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painted lady butterfly butterflies learn about painted ladies

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Painted Lady on Lavatera maritima (Tree Mallow)

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What is the Painted Lady?

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly is a small- to medium-sized butterfly commonly found throughout the world, except on Antarctica and with limited range on Australia. It is known as the 'Cosmopolitan Butterfly' or 'Thistle Butterfly' because it is found in so many locales and because it is often found on its oft-used host plant, the Thistle.

If you have ever purchased or receoved a butterfly 'kit' then the butterfly you received was the Painted Lady! Yep, that's right! So, you are already familiar with this darling butterfly and you didn't even realize it…(Insectlore sells their Butterfly Garden and Butterfly Pavilion kits, pictured at the left, with either certificates to mail in for the larvae or come with them when ordered online).

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The Vanessa cardui is a small- to medium-sized butterfly, with a wingspan no wider than about 2.875", in the Brush-foot or Nymphalidae family. If you look super closely at the adult butterfly, you will see that it appears to only have FOUR legs. Why? This is because the first two legs are a bit smaller and are often not even noticeable! (This is what makes them part of what's called the 'brush-foot' group.)

In this picture, it appears the butterfly has just four legs (although you can't see that 4th leg, you know it is there behind the wings). Those first two 'brushfeet) are pulled up against its thorax.

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In this enlarged picture, you can actually spot the two forelegs. The two legs are pulled up close to the thorax, just under the butterfly's head. They almost appear as furry hooks…

You can also easily see the proboscis as it is unfurled as this lovely butterfly drinks one of its favourites… California Navel Orange 'juice.' A butterfly's proboscis is like a straw. Butterflies get all of their main nutrients when they are caterpillars; as adults, the 'nectar' they sip is generally for an extra energy boost for flying or in the case of the male, to help with gathering the necessary nutrients for mating purposes.

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Can you see the little white dots at the end of its antennae? The antennae are sensors for 'smelling.'

How about the joints on each leg? If you look really closely, you might even be able to spot the little 'hooks' on the end of each leg…butterflies 'taste' with their 'feet.'

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Despite the antennae for its sense of smell and its feet for its sense of taste, the Painted Lady, like most butterflies, do not have a good sense of sight. They rely on their senses of taste and smell to help them find the host plant. Fortunately, this butterfly has MANY host plants which is one of the reasons it is called the Cosmopolitan Butterfly.

The Vanessa cardui uses plants in the Malvaceae and Asteraceae family (and even some of the Fabaceae family which are the legumes) and, chances are, you have at least one of the plants growing in your own backyard. So, if you have Cheeseweed (which you've probably been pulling up in your backyard!) or grow Hollyhock flowers, then you have one of the host plants! Others include Thistle, Tree Mallow, Bush Mallow…

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Now, you may be thinking, "Cheeseweed? What in the heck is Cheeseweed?" This particular 'weed' (Malva sylvestri) is one grows readily in Southern California yards in the springtime. Traditionally, after El Niño years, there tends to be a rapid growth of this particular plant, which means, there is an increase, all of a sudden, in the appearance of the Vanessa cardui butterfly!

Cheeseweed (in Spanish it is called Malva) looks a lot like Geranium…the leaves are sooooo similar that many folks don't realize that they are two different plants. This common host plant can be a nuisance in the garden but is wonderful for the Painted Lady butterfly as it provides a lot of opportunity for the butterflies to oviposit (lay eggs) and begin the life-cycle, once again.

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assorted Painted Lady caterpillars on
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©2010 Learn about Painted Lady butterflies

Sherry Skipper Spurgeon

©2010 Learn about Painted Ladies
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