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#TBT The Osprey – Nature Sketches: Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

The Osprey, vol. 35, no. 02 (May 2004)

By: A. Glen Ryan

Painted Lady Butterfly by A. Glen Ryan

The Painted Lady is likely the most widespread butterfly in the world. It is found almost everywhere except in the deep tropics and the Arctic icecaps. It occurs on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, the reason for one or its common names; the Cosmopolitan!

Its preferred habitat is open or disturbed areas including old fields, gardens, and roadsides. It is particularly fond of open sunny fields with thistles, especially the Canada Thistle in Newfoundland, where large numbers sometimes congregate in late summer, resulting in still another common name, the Thistle Butterfly.

The Painted Lady belongs to the Nymphalidae, or brush-footed butterflies. They appear to have 4 legs instead of 6. The front legs are much smaller and use less for walking. They are hairy and brushlike in appearance and are held forward close to the head. The British call them “Aristocrat Butterflies”, a term devised by early entomologists for large and colorful butterflies with such noble sounding names as Painted Lady. It is orange with pinkish overtones and has a wingspan of 42-66 mm. The underside has 4 small sub-marginal eyespots which help distinguish it from the much rarer American Lady which has 2 eyespots.

The tiny eggs are laid singly on the upper surface of the host plant, preferably thistles, but other composites such as daisy and everlasting are used as well. The caterpillar (spiny, black and yellow) makes a silk nest on the top of the lea f where it feeds. The chrysalis hangs from the food plant and hatches after 2 weeks.

The adults are very active and nervous. They are very powerful, swift flyers and have been clocked at speeds of 13-15 km/hour during migration. The adult males take up perches in the late afternoon, on a promontory or the lee of a large tree.

The Painted Lady is a highly migratory butterfly that is sporadic in appearance. It can be abundant one year and scarce the next. Apparently, it cannot survive the cold in any of its stages so it does not normally overwinter in Canada or even the United States, except perhaps the extreme southwest. It is thought that migration starts in Mexico and spreads northward, with the first migrants appearing in Newfoundland in late May, and Labrador by mid-July. Adults are then seen until mid-October on the island and mid· September in Labrador. It breeds extensively throughout Newfoundland, with a new generation on the wing by late August when thistles are blooming. It has been recorded north to Hopedale and Knob Lake in Labrador. It is doubtful whether the new generation flies south in the fall; presumably, they die with the cold of fall.

Observations about its migration to, or from, Newfoundland are lacking. I have found only one note by Mr. Bernard Jackson, referring to a “tired, newly arrived Painted Lady butterfly feeding from the flower of a Labrador Tea.”

This Painted Lady sketch is on the cover for the Volume 35, Issue 2. Glen Ryan, the artist and author for this article, is also a former editor for the Osprey. He has numerous beautiful nature sketches throughout earlier issues of the Osprey.

Painted Lady Butterflies are migrants to Newfoundland and Labrador with various sightings across the province based on iNaturalist records. The Memorial University Botanical Gardens notes sightings of this species from May to October and observations of Painted Lady Butterflies nectaring on more than 50 types of flowers.

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Article Reference: Ryan, G.A. 2004. Nature Sketches: Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui. The Osprey, Nature Journal of Newfoundland and Labrador. 35(2): 25. Available from:


MUN Botanical Gardens. (n.d.). Butterfly Basics: Gardening for pollinators. Available from

iNaturalist (2021). Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). Available from