While rambling through my gardens and even strolling by my neighbors’ boulevard gardens when walking down the street I have been struck this fall by the number of butterflies hovering over and feeding on late blooming plants. My first reaction was that these were late migrating monarchs but further inspection proved them to be Painted Ladies (Vanessa Cardi). These brown and orange beauties closely resemble Monarchs, but are generally somewhat smaller, with a two to three inch wing span and lack the distinct black markings of the Monarch. A habit they share with the monarch is that they also migrate to the Southwest U.S. or Mexico for the winter; so the ones I have seen feeding this fall have been preparing themselves for the long journey to their winter homes.
The Painted Lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world. They can be found on every continent but Antarctica and Australia and can be seen as far north as Canada below the Arctic. They like to live in open and undisturbed areas, like prairies and in gardens. They hibernate in warm climates in the winter and migrate to northern climates in the spring. They don’t always make it as far north as Minnesota in great numbers, but population explosions, usually following rainy periods in the deserts where they over-winter, send more of them farther north. According the Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, this year’s northern migration was the largest in over 30 years.
Unlike the Monarch, which only lays its eggs on milkweed, the female Painted Lady (of course there are male Painted Ladies) lays its eggs on the top of over 100 host plants. Their particular favorites include thistles, hollyhocks, mallow and some legumes. The caterpillars live in silk nests on the host plants and eat the leaves. The adult butterflies prefer to drink the nectar of plants that are 3-6 feet tall and some of their favorites are thistles, asters cosmos blazing star, ironweed, joe pye weed, milkweed and red clover. Because of the preference for both feeding and laying eggs on thistle, the Painted Lady is sometimes called the Thistle Butterfly and is sometimes referred to as the Cosmopolitan because it is so widely distributed.
You can help the Painted Lady fuel up for the migration by having some of their preferred plants in your garden such as asters in the fall.