Meet the Butterfly “Ladies”

Jill Staake

This spring, news reports abounded of the abundant population of Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterflies sweeping across the nation. Red Admirals are part of a genus of butterflies known as Vanessa, which has over 20 species found around the world.

This group has a subgenus called Cynthia, commonly known as “painted ladies”, three of which are found in North America (the fourth member is found in Australia – click here to learn more). They are very similar in looks and behavior, and while you certainly don’t need to be able to tell them apart to enjoy them, butterfly enthusiasts might enjoy having a little more information.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

If you or your kids have ever raised butterflies using one of those kits you can buy, you’ve probably seen the species known simply as Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). When you send away for the caterpillars for these kits, you almost always receive Painted Ladies; because they are found across the county, you can release them into the wild as butterflies where they join the native population.

  • Painted Ladies are found across the U.S., and in fact on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.
  • One reason for their widespread success is that their caterpillars are able to eat a wide variety of host plants, including mallows, hollyhocks, thistles, legumes, and asters.
  • Identify Painted Ladies by the four eye-spots on the underside of their lower wings.
From Left: Painted Lady (V. cardui); American Lady (V. virginiensis); West Coast Lady (V. annabella)
Photos (L) Kristen Gilpin; (C) Jill Staake; (R) Alan Vernon via Wikipedia

American Lady or Virginia Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

American Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis) are found in the eastern half of the country, from Maine to Florida and west to the Mississippi River valley. Although some spottings have been reported out west, it’s likely those butterflies were confused with the Western Lady (see below). American Ladies host on a much smaller range of plants than Painted Ladies, which explains their more limited range. Their hosts include everlastings, plantains, wormwood, and ironweed.

  • American Ladies are presumed unable to withstand extremely cold temperatures, and it is believed that the extreme northern states are repopulated each year by migrants from the south.
  • Identify American Ladies by the two large eyespots on the underside of their lower wings, and the white spots on the topside of their lower wings, which are absent in Painted Ladies.
From Left: Painted Lady (V. cardui); American Lady (V. virginiensis); West Coast Lady (V. annabella)
Painted Ladies: Photo credits: (L) Alvesgaspar  via Wikipedia  (C) Jill Staake; (R) Kim Davis and Mike Stangeland

West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella)

Where the east coast has American Ladies, the west coast has the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella). This butterfly ranges from California east to the Rocky Mountains, roving as far north as British Columbia. Their host plants are limited mostly to the mallow family (malvaceae).

  • Male West Coast Ladies find mates by staking out a piece of territory and chasing all other males away. They then engage in showy flight patterns to entice females to join them.
  • Identify West Coast Ladies by the row of blue spots on the topside of their lower wings. The spots on the underside of the lower wings are inconspicuous when compared to the eye spots of the Painted Lady or American Lady.

The caterpillars of the painted ladies look similar, and all feed by creating little “nests” in their host plants woven together by silk. (Click here to see.) This provides a safe haven to hide the caterpillar while it feasts and grows.

How many of the painted lady species have you seen and identified? Which ones fly in your area? Tell us in the comments below!

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