Friday, November 22, 2013

Globetrotting Butterflies

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on snake root
© Beatriz Moisset
Name a lovely butterfly found throughout North America and also an intrepid traveler, capable of crossing the entire continent from north to south. You probably had the answer before I completed my question. The monarch is the best known butterfly in the United States. Its migration from Mexico to Canada and back, involving several generations and taking months each year, fascinates us all.

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) on mountain mint
© 2013 Beatriz Moisset
Now, name another lovely butterfly just as widely distributed and also a remarkable migrant. Can you name just one? What about two? Now, what if these two butterflies could be seen in Africa, Europe and Asia in addition to North America? In those continents they would travel from Africa to Europe or from South Asia to farther north. The two species I refer to bear unusually pretty scientific names, Vanessa atalanta and Vanessa cardui. We know the first one as red admiral and the latter as painted lady.

Red admiral caterpillar feeding on nettle
© Beatriz Moisset
As we know, the monarch caterpillar feeds only on milkweeds. The Vanessa caterpillars also have some favorite food plants; however they can dine on members of several other plant families as well. The red admiral prefers nettles and the painted lady goes for thistles. In fact the scientific name cardui comes from cardus, which means thistle in Latin. I hope you have an assortment of native nettles and thistles in your garden for the benefit of these delightful visitors and their families. If you don’t, they can resort to other members of the aster, pea or mallow families.

Red admiral caterpillar
safe and sound inside a nettle leaf
© Beatriz Moisset

These two species of butterflies are just as beautiful and adventurous as the monarch, so their lack of popularity surprises me. Perhaps all they need is a little publicity. They are brightly colored in black, orange and white, and slightly smaller than monarchs. If there was a beauty contest I would probably vote for the gorgeous red admiral. I would also insist in calling it by its sweet scientific name, Vanessa atalanta.

I already mentioned that you can see them, at least part of the year in your area, wherever you live. You may have already noticed them in your wildlife garden. Perhaps you even thought you were seeing a monarch, a common mistake. I have watched them nectaring on asters, coneflowers, snakeroots and mountain mints among others.
Red admiral on cone flower. ©  Beatriz Moisset
We happen to know a lot more about the comings and goings of monarchs than of painted ladies and red admirals. Maybe this will change in the future because research continues. In fact, you can contribute your observations if you are interested in being a citizen scientist by participating in the Iowa State University program at the "Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site". In Europe the "Insect Migration & Ecology Lab" is also following the red admiral migration in that area.

American lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
. © Beatriz Moisset
We know that they fly north in the spring and south in the fall. How far they go or whether some hunker down and spend the winter in colder areas is not known. Years ago it was thought that the ones that migrated to northern latitudes never made it back, just died without descendants; but that may not be the case. The migration of the painted lady in Europe is better studied. There, it is capable to fly in the fall all the way from England to North Africa, a deed as impressive as that of the monarch.

I hope you are as intrigued as I am about these globe trotting butterflies. This may inspire you to join the efforts to unravel the mystery of their migration and also provide habitat for them. Next year, enjoy your Vanessa butterflies that come to call.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) for comparison
© Beatriz Moisset


1 comment:

  1. I am not a very organized person, but I should check out the link. I've seen red admirals and painted ladies on the native flowers for many seasons. I am seeing painted ladies more than red admirals this summer and fall. I think that is usually the case.

    Thanks for these posts! I did not know these butterflies also migrated.