Painted Lady

Painted ladies can be found on almost every continent in the world and can migrate further than the more familiar monarch butterflies. Photo credit: AJC1, cc-by-sa 2.0 

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are common Kentucky butterflies that can be found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. It is often considered the most globally widespread butterfly in the world. Painted ladies are primarily orange and brown with some white highlights. Their wingspan is only 2-3 inches wide. While this little butterfly may not be as flashy as some of the larger butterflies, it is really an interesting species.

Another common name for the painted lady is the thistle butterfly because they love to feed on thistles and other members of the Aster family such as blazing stars, asters, joe-pye weeds, and ironweeds. However, they will also nectar on red clovers, milkweeds, buttonbush, and flowers in other families. Unlike some other species, painted lady caterpillars are not picky eaters and have been found on over 100 different species of plants.

Each year, this small butterfly migrates thousands of miles. On our side of the world, the painted lady migration starts in Mexico in the spring and spreads north and northeast before doing the reverse in the fall. How far north they migrate each year depends on the weather and other factors. On the other side of the world, the painted lady migration starts in sub-Saharan Africa and under favorable weather conditions can go as far north as the Arctic Circle – a distance of over 9,000 miles and much further than the migration route of the monarch butterfly.

Unlike the more familiar monarch migration, the painted lady migration isn’t as structured. Monarchs have very precise wintering locations. They also arrive at and leave the wintering grounds around the same time every year. Not so with the painted lady. The painted lady doesn’t have set wintering locations and its arrival and departure time varies from year to year.

Painted ladies look similar to another, closely-related, butterfly found in Kentucky called the American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis). One way to tell them apart is to look at their hindwings. Painted ladies have 4-5 smaller spots along the edge, while American ladies have 2 larger spots along the edge. Photo credit: Claude Bélanger, cc-by 2.0

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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