Be on the Lookout for Red Admirals!

Jill Staake

I’ve seen several news articles popping up from around the country lately about the large numbers of Red Admiral butterflies beginning to make their spring appearance. Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) are one of the most widespread butterfly species in the world, being found on six continents. (One of the articles I read confidently declared that they appear on all seven continents, but I can assure you there are no butterflies on Antartica.) They’re often one of the last butterflies seen in the fall before cold weather sets in, and the first ones seen in spring. (Learn more about spring butterflies here.)

The caterpillar will be found in leaf nests it creates around itself.

The Red Admiral is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan around 3 inches. The upper sides of the wings are dark brown to black, with vibrant bands of orange and white. The undersides of the wings are mottled brown and gray, perfectly designed for blending in with the trunks of trees when they land. Their caterpillars are brown and spiky, sometimes with muted orange bands. Although the caterpillars look as if they could be painful or toxic, they are in fact perfectly safe to handle.

Red Admirals owe some of their widespread success to wide variety of food sources they consume, both as caterpillars and adult butterflies. As caterpillars, they host on members of the nettle family, which can be found throughout the world. As adult butterflies, they nectar on flowers but also like tree sap and rotting fruit, allowing them to emerge in early spring before nectar flowers may be plentiful. When cold weather sets in, northernmost butterflies migrate south while those further south  find sheltered nooks in trees or rocks to settle into for the winter as they enter diapause (hibernation). These adaptations enable them to survive in a wide variety of situations, from the United States to Europe to Asia and beyond.

When they land, their mottled color allows them to nearly disappear.

Red Admirals are found nearly everywhere in the United States. Attract them to your yard with plenty of nectar plants, plus try leaving out a few pieces of overripe or rotting fruit – bananas or strawberries work well. They’ll be especially likely to stick around if you leave a few patches of their host plants in your yard as well. Though they host on unfriendly plants like stinging nettle (Urtica chamaedryoides) and tall wild nettle (U. gracilis), they’ll also use false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) and pellitory (Parietoria pennsylvanica), which are much safer in a garden or yard.

Have you been spotting Red Admirals in your area? Have they been nectaring on flowers or sipping from tree sap or rotten fruit? Tell us about your sightings in the comments below!

  1. Danielle (Editors' Blog) says

    Great article, Jill! I saw tons of Red Admirals and even had a couple land on me this past weekend in Ohio. They sure are beautiful.

    • Sandy Fink says

      I have seen tons of them also. Also they have landed on me also. Been seeing them for 3-4 weeks in South Beloit IL. They are awesome :0)

    • sandra a blair says

      i have seen at least one of these beauties in our yard this spring. didn’t know their name though. beautiful.
      our one cat likes them too, i really have to watch her. :)

  2. Helen says

    Enjoyed this article. I have several of these butterflies in my yard and didn’t know what
    they are. They seem to like the flowers on my blooming chives. Had 4 on the blooms
    yesterday. They are so pretty. I live in Northern Illinois.

  3. Roberta Shuman says

    Lots and lots on the lilac trees in my daughter’s yard here in MA. Enjoyed them with my granddaughters but had no clue what they were. Thanks for the identification.

  4. Vicki says

    For the first time we had a plethora of the beautiful Red Admirals! The swarmed my miniature lilac bush and danced back and forth in a colorful ballet, feeding frenzy! I will definitely be making an effort to keep them happy here!

  5. Dick B says

    Yes, last week, I had approx. 30 Admirals and Question marks in my lilac bush. It only lasted a few days then the lilac blooms started to fade and off they went. I’d send you photos but not sure how attach to this comment. I live in NW Ohio.

  6. Pat Serafino says

    Yes, I just saw a few of these over the weekend, in my Southern VT yard ! I didn’t know what they were until I saw this photo—so pretty. One was sunning itself on a rock and the others were flitting about. Very early for butterflies in that area. I do have a few patches of ‘dead nettle’ in my yard.

  7. Debbi S. says

    Beautiful…. We have lots of them now (Northwest Indiana) so glad I saw this because now I know what they are. We have lots of stinging nettles around the woods here.

  8. Elaine Bruhn says

    This past weekend, we went to the Cloisters and the Fort Tryon Park by the George Washington Bridge in NYC.
    While waiting for the bus back to Penn Station, I was fascinated watching and photographing these butterflies.
    Due to your article, I know their name and some facts about them. Thank You Birds and Blooms. I love your magazine and giving them as gifts.

  9. Nancy says

    Thank you for including the catepillar, I have often seen these scary criters in my garden and now I know their name!

  10. CJ says

    I’ve seen more this spring in SW Michigan than I’ve ever seen before. They like to sit on the stones around my pond to warm up in the morning sun. I saw a bunch of them around a patch of nettles the other day…now I know why!


  1. […] Jill on July 18, 2012 Print Email Share This spring, news reports abounded of the abundant population of Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterflies sweep… Red Admirals are part of a genus of butterflies known as Vanessa, which has over 20 species found […]

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