The Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, is remarkable for many reasons. For starters, they are one of the best known butterflies in the world. They can be found on every continent except South America and are the only butterfly species ever to have been recorded from Iceland. They can travel further than other migratory species and faster than animals thousands of times their size.
With distinctive pinky orange wings, which are stunningly marked with contrasting black and white, Painted Ladies are not only pretty but also easy to spot. They are resourceful, nectaring in almost any habitat where flowers can be found, making them common garden visitors - even where little is on offer. They are one of the few species that can breed on intensive farmland, as even fields focussed on high intensity crop yields fail to keep out thistles – the main foodplant of their caterpillars.
Painted Lady butterflies don’t live in Europe all year round. They spend the winter in the Atlas Mountains before undertaking a phenomenal 9,000 mile round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle – almost double the length of the famous migrations undertaken by Monarch butterflies in North America.
The whole journey is not undertaken by individual butterflies but is a series of steps by up to six successive generations so Painted Ladies returning to Africa in the autumn are several generations removed from their ancestors who left Africa earlier in the year.
The Painted Ladies we see in the UK fly across the sea from Europe. Numbers vary from year-to-year but in 2009 there was a truly exceptional migration. Radars tracked up to 11 million Painted Lady butterflies arriving on our shores over just one weekend in late May – more than ever recorded before.
Since then we’ve had five years with below average numbers but scientists are hopeful that 2015 could be shaping up to be a bit more special. Constantí Stefanescu is an ecologist who has spent the last 10 years monitoring butterflies in Spain. He is confident that Painted Ladies on the continent are having their best year since 2009. The offspring of these butterflies will be UK bound in the next few weeks.
If we are really lucky it might be a migration on the scale of 2009’s - where we saw butterflies arriving at the rate of up to 50 a minute. But even if not your garden is still hotly tipped as the destination of choice for a Painted Lady on its summer holiday!
We need you to help us track the progress of Painted Lady butterflies as they arrive in the UK and continue their journey north. You can use the free iRecord Butterflies app or notify us through our Migrant Watch scheme.