Painted Lady Butterflies

Painted ladies are a popular and handsome butterfly, which undergoes a curious relay migration which can take many generations to complete.

Painted Lady Butterfly
Painted lady butterfly on a flower.

Painted lady butterfly on a flower.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Nymphalidae
Species: Vanessa cardui


Painted ladies are a common and well-known butterfly with their distinct orange or brown with black-and-white spot patterning. Their popularity comes with their remarkable long-distance migrations whilst also being one of the most widespread of all butterfly species.

Found almost anywhere, but favouring dry open areas, painted ladies can be abundant depending on the success of their migrations.

Attenborough on Painted Ladies


Painted ladies migrate in the spring from northern Africa to mainland Europe and Asia migrating back in the autumn.

It is debated as to whether painted ladies ever actually make the return journey south, having arrived in Britain in May or June, although radar studies suggest that some do. They are unable to survive the harsh British winter and as such those that arrive at the beginning of summer will die unless they make the south-ward autumn migration.

Successive painted lady generations complete the migration in a kind of relay race which is triggered when the population density hits a tipping point where their food plants are stripped bare. As they undertake continuous, year-round mating painted ladies are able to stop, breed and die at locations along the migration route.

A painted lady caterpillar.

A painted lady caterpillar.


The painted lady larvae, known as caterpillars in butterflies, feed on the cuticles of various plants including thistles and nettles.

The adult lays their green-grey eggs on the upperside of the caterpillar's food plants, which hatch a week later. The caterpillar will then eat the leaves from the underside, providing cover from potential predators. They then pull together a tent of leaves and silk so that the pupa can form within, emerging after two weeks.

Find Out More

Adult Butterfly

The adult form of the painted lady, known as an imago in butterflies, feeds on the nectar of a number of plant flowers, some being similar to the favourite food plants of their caterpillars. These include thistles, bird's-foot trefoil, hawkweeds, heather, ivy, knapweeds, privet and ragwort amongst many others.

The wingspan of the adult painted lady ranges from 50 to 56 mm and it can live for up to 2 weeks after emerging.

Quick Facts

  • Since the 1970’s the species has increased by 32%.
  • Painted ladies are the only butterfly recorded in Iceland.
  • In North America the painted lady is known as the "cosmopolitan".
  • The caterpillar's main predators include birds, wasps, spiders and ants.