Migration Patterns of the Painted Lady Butterfly

Until 2009 the annual disappearance of the painted lady butterfly from the UK had been something of a mystery. Some believed that the species died at the end of the summer; nevertheless, this theory has been proven incorrect.

With the use of a radar system, scientists were able to track the painted lady’s migration. It was discovered that they do in fact fly south. It had never been seen because painted ladies travel at high altitudes of 500 meters to more than 1,000 meters and are therefore invisible to the human eye. In addition these delicate creatures fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Painted ladies come into the UK from continental Europe for the purpose of breeding. Radar sightings have shown that in the year 2009, approximately 11 million painted ladies arrived in the UK, and around 26 million departed. They travelled south and arrived in North Africa.

Vanessa caravi is the scientific name for the painted lady. It means butterfly of thistle, and this derives from the fact that the thistle is the favorite plant of the caterpillar. The hollyhock, cheese weed and tree mallow are also ideal, and the rapid migration of painted ladies across the globe is due to the search for appropriate plant life in which the young can flourish. It can take up to six generations for painted ladies to complete a full tour; for example, those that leave Africa are of a much earlier generation than those that depart the UK in the fall. 

Apart from Antarctica and South America, painted ladies inhabit every other part of the world. A number of sub-species of the Vanessa caravi can be found. The Vanessa kershawi is native to Australia and is therefore known as the Australian painted lady. The American painted lady is the name given to the Vanessa virginiensis species, and the Vanessa annabella is commonly referred to as the West Coast lady. All species of the painted lady fall under the Cynthia group of butterflies.

In the United States, painted ladies are also known as the cosmopolitan butterfly. They migrate from the desert of the Mexican border into California, where they breed. Depending upon the weather, migration may occur any time from late January to mid-April. The eggs usually hatch in May, and this generation will fly north to the Pacific Northwest. A later generation will start to migrate south between the months of August and November.

These amazing insects travel extraordinary distances. They fly from Africa to the edge of the Arctic Circle and back, completing a distance of approximately 9,000 miles. Given that the journey is completed by a number of generations, the sheer wonder of nature becomes apparent in that the same flight is repeated, even though painted ladies have no way of learning the route.