Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

Synonyms: Cynthia cardui
GenusVanessa (1)
SizeWingspan: 5-6 cm (1)

Not listed under any conservation designations or legislation (2).

The beautiful painted lady butterfly is a long-distance migratory species, and is easily recognised by its orange and black patterns and white spots (1). The caterpillar reaches 2.8 cm in length, has a black body with white dots, yellowish-black spines, and a yellow line along each side (3).

Every year this species migrates northwards from 'source populations' in North Africa, central Asia and the Middle East to Europe, including Britain and Ireland, where it breeds. Numbers peak in late summer. This species has a worldwide distribution, but is absent from South America. Some authorities claim that the race found in Australia is a separate species (2).

Found in a huge variety of habitats. Adults seem to prefer open areas with good populations of thistles (Cirsium and Carduus spp.), which are used as foodplants for the caterpillars, although a very wide range of foodplants may be used, including common nettle (Urtica dioica) and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) (2).

In Britain, one or more generations may be produced during a single year, depending on the climate (2). The female lays eggs singly on the upperside of leaves of the foodplants (3). The eggs hatch after around a week, and the caterpillars create a tent-like shelter of leaves spun together with silk, within which feeding takes place. They pupate inside these shelters, and the adults emerge after around two weeks (3). In 1997 it was first shown that adults are able to overwinter in Britain, although it is not known if adults are capable of breeding after overwintering (2). There is currently no evidence to suggest that this species migrates south at the end of the season (2). In some years, the migration of this species involves enormous numbers of individuals; in 1996, many millions of painted ladies arrived in Britain, and the event made the headlines at the time (2).

The appearance of this species in Britain, and indeed its survival as a whole, relies on the persistence of suitable habitat in its source populations, outside of Europe (2).

No conservation measures are in place for this species.

For more on this species see: The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Europe (2001). By Asher, J., et al. Published by Oxford University Press. For more on butterflies and their conservation see the Butterfly Conservation website:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. Carter, D. (1992) Butterflies and moths. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  2. Asher, J., Warren, M., Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G. & Jeffcoate, S. (2001) The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Carter, D. & Hargreaves, B. (1986) A field guide to caterpillars of butterflies and moths in Britain and Europe. William Collins & Sons Ltd, London.