Painted Lady Butterflies Are Flying Works of Art

Learn how to attract and identify painted lady butterflies and caterpillars. Learn what they eat and what host plants you should grow.

Bnbbyc18 Catherine PouriaCourtesy Catherine Pouria
Painted lady butterfly on a sunflower

How to Identify Painted Lady Butterflies

A painted lady butterfly has an orange and black patterned upper wing with white dots and four or five black dots along each hindwing. Underwings have a dark brown and tan segmented design with four or five dots on the hindwing’s edge. Their wingspan is 2 to 2 7/8 inches.

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Painted Lady Habitat

You can spot a painted lady in nearly every habitat, but they prefer open grassy areas, gardens and fields. Painted ladies live on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and many oceanic islands. They are among the most widespread butterflies in the world!

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painted lady butterflyCourtesy Charles Miller

Painted Lady Host Plants

This butterflies uses a variety of host plants (more than 100!), but prefers thistle, hollyhock, mallow and many legumes.

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What Do Painted Lady Butterflies Eat?

You may see them sipping nectar from thistle, aster, cosmos, ironweed and blazing star. Check out more summer nectar flowers that attract butterflies.

Painted Lady Caterpillar, Vanessa Cardui, Feeding On SoybeanGetty Images/iStockphoto
Painted lady caterpillar feeding on a soybean leaf in Illinois

Caterpillars and Life Cycle

Painted lady caterpillars are gray-brown or almost black with a yellow stripe down their bodies and spikes along their sides and backs. They show some color variation when in caterpillar stage of their life cycle. Before the pupae stage, look for caterpillars creating silk tents on thistle, one of their favorite host plants.

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Painted Lady Migration

In winter they’re mostly in the Southwest or Mexico, but in warmer seasons they spread across most of North America. When painted ladies migrate, the groups are sometimes so massive that they show up in radar images. Sometimes they make headlines, with millions flying above open country. Painted ladies are fast fliers, fluttering at speeds of up to 25 mph. Plant some blooms that flower in autumn to support migrating fliers, such as sedum, asters, lantana, bluebeard and pentas.

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Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor's degree in agricultural and environmental communications from the University of Illinois. Lori enjoys growing vegetables and flowers for pollinators in her backyard gardens. She also is an avid bird-watcher.