Painted lady butterflies in abundance

Just about everyone knows what a monarch butterfly is and about its amazing migration to and from Mexico. But not nearly as many people have even heard of a painted lady butterfly; until this year that is. Reports of painted lady butterflies were all over the twittersphere last week. The most popular one I saw was the weather radar in Colorado picking up a huge swarm of the migrating butterflies.

Although not as big as monarchs, painted ladies are one of our larger butterflies.

In a garden that I tended, I saw many painted ladies passing through. Although there were many more than normal, they were not in radar-detecting numbers, that’s for sure.

Until this week’s frost, I had a couple of hundred late-planted zinnias still going strong. That seemed to be enough to convince the butterflies to stop by the garden to tank-up on zinnia nectar before continuing their journey south. I noticed there was a wide size variation in the ones I saw, some were only less than three-quarters the size of the larger ones. Apparently, the larger insects had much better feeding conditions when they were caterpillars than did their smaller companions.

A quick search online shows not much is known about this species compared to the the intensely studied monarch. They’re still figuring out how they find their way south and what triggers them to migrate. Unlike the monarchs that take more than one generation to migrate, the painted ladies make the entire trip as a single adult. They’re often found in their southern range all beat up from the long flight, yet they still search out just the right plants on which to lay their eggs.

All around the country the same thing happened this year: a large expansion of the painted lady butterfly population. Some scientists are so impressed by some of the reports that they are comparing this rare event to the summer’s total eclipse. I hope you had a chance to see some and weren’t left out of what was possibly a once in a lifetime occurrence.

Will we be seeing more painted lady butterflies next year and the years to come? It makes sense that we will. The large population means more adults surviving to reproduce. Was this a population boom that will crash next year? I certainly hope not. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out.


Bob Dluzen
As a result of being a gardener for more than 40 years, 30 of those as a professional, Bob's gardening has become an integral part of his life. "It's the ever-changing seasons and the wide variety of plants and gardens that keeps me intrigued," he says. Bob lives and gardens in rural Monroe County.