This summer visitor from North Africa, the best known of the so-called 'brushfoot butterflies', arrives in springtime and can be seen on the wing in Britain and Ireland until October. Distinctive both by its individual appearance and, some years, for its appearance in vast swarms, Painted Lady is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan that is fairly consistently in the region of 5cm. (Many other butterflies have very variable wingspans.)
Very fond of thistles and mallows, Painted Lady butterflies are also attracted to garden buddleias including, of course, the vast acreages of buddleias that have colonised railway embankments across much of Britain.
Meadow clary, which is still plentiful in many parts of mainland Europe, seems to be particularly attractive to these butterflies, as the picture on the left shows.
These long-distance travellers occurs throughout Britain and Ireland, where some years the spring influx is truly spectacular. On one day in 2011 we had about 100 Painted Lady butterflies in our small rural garden; the numbers soon dwindled as most of them headed on northwards. This butterfly can also be seen in tropical and temperate countries worldwide except for South America.
The larval host plants of this butterfly are various members of the plant families Asteraceae (daisies, formerly known as Compositae) and Malvaceae (mallows). The tiny green egg takes between three and five days to hatch into a black caterpillar with a spiky skin,. The caterpillar feeds avidly on the leaves of the host plant and grows rapidly, moulting several times before pupating in typically seven to eleven days.
The Chrysalis stage lasts a week to ten days before the butterfly emerges.Then, for those Painted Lady butterflies afflicted with wanderlust, begins a long migration of at least several hundred miles and in many instances thousands of miles. Vast swarms move gradually northwards, spreading out to cover every continent except Antarctica and South America.
There is a form of the Painted Lady that is resident in Australia, but some authorities class it as a separate species from the butterfly from North Africa that visits Europe during the late spring and summer.
At first glance, this butterfly could easily be mistaken for a Small Tortoiseshell, but the round black dots near the rear edges of the forewings are very obvious distinguishing features of the Painted Lady.