Vanessa cardui

Geographic Range

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are one of the most widely distributed species of butterfly, and can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. They live in most biogeographic regions, including Nearctic, Palearctic, Neotropical, Ethiopian, Oriental, and Oceanic Islands. The territory size of the Painted Lady is vast enough to cover all of North America, south to Panama, and are also naturalized in Asia, Africa, and Europe. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Orsak, 1977; Painter, 2013)


Painted Ladies live in areas with wide open areas of vegetation such as fields and meadows. However, they can be found in suburban, agricultural, swamp, bog, marsh, tundra, taiga, desert or dune, chaparral, forest, rainforest, scrub forest, and mountain habitats as well. Vanessa cardui is extremely adaptable and thus can prosper in its niche in any of these environments. Painted Ladies can be found at all elevations during migration but are usually found at elevations as low as sea level year round, even during non-migratory time. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Orsak, 1977; Painter, 2013)

Physical Description

Adults of Vanessa cardui are about 5.1 to 7.3 cm in length. The upper side of their wings are orange-brown with darker wing bases. Forewings have a white bar, and the rear wings have a row of five tiny black dots. The underside of their wings have brown, black,and gray patterns with tiny submarginal eyespots.

Eggs of the Painted Lady appear to be pale green in color, with 14 to 19 vertical ribs. Larvae are grayish brown and darker at the ends. They have a yellow stripe running down the back of their body, and spikes follow the curve of the back and sides of their body. Pupae can be a variety of colors including a metallic green, brown, or bluish-white. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Brian, 1990; Pyle, 1981)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range length
    5.1 to 7.3 cm
    2.01 to 2.87 in
  • Average length
    6.4 cm
    2.52 in
  • Range wingspan
    5.1 to 7.3 cm
    2.01 to 2.87 in
  • Average wingspan
    6.4 cm
    2.52 in


Vanessa cardui is holometabolous. Females lay eggs on a host plant, such as those from the Compositae family, that will serve as a food source. After hatching, the larvae feed continuously and construct silken tents on the host plant. They molt several times over the next few weeks before moving on to the next stage in metamorphosis. As a pupae, it forms a cocoon, and following the completion of pupation, it emerges as an adult butterfly. Development of the Painted Lady is dependent on the climate; faster development occurs in warmer climates. In subtropical areas, completion of development can take 33 to 44 days. In cooler climates, development can take upwards of 60 days. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Orsak, 1977; Stefanescu, et al., 2013)


Vanessa cardui males are territorial and will wait for a female to cross paths with them to court. The Painted Lady males will mate with multiple females in a season to ensure as much progeny as possible. (Painter, 2013; Saul, 1994)

Painted ladies will mate year round in warm climates but reproductive behavior stops in the fall of temperate areas. In laboratory settings, scientists have observed up to 8 generations in a year. Females will lay about 500 eggs, each singly laid on a host plant. Offspring are independent of their mother after being laid. Both male and females become sexually mature five to seven days after emerging from their cocoons. Mating and reproduction also take place throughout their mass migrations, producing multiple generations undertaking the migration. (Stefanescu, et al., 2013; Painter, 2013; Saul, 1994; Stefanescu, et al., 2013)

  • Breeding interval
    Painted ladies breed year round, climate permitting.
  • Breeding season
    Mating takes place year round, except in cooler areas where it stops in the fall and winter.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range gestation period
    20 to 25 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    5 to 7 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    5 to 7 days

Females provide provisioning in eggs, and also lay their eggs on host plants, providing the larvae with a food source upon hatching. Vanessa cardui adults provide no further care. (Painter, 2013; Saul, 1994)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female


The lifespan of Vanessa cardui is short, averaging about a year from egg to death. In laboratory conditions, adults live for about 10 to 24 days after pupation. (Stefanescu, et al., 2013)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 years


Each year, Vanessa cardui makes huge, multi-generational, mass migrations up to 15000 km long in the Palearctic. In the spring, these butterflies move northward from their overwintering places in Africa, through the Mediterranean, to much of the European continent, and they then migrate back in the fall. Vanessa cardui uses favorable high altitude winds to move rapidly across the continents. Millions of butterflies partake in these migrations, though the numbers fluctuate every year. The migration allows these butterfly populations to take advantage of the changes in resources as the seasons change, moving north in the summer to avoid the hot temperatures in Africa, and moving south again to avoid the cold winters of northern Europe. This pattern is similarly reflected in the United States, where V. cardui migrates from Mexico to the northern United States and Canada.

Vanessa cardui mates along the way, quickly producing more generations. Populations begin to migrate northwards in March and April, and produce local generations as soon as May and June along the way. The migrants do not make it to the northern parts of Europe til late May and June. The Painted Ladies continue to breed, and by late August they are heading south again. They also stop to breed along the return migration, producing more generations in September and October. Breeding is fairly low in the winter. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Stefanescu, et al., 2013)

Home Range

During times of migration, populations of Vanessa cardui can move thousands of kilometers. (Stefanescu, et al., 2013)

Communication and Perception

The Painted Lady communicates through physical actions, chemicals, color, and sound. Larvae have limited, poor vision, though they can see red through ultraviolet on the color spectrum. Adults have compound eyes made up of thousand of ommatidia, which allows them to distinguish mates and host plants. ("Life cycle of a butterfly", 2003; Pyle, 1981)

Food Habits

Vanessa cardui is a polyphagous herbivore that has been recorded feeding from more than 100 different plant species. Adult Painted Ladies prefer nectar from composites 3 to 6 feet high from plants such as aster, cosmos, blazing star, iron weed, joe-pye, red clover, button bush, privet, milkweeds, and thistles. Adults have also been observed consuming honeydew, a byproduct of aphids. Larvae feed on leaves from plants such as cheeseweed, thistles, dwarf nettle, lupine, fiddleneck, and many different members of the daisy family, Compositae. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Stefanescu, et al., 2013)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • nectar


Known predators of Vanessa cardui include birds, bats, ants, wasps, and spiders. Adult Painted Ladies use camouflage and flight to evade predators. The anti-predator adaptations for the larvae have not been determined. ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Vanessa cardui is a pollinator of the plants and flowers in its habitat. More than 100 plants have been recorded to act as hosts for Painted Lady larvae, but the most common include thistles, hollyhock, mallow, milkweed, aster, and a variety of legumes. These plants are also a common source of nectar for the Painted Lady adults. The plants share a mutualistic relationship with the butterflies by offering their fragrances and nectar in exchange for assisting in pollination. Vanessa cardui is a key element in the food chain, serving as prey for birds, bats and other insects. They can also be used as hosts by a large variety of parasites and parasitoids that attack both the larval and pupal stages, including tachinid flies (Exorista segregata and Sturmia bella), ichneumonid wasps (Thyrateles camelinus, Cotesia vanessae, Cotesia vestalis and Dolichogenidea sicaria), and chalcid wasps (Pteromalus puparum). ("Attributes of Vanessa cardui", 2013; Stefanescu, et al., 2012)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates
Species Used as Host
  • thistles, Asteraceae
  • hollyhock, Alcea
  • mallow, Malvaceae
  • milkweed, Asclepias
  • aster, Asteraceae
  • legumes, Fabaceae
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Vanessa cardui assists with pollination; with pollination comes more plants and thus more oxygen. The presence of butterflies also indicates a healthy environment, so changes in populations can lead to exploration and research of habitats and ecosystems by scientists. (Painter, 2013)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pollinates crops

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

The larvae are known to consume crops of beans, artichokes, and mint which are all food sources to humans. (Orsak, 1977)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Vanessa cardui is not endangered and does not require conservation efforts at this time.


Rachel Kreiger (author), Bridgewater College, Cody Noblitt (author), Bridgewater College, Tamara Johnstone-Yellin (editor), Bridgewater College, Angela Miner (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats nectar from flowers

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


2013. "Attributes of Vanessa cardui" (On-line). Butterflies and Moths of North America. Accessed March 29, 2014 at

2003. "Life cycle of a butterfly" (On-line). Earth's Birthday Project. Accessed March 29, 2014 at

2014. "Painted lady" (On-line). About Insects. Accessed March 29, 2014 at

Brian, C. 1990. "Painted lady" (On-line). Accessed March 29, 2014 at

Jackman, J. 1999. A field guide to common Texas insects. Landham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Orsak, L. 1977. "Painted lady, Vanessa cardui" (On-line). Accessed March 29, 2014 at

Painter, T. 2013. "A study of north Virginia ecology" (On-line). Accessed March 29, 2014 at

Pyle, . 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies. New York, New York: Knopf.

Saul, L. 1994. "Painted lady butterfly" (On-line). Accessed March 29, 2014 at

Stefanescu, C., R. Askew, J. Corbera, M. Shaw. 2012. Parasitism and migration in southern Palaearctic populations of the painted lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). European Journal of Entomology, 109/1: 85-94.

Stefanescu, C., F. Paramo, S. Akesson, M. Alarcon, A. Avila, T. Brereton, J. Carnicer, L. Cassar, R. Fox, J. Heliola, J. Hill, N. Hirneisen, N. Kjellen, E. Kuhn, M. Kuussaari, M. Leskinen, F. Liechti, M. Musche, E. Regan, D. Reynolds, D. Roy, N. Ryrholm, H. Schmaljohann, J. Settele, C. Thomas, C. van Swaay, J. Chapman. 2013. Multi-generational long-distance migration of insects: studying the painted lady butterfly in the Western Palaearctic. Ecography, 36/4: 474-486.