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Painted Lady Butterfly – Identification, Lifespan, Fun Facts

The painted lady (Vanessa Cardui) butterfly is the most widespread butterfly species in the world. You can find this butterfly on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The fascinating aspect of the painted lady butterfly surrounds its migration. Since it cannot survive winter and cold climates, it must migrate when the weather changes.

Raising Painted Lady ButterfliesPainted lady butterflies start their migration in spring out of the deserts of northern Mexico and Southwestern US. You can see swarms of these butterflies flying low as they head to colonize the western and mid-western US and Canada south of the Arctic.

The first adults arrive in June to begin egg-laying. The journey from Mexico to their destination takes up to six generations as they have a lifespan of 15 – 29 days. Painted lady is such an impressive butterfly, and here’s everything you need to know about it, including how to raise painted ladies.

What Is a Painted Lady and How Would I Identify One?

A painted lady is a medium-sized butterfly with orange and black markings. It belongs to the Nymphalidae family, characterized by reduced forelimbs covered in sensory hairs. Painted ladies use sensory hairs to navigate the environment, which is how they choose the host plants.

A painted lady grows to a wingspan of 2.0 to 2.5 inches and has four small, blue eye spots on the hind-wing. From above, painted ladies have a pale orange color on the upper side of the wings, while the fore wings have black tips with white spots. When you look closer, you will find that painted ladies have a bold band in the middle forming a semi-circle.

Now, when you look at the painted lady wing’s underside, you will find that it’s predominantly rose-pink with a black, brown, olive, and gray pattern. It also has white spots contrasting the black wing tips.

Painted lady caterpillars have black bodies studded with yellow spines and black-tipped spiky hairs. They also have two thin lines on the black (dorsal) side.

Where Did the Term Painted Lady Come From?

Painted lady butterflies look like they have watercolor paint on their wings. The butterfly is named after its caterpillar’s favorite host plant, thistle, and is commonly referred to as the thistle butterfly or the Cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan because of its worldwide distribution.

Can You Touch Painted Lady Butterflies?

You can touch painted lady butterflies but be very careful. This is because you could rub off many of its tiny wing scales, which can cause the wing to tear or fall off. So, if you have the opportunity to pet one, be extremely careful.

Painted lady caterpillars, on the other hand, are safe to handle, and you can have them crawl on your fingers to avoid harming them.

Life Cycle and Life Span of a Painted Lady

A painted lady butterfly starts as a small green egg that the female lays on the host leaves or flowers. The egg hatches a larva in 3 – 5 days, where the caterpillar will be in this stage for 12 – 18 days. Pupa or chrysalis last about 10 days, and adult butterflies live only two to four weeks.

Where are Painted Ladies Native To?

Painted lady butterflies are long-distance migrants. They can be found all over the world. Moreover, they are irruptive migrants meaning they migrate without regard for geography or season. You will see them year-round in the tropics and spring and summer in the cooler regions.

Painted Lady: Habitat

The painted lady lives in disturbed areas, open meadows, fields, and roadsides. Typically, you will find painted ladies in any sunny place with appropriate host plants and nectar.

Diet of Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted lady caterpillars like to eat thistle, which is an invasive plant. They also feed on mallow and hollyhock and can-do serious damage to soybeans in the caterpillar stage. However, adult painted ladies’ nectar on many different plants, and are fond of composite flowers of Asteraceae plant family. They nectar on the thistle, aster, cosmos, joe-Pye weed, ironweed, and blazing star.

Raising Painted Lady Butterflies

Painted lady butterflies are great to raise since they are distributed worldwide. The trick is in finding the caterpillars. Nonetheless, if you’re serious about raising painted lady butterflies, you will want to look for thistles when they have flower buds.

Here’s how to raise painted lady butterflies.

Step 1- Find the Caterpillars

Painted lady caterpillars live in a web-like silk tent. Each caterpillar builds its own nest, and these nest are what make it easy to spot the caterpillar. Look for these nests when the thistle is about to flower. You’ll have to open the nest to collect the caterpillar.

Bring gloves because the thistle is prickly, and the poo at the bottom of the web is gross. Then, go ahead and collect the spiky-haired caterpillars.

Step 2- Caring for the Caterpillars

Caterpillars go through different stages called instars before they pupate. At every stage, the caterpillar will outgrow its skin and come out bigger and in a different color. The colors may differ significantly from stage to stage.

Place the caterpillars in a jar with small thistle stalks to feed on. Pop-up butterfly enclosures also work well. Be sure to clean the frass (poo) out of the jar because it can make them sick.

Step 3 – Pupating Stage

Painted lady caterpillars

When the caterpillars come to the end of the fifth instar, they suddenly become active as they search for a good location to pupate. At this point, you can place the thistle twig such that it’s hanging from the lid or hang a paper towel with a rubber band. You only want to give them a place to hang upside down.

Once the caterpillars assume the pupating position, they will transform in the next few hours. So, don’t go far because you will want to witness the whole thing.

Step 4 – Transfer to A Large Enclosure

Once the caterpillar pupates, the outer skin will be crunched up at the base of the chrysalis. Let it harden for a day, then transfer it to a large enclosure. You don’t want it to emerge in a crowded jar because the wings may become misshapen. Include a paper towel hanging down or the twig since the chrysalis will need to hang from it to pump its wings.

Step 5 – Painted Lady Butterfly Emerges

After about 10 days, the painted lady butterfly will emerge. Congratulations! You’ve successfully raised a painted lady. At this point, releasing them into the wild is best because they only have a few weeks to explore.

Differences Between a Painted Lady and A Monarch Butterfly

  Painted Lady Monarch
Wingspan 2.0 – 2.5 inches 3 – 4 inches
Identification Brown spots on wings Black veins on wings
Distribution All continents except Australia and Antarctica North, central, and south America, Western Europe, India, Australia, and some pacific islands
Habitat Fields, open meadows, roadsides, and any open place Gardens, agricultural areas, managed corridors, natural, and restored areas
Diet Thistles, cosmos, blazing star, New England aster, Mexican sunflower, joe-Pye weed, purple cornflower, and zinnias Milkweed
Migration Irregular routes Canada from Mexico Regular routes Canada from Mexico
Toxic No Yes


Fun Facts About the Painted Lady Butterfly

  1. Female painted ladies lay about 500 eggs in their two to four weeks lifespan. It’s impressive because even the best-laying chicken breed can only lay five to six eggs per week.
  2. Painted ladies fly 9,000 miles from tropical Africa to the Arctic circle during migration.
  3. They can eat 200x their birth weight in two weeks and increase their body mass by up to 1000 times during this time.
  4. Painted lady caterpillars produce silk which they weave into a tent to live in during the caterpillar stage.
  5. Although they are brightly colored, their wings are a bolted brown when closed, enabling them to blend in with their surroundings.
  6. Painted ladies have heat sensors on their wings. That’s why they can’t fly when it’s too cold.
  7. The population of painted lady butterflies has increased by 32% since the 1970s.
  8. Male painted ladies find mates using the perch-and-patrol method. They actively patrol for mates in their territory to find receptive females. Once they find a receptive female, they will retreat to a treetop, where they will mate overnight.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Pink Lady Butterfly

1.     Is a painted lady butterfly rare?

A painted lady is the most common butterfly species in the world. You can see the orange and black butterfly swarms from March until November.

2.     Do birds eat painted lady butterflies?

Birds can eat painted lady butterflies, including eggs, larvae, or pupa.

3.     At what temperature can painted lady butterflies survive?

After you’ve raised the caterpillar and watched it become an adult butterfly, you may wonder when it’s the best time to release it. The ideal temperature to release them is above 70°F, although they can be released at 60°F.

4.     Are painted lady butterflies endangered?

Painted lady butterflies are not considered endangered. Nevertheless, their migration is considered an endangered phenomenon. For this reason, it is essential to release any painted lady butterflies you raise to join their breeding population to maintain their large numbers.

5.     How do Painted Lady butterflies survive the winter?

Since painted lady butterflies do not become dormant over winter, their instinct drives them to migrate to warmer regions during winter. They make a 9,000-mile journey from northern Europe to Africa because winters are too cold for them to survive.

6.     What kind of fruit do Painted Lady butterflies like?

Painted lady butterflies enjoy eating watermelon, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, apples, peaches, and bananas. They also enjoy sipping sugar water.

7.     What plants do painted ladies lay eggs on?

Painted lady butterflies lay single eggs on soybean plants. Nevertheless, painted ladies aren’t as picky as other butterflies regarding host plants. Hence, they will lay eggs on thistles, hollyhocks, and legumes.

8.     What flowers do painted lady butterflies prefer?

Studies show that painted lady butterflies prefer purple flowers the best and white flowers the least. They feed on red and yellow flowers 22% to 24% of the time.

9.  Do Painted Lady butterflies sleep?

Painted lady butterflies become quiescent. They rest instead of sleeping, which is what they do at night or on overcast days.

10.  Are painted lady butterflies invasive?

Painted ladies are not invasive. In fact, they are important pollinators and indicate a healthy ecosystem.

11.  Are painted ladies monarchs?

Painted ladies and monarchs are different butterfly species. While both are migratory butterflies, the monarch is toxic, while the painted lady is not. There are differences between them, as we’ve shown above.

12.  Where do painted lady butterflies not live?

Painted ladies do not live in Australia and Antarctica and migrate out of cold regions. For example, they will vacate North America and migrate to southwestern states and northwestern Mexico during winter.

13.  Why do painted lady butterflies vibrate their wings?

Shaking wings is a normal behavior in painted butterflies. They vibrate their wings to increase their metabolic rate, enabling them to fly at a moment’s notice. This is because butterflies are cold-blooded and cannot maintain a constant high temperature in the wings.

14.  What is the difference between a painted lady and a red admiral?

A red admiral has splashes of scarlet red across its big black upper wings and large white patches on the fore wings. It also has delicate scalloping on the edges. On the other hand, a painted lady has black and white on the upper wing tips with subtle orange and red patterns. They also have four bluish eye spots on the hind-wing.

15.  Why is the painted lady butterfly important?

Painted lady butterflies make spectacular migrations. During migration, they pollinate over a large area and move pollen grains of spring and fall blooming plants over the migration distance. Thus, they improve the genetic diversity of different plant species.

16.  Are painted lady butterflies poisonous to humans?

Painted ladies are not poisonous to humans, and even their caterpillars are safe to handle. Still, they can store toxins from host plants which they use to make themselves unpalatable to predators.

17.  Where do painted lady butterflies migrate to?

Painted Lady ButterflyPainted lady butterflies’ migration differs from year to year. Most researchers agree that they have more broods in the south than in the north. Painted ladies will migrate from Canada and North America in winter and move to the southwestern USA and Mexico, particularly Baja, Mexico.

18.  Do painted lady butterflies eat milkweed?

Painted lady butterflies prefer to feed on tall plants about 3 – 6 ft. Hence, milkweed is not a favorite, but they will occasionally visit them.

19.  What does it mean when a painted lady’s chrysalis turns black?

When the chrysalis turns black, the pupa is mature and ready to transform into a butterfly. This usually happens around day 10 as the butterfly prepares to emerge.

20.  Why are my painted lady butterflies not eating?

Painted lady butterflies won’t feed for the first 1 – 2 days after emerging. This is because they are still carrying food in their stomachs. After which, they will exclusively feed on nectar.

21.  How fast can painted ladies fly?

Painted ladies can fly at an incredible speed of 30mph, equivalent to a car driving through a city. They can fly more than 100 miles a day when migrating.

22.  Do painted lady caterpillars eat dandelions?

Painted ladies will nectar on blooming dandelions. In fact, dandelions provide the only nectar source for early-emerging butterflies.


Painted lady butterflies have some of the most beautiful sightings on the planet. They migrate south in winter and are primarily found in southwestern US and Baja Mexico in spring and summer. Thanks to their capability to feed on dozens of plants, the numbers of painted ladies are unlikely to dwindle. Adult painted ladies live only two to four weeks. Hence, when you raise them, it’s a good idea to release them into their natural kingdom to enjoy their short life.