Vanessa Butterflies: Ladies and Admirals

picture of an American Lady butterfly, part of the vanessa butterflies collection

Four different butterflies in the Vanessa genus visit gardens across the United States. Three of them go by the common name, lady. They are your typical garden butterflies with orange wings. The final member of the Vanessa butterflies packs military power with the name Admiral, more specifically Red Admiral.

Most people think Monarchs when they think migratory butterflies. The story of the Vanessa butterflies is a migratory story equally as compelling. Read about their travels.

Vanessa Butterflies Identification

picture of a size view of an American Lady butterfly
Identifying the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) starts by looking at the picture on the top of the page. There is a white spot on the upper wing that is not present on either of the other two lady species.

The second picture shows a side view of the American Lady. The bottom of the wing has two eye spots. That’s the best field identification clue.

picture of a West Coast Lady butterfly
West Coast Lady butterflies are the least ranging of all the native Vanessa species in the continental United States. Populations can be found along the West Coast, Rocky Mountains and a bit of a spillover into the Midwest. (side note: Actually the Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea), an endemic species of Hawaii has the least range of all the United States Vanessa species.)

Identifying them from a top of the wing perspective can be fairly east. For example, compare the West Coast Lady in the picture and note the absence of a white dot on the wings. The bottom of the wings also shows a pattern of four blue dots circled in black, another field identification mark.

picture of a Painted Lady butterfly
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) receive the title of world’s most widely distributed butterfly. Their territory extends across the entire northern hemisphere and even into the edges of the southern hemisphere.

A 2016 research article published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society called Discovery of mass migration and breeding of the painted lady butterfly Vanessa cardui in the Sub‐Sahara: the Europe–Africa migration revisited concluded,

We conducted fieldwork in four African countries (Chad, Benin, Senegal, and Ethiopia) in autumn and documented southward migrants in central Chad and abundant breeding sites across the tropical savannah as far south as the Niger River in the west and the Ethiopian highlands in the east. Given directionality and timing, these migrants probably originated in Europe and crossed the Mediterranean, the Sahara and the Sahel, a hypothesis that implies the longest (>4000 km) migratory flight recorded for a butterfly in a single generation.

And boy are their wings tired (who can resist?).

picture of a Painted Lady butterfly caterpillar
Painted Lady butterflies can be found across the United States in varying numbers depending on environmental circumstances during the season. Weather patterns, for example, can influence both their wintering habits and migratory routes. In times of winter rain, more plant life gives more rise to caterpillars that are ready to fly north during migration to start the breeding season again. Wind patters can either help move or hinder the movement of thee butterflies during migration.

The picture shows a Painted Lady caterpillar.

picture of a side view of a Painted Lady butterfly
How do I know the butterfly you are seeing is a Painted Lady? Good question. Try to get a picture of the side view of the butterfly in question. Look for four eye spots on the edge of the wing. It’s the best field identification guide. Identification from a top of the wings viewpoint can be tricky because the dark markings or patterns on the top of the wings are only slightly different from the other Vanessa Lady species.

Almost any thistle species, mallow species and legume species can serve as the larval host plant for the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), explaining its world wide distribution. Southern gardens have more luck regularly attracting them. Eastern gardens need to wait for mass migrations.

picture of a Red Admiral butterfly
Contrary to the name, the Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) does not belong to the Limenitidinae subfamily of Admirals and their relatives. It’s more the face that the red stripe on the fore wing resembles the stripes often seen on Admiral butterflies.

They are truly a Northern Hemisphere species with populations in North America, Europe and Asia. In North America their migration is as long, if not longer than the Monarch migration.

Adults overwinter as far south as Central America and then begin a northern migration that extends into Canada. They have multiple broods per year so they are often the last of the season’s butterflies where ever they breed.

Red Admiral caterpillars feed on plants in the nettle family, a very common group of plants. Rotten fruit is the preferred food for adults.