well. I’ve always wanted to grow hollyhocks like I remember in my grandmother’s garden. Maybe I’ll give old-fashioned hollyhocks a try. Hmm. However, according to Marent and Orenstein, in Butterflies, painted lady caterpillars feed on more than 100 species of plants. That may be a reason for their worldwide presence.

Painted lady adult butterflies love verbena and zinnias for nectaring, just like every other butterfly and bee that visits my garden. If you decide to grow zinnias to attract butterflies and bees, remember to grow the old-fashioned single-blossom ones. The newer double-blossom hybrids don’t have nectar and therefore will not attract wildlife.

I planted verbena from seed once several years ago. Since then it has self-sown itself and comes up volunteer without fail. Verbena particularly loves the rich soil and abundant water in the vegetable garden, as what plant doesn’t. It’s a weed-like nuisance at times, except that it’s beautiful, and I’m always entertained by the butterflies and bees that visit while I’m working with the vegetables.

On September 25, at 9:37 a.m., I took 5 photos, in 28 seconds of time, of a painted lady nectaring on a verbena. The photos demonstrate the butterfly’s proboscis and antennas quite clearly, as you can see below.


The first 3 photos show the proboscis, or “tongue,” deep in a verbena blossom. The proboscis is likened to a drinking straw and is used to suck up liquids like nectar. Marent and Orenstein, in Butterflies, report that in most butterflies, the length of the proboscis is perhaps 80% of the butterfly’s body. The last 2 photos above show the proboscis curling up under the butterfly’s mouth.

The antennas are also clearly in evidence. In the first 2 photos, one antenna is a blur of motion. The clubs at the end of the antennas distinguish butterflies from moths. They contain chemoreceptors used for smelling. In the last 3 photos, the antennas are stationary.

The fourth photo shows a front leg in motion. Finally, look at those eyes. According to Butterflies of North America, butterfly eyes are composed of subunits, each of which functions as an eye as we know it. Imagine seeing like a butterfly–just for a few seconds.

According to Butterflies, a painted lady may visit 150 flowers in less than an hour. Since the lifespan of most adult flying butterflies is measured in mere weeks, there’s no time to waste.

Painted lady on verbena October 4, 2017

NABA North Jersey Club website gives painted lady flight dates as mainly June to October with extreme dates in North Jersey of 4/5—12/22, so these October painted ladies fall well within that range. But what are they doing in my garden.

Painted lady on verbena October 4, 2017

Butterflies are always intent on one thing. To reproduce their cycle of life–adult butterfly, egg, caterpillar, pupa, back to adult butterfly. Some butterflies depend on diapause, a temporary suspension of their life cycle, while they wait for better conditions to hatch from an egg or to emerge from a pupa. Painted ladies are not known to diapause. Also, they overwinter as adult butterflies. If they try to overwinter in New Jersey, they will probably freeze to death. Our first nip of frost was on October 17 this year, when the thermometer in my garden dipped to 30°F.

So the flying adult butterflies in my garden could attempt to reproduce a new brood, or perhaps they already have. Or they could start a southerly migration. I assume they have to direct their energies one way or the other–that they don’t have enough energy or time to do both. Early October was unusually warm here this year. Perhaps their course of action is influenced by the weather, or perhaps by day length.

Painted lady on verbena October 10, 2017

Butterflies of New Jersey, published in 1997, reports that painted lady migrations are one-way trips northward, where they breed and die. But, as later studies indicate, maybe not always.

Everyone agrees that the northward migration of painted ladies is spectacular. It doesn’t happen every year. When the deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest experience rain and the wildflowers bloom, the butterfly population explodes. When there’s no food left in the desert due to overpopulation, the painted ladies migrate northward in huge numbers.

Painted lady on verbena October 10, 2017

In September of this year, painted ladies were reported by the National Weather Service to be flying across the Front Range of Colorado in a 70-mile wide mass visible on weather radar. What is not clear to me is whether this migration was northerly or southerly–or perhaps even downward from higher altitudes. At this time of year, one would think they were headed south, and most seemingly knee-jerk online accounts of the phenomenon assume a southerly fall migration, usually comparing the painted-lady migration with the better known monarch migration. But, as was reported in the Boulder Daily Camera, Jan Chu, a volunteer with Boulder County Parks & Open Space, thinks the spectacular show of painted ladies along the Front Range was a special fall migration northward from the Anza-Borego region of Southern California, which had more moisture than usual this year.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18, 2017

A northerly migration may be bad news for the painted ladies in my garden. If they are still northward bound, they may be nearing the end of their adult flying lives, and the coming frosts will undoubtedly kill them. On the other hand, it’s possible that these painted ladies of October are a successful brood born and bred here. Maybe they are young ones getting ready for a southward migration. Or maybe there’s a mix of old and young painted ladies. Much is not known about painted lady migration, and I personally know even less, but I’m trying to make sense of it.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18 2017

In 2009, an enormous northward European migration of painted ladies occurred from North Africa across the Mediterranean to as far north as northern Norway, a distance of some 4,000 miles, according to Butterflies. During 2 days in May, 2 million butterflies were radar-tracked crossing the English coastline. Butterflies reminds us that it may take as many as 6 generations of painted ladies, hatched at different points along the route, to complete a migration cycle.

What Butterflies doesn’t make clear is that the 2009 data include a return migration of painted ladies at high altitudes. BBC Nature reports that while radar tracked some 11 million painted ladies entering the UK at high altitudes in the spring of 2009, it also counted 26 million departing in the fall.

The BBC Nature article mentions a “Pied Piper hypothesis” concerning painted lady migration–that painted ladies make a one-way migration north from North Africa to the UK only to die in winter. But the 2009 data prove otherwise–that painted ladies do indeed complete the migration cycle of some 9,000 miles, often at high altitudes out of sight except by radar.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18, 2017

Well, that’s pretty exciting news regarding the painted ladies in my garden. Perhaps they are awaiting propitious conditions for a southerly migration. Maybe not the tattered ones, like the painted lady in the photo above, who looks as ragged and worn as the verbena and zinnia blossoms. But perhaps the younger, more able ones, are awaiting the right conditions for a southwesterly migration.

In a Montreal Gazette article, Max Larrivée, an entomologist at the Montréal Insectarium and founder of, was reported as saying that the early arrival of painted ladies in April and early May allowed for 2 generations instead of the usual 1, creating a huge population of painted ladies in the eastern half of North America. Larrivée believes that their southern migration this fall was interrupted by strong winds from the south that forced them to the ground where they are nectaring on fall flowers, waiting for a shift in winds to the southwest that will carry them back to Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. He adds that some painted ladies may be migrating already at such high altitudes that we are not aware of them.

Painted lady on verbena October 19, 2017

The strong winds from the south Larrivée mentions must have been the unsettled weather conditions brought on by this fall’s hurricanes, which were not destructive in this area but did result in a period of wind and rain coming up the coast.

Painted lady on verbena October 19, 2017

Many reports of abundant painted lady populations this summer and fall have counted hundreds or at least dozens of butterflies. I have seen 5 at the same time at most. More likely I see 1 or 2 at the same time, which I consider an abundance in my small garden. Still, I wonder if these few painted ladies are capable of joining up with the thousands that may be migrating southward at high altitudes.

Painted lady on verbena October 28, 2017

My last photo of a painted lady was taken on October 28, as seen above. It still seems in good shape for migrating. I can only hope so.

One final thought concerning my research into painted lady butterflies. Many online sites are in the business of selling caterpillars for children’s science projects and adult butterflies as release packages for weddings, funerals, and memorial services. Sources include individual sellers’ websites as well as sellers on Amazon and eBay. Release packages are being sold for as much as $500. I’m surprised and appalled by this, somewhat naively, I guess.

The best response to this practice is perhaps on the NABA website in the FAQs & Links section, which I have quoted in the paragraph below:

This well-meaning but misguided practice spreads diseases to natural populations, inappropriately mixes genetically distinct populations of the same species, may disrupt migratory behavior of native butterflies, confuses scientific studies of butterfly migrations, and usually results in the untimely death of the butterflies released.

Me again. The untimely death part bothers me most. It also seems to me that children who grow up thinking it’s a good thing to mail order caterpillars are more likely to plan weddings with release packages of adult butterflies.

In an article on the NABA website entitled “There’s No Need to Release Butterflies–They’re Already Free,” butterfly experts call the practice of releasing adult butterflies at weddings and other festive occasions a form of environment pollution.

From a quick online search, it seems that while monarchs are no longer advertised for butterfly release envelopes, painted ladies have become a popular choice. Perhaps the excitement about their epic migration this year will save them as well. Let’s hope so.

Monarch and painted lady on verbena October 28, 2017

October 28 was my last sight of the mighty migrating butterflies, in the form of 1 monarch and 1 painted lady, as seen above, in my New Jersey garden. Here’s hoping for their return next year and for many years thereafter.





2 Comments on “Ladies’ day out in my garden

  1. Pingback: Home-grown monarchs and milkweed – daysingarden

  2. Pingback: Laval food plants for great spangled fritillary and common buckeye butterflies – daysingarden

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