Painted Lady on New England Asters

painted lady butterfly drinks nectar on New England asters
Painted Lady Butterfly on New England Asters

Who is that cosmopolitan lady? Does she go by Cynthia or Vanessa?

Painted Lady butterflies have been known by a couple different scientific names featuring ladies’ given names—they have been called Cynthia cardui, but now they are more often called Vanessa cardui. Their species name, cardui, comes from the Latin word for thistle, which is the preferred host plant for their spiny black caterpillars. They aren’t terribly picky, though—the so-called Thistle Caterpillars will also thrive on hollyhocks, mallow, various legumes, and just about any member of the aster family. On years of exceptional population explosions, they have been known to defoliate soybean and sunflower fields.

Painted Ladies have also been called the Cosmopolitan Butterfly, as they are the most widely distributed butterfly in the world, found on every continent except Australia (which has a similar species) and Antarctica. Those migrating from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle travel double the distance that monarchs in their famed migration do. Painted Ladies can fly 100 miles a day and reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour. However, they only migrate toward the poles; unlike monarchs, they don’t return to winter in their original warm climates, but die when cold weather hits.