This fall, many people have noticed the many butterflies that have been flitting around our late summer flowers. Although some of these butterflies have been Monarchs migrating south to their Mexican wintering grounds, most of them have actually been a different species—the Painted Lady butterfly. The Painted Lady is the most widespread butterfly species in the world, inhabiting several continents. This year, Painted Ladies have enjoyed a population explosion here in North America and, lately, we’ve been seeing the result of that explosion!
Painted Ladies are often mistaken for Monarch butterflies, but they are really very different. Although Painted Ladies do have orange and black markings, they are lighter in color and are spotted, not striped. The undersides of their wings are actually pale brown and white. They are also much smaller than Monarchs and they fly in a more erratic fashion, instead of the slow, graceful flight of the Monarchs.
The Painted Ladies’ life cycle is also much different. Unlike Monarchs, Painted Ladies are not dependent upon one plant and will lay their eggs on a variety of plants. Their caterpillars have been observed on over 100 different species of plants. They are especially fond of thistles and, because of that, are often known as “thistle butterflies.”
Like Monarchs, though, Painted Ladies do migrate. But their migration is not as long nor as “organized” as that of the Monarch. Painted Ladies live year-round in northern Mexico but will often migrate northward in the spring months, and repopulate areas further north. If conditions are good, as they were this year, the population will continue to grow as they move north, resulting in a large population during late summer and early fall. Once fall arrives, since they cannot survive freezing temperatures, they will once again move south to avoid the cold weather. But, how far south they travel depends upon the weather. During mild winters, they may not migrate very far at all; but if necessary, they will travel back to Mexico.
So, if you’ve been seeing more butterflies than usual lately, take a closer look! There’s a good chance that you’ve been seeing the result of a very successful year for the Painted Lady butterflies. Be sure to enjoy them while you can, though! Soon, the weather will be turning colder and all of our butterfly species will either migrate south or settle in for their winter hibernation