Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site

/ The Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site

The Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site

This is a web site to coordinate observations of territorial behavior, migration, life history, population studies, seasonal variations in abundance and body size, and number of broods per year (voltinism) of butterflies in the genus Vanessa, including Vanessa atalanta, V. cardui, V. virginiensis, V. annabella, V. tameamea, and V. kershawi. (Red Admiral, Painted Lady, American Lady, West Coast Lady, Kamehameha Butterfly, and Australian Painted Lady).

Although the lady butterflies of the genus Vanessa are not as familiar or as well-studied as the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), their behavior and migration are likewise well worth observing. Much remains to be discovered about their habits and how their behavior and seasonal distribution varies by geographic location. Observers and experimenters ranging from casual to serious can discover new and valuable information about these butterflies. The list at the left links to more detailed information, including summaries of published findings and methods for observing these fascinating butterflies.

Royce J. Bitzer, Ph.D., Department of Entomology, Room 10 Genetics Laboratory, 2333 Pammel Drive, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011, U.S.A.
Phone: (515) 451-9057   e-mail:

This site was most recently updated on April 10, 2017.

Red Admirals Migrating through the upper Midwestern U.S.

Look out for Red Admirals! Large numbers of these butterflies have been migrating northward across the upper Midwest and southern Ontario, Canada in the last few days in the wake of a strong flow of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Some observers have also seen either Painted or American Ladies flying with them.  This wave of butterflies has appeared over a wide area of the upper Midwest from northeastern Kansas to Minneapolis, central Iowa, and southwestern Wisconsin within a relatively short time, between April 6 and April 9, suggesting a sudden incursion from elsewhere.  To further support this possibility, there has been one report of a steady stream of northbound Red Admirals and Painted Ladies throughout the day on April 8 in Polk County in central Iowa.

-- Royce Bitzer, April 10, 2017

Red Admirals in the Siwa Oasis

On February 4, 2017, I saw three Red Admirals when visiting Cleopatra's Spring in the Siwa Oasis in northwest Egypt. These were all larger individuals and at least two of them were partly worn and had some wing damage. Had these butterflies been migrants from Europe, or are they part of an overwintering generation that was born here?

--Royce Bitzer, February 13, 2017

Summer Red Admirals Emerging in Central Iowa

During the last several days, the Red Admiral population in central Iowa has rapidly risen as the new summer generation butterflies have emerged.  The larger, darker summer butterflies are quickly displacing the smaller spring-generation butterflies from the territories that Red Admirals occupy in the evenings.  We have also been seeing some of these fresh individuals flying northward during the day, perhaps migrating, so observers to our north might want to watch for migrants from the south.  Also look for the local summer generation butterflies farther north to start emerging during the next few weeks.

Also, be aware that there may be especially large concentrations of Red Admirals emerging within a few miles or kilometers of rivers, lakes, or wetlands where stinging nettles, the larval foodplant, grow abundantly.  In late June and early July 2015, huge concentrations of Red Admirals appeared in at least a dozen locations in Iowa; most or all of these sites were near rivers or streams.  We will be watching for similar outbreaks this summer.  Observers typically report hundreds to thousands of Red Admirals swarming along roadways on either side of a bridge, or when canoeing or kayaking on a river.  So, if you see one of these outbreaks, please note the date, location, and its approximate size and report it to us.

--Royce Bitzer, June 10, 2016

Vanessa Migration Project page on

We now have a Vanessa Migration Project page on for reporting sightings of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, and other Vanessa species. If you often report observations to iNaturalist, or would like to post photos with your butterfly reports, our iNaturalist project page is another way for you to share your observations with us.

--Royce Bitzer, June 9, 2016

Very Early Vanessa Sightings: Painted Ladies Spotted in Iowa; Red Admiral in Ontario

Two Painted Ladies were spotted in Ames, Iowa on March 10, 2016 by two different observers.  These sightings occurred nearly two months before the typical first Painted Lady sighting in early May.   Another early Vanessa sighting was of a Red Admiral at Point Pelee near Leamington, Ontario on March 16, perhaps a month earlier than is typical for that area.  The strong El Niño and unusual weather patterns this winter may be partly responsible for these butterflies' early emergence and arrival.  There may be more early arrivals in other places this year, so please watch for them.  What you think at first might be an early spring Comma or other anglewing could actually turn out to be a very early Painted Lady - so check carefully!

--Royce Bitzer, March 17, 2016      

Huge West Coast Painted Lady Migration Coming?

The strong El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean this winter has given rise to increased rainfall in southern California during the past 30-60 days.  Rainfall has also been very heavy this winter farther up the Pacific Coast from central California to northernmost Washington State and perhaps further northward.  These conditions are very favorable to give rise to a potentially enormous spring migration of Painted Ladies.  Among this massive stream of butterflies may also be West Coast Ladies, Red Admirals, and perhaps even some American Ladies.  So please watch for them, share your sightings, and especially note flight directions and estimate numbers of butterflies you see.  With the several hundred (or more!) observations we anticipate receiving this spring, we'll have a good opportunity to trace some detailed patterns of butterfly movement as this migration unfolds.

--Royce Bitzer, February 17, 2016

The Unified Butterfly Recorder App

Unified Butterfly Recorder (UBR) is an Android app that provides butterfly researchers and enthusiasts with a tool to use in the field to efficiently record butterfly sighting data. It was designed by a group of computer engineering students as part of a senior design class at Iowa State University in collaboration with the Entomology staff at Reiman Gardens. The purpose of the app is to allow the user a quick and efficient method to collect data across a variety of survey protocols traditionally used by researchers and citizen scientists in the field. The UBR has many unique and useful features, including automatically recording the time and location of each of your butterfly sightings, tracking your own survey route, and creating a map of your butterfly sightings. For more information, select "Population Surveys" from the primary links on the left side of this page, and then select "Unified Butterfly Recorder."

--Royce Bitzer, July 6, 2015

Watch for large swarms of Red Admirals!

Have you noticed enormous swarms of Red Admirals in your area?  Observers throughout Iowa have been reporting huge outbreaks of Red Admirals along particular stretches of roadway, most of which are near the floodplains of streams and rivers.  One of the first of these outbreaks to be reported was discovered on the road west of Luther, Iowa, which crosses the Des Moines River.  The number of flying butterflies started increasing at the western edge of Luther, and seemed to grow exponentially for the next several miles until they peaked near the river, where perhaps several thousand butterflies were swarming at any one time.  They seem to be concentrated in a belt along the river and extending two to three miles on either side of it.

These butterflies had nearly all emerged recently, and had most likely fed as larvae on stinging and wood nettles that are especially abundant in floodplains.  If the kind of outbreaks now happening in Iowa are also occurring elsewhere in the Midwest or in other parts of North America, the Red Admiral summer generation this year could be enormous, perhaps one of the largest ever observed.

Royce Bitzer, June 30, 2015

Western Painted Ladies Reach Seattle Area

The first arrivals of the western Painted Lady migration reached the Seattle area on April 30.  They had probably flown northward from where they had been concentrated in southern Oregon and northern California.

-- Royce Bitzer, May 6, 2015

Red Admirals, American Ladies Migrating in Iowa

Red Admirals have been migrating northward through Iowa in larger numbers beginning on Sunday, May 3. Some Red Admirals have been here for the past few weeks, but the larger numbers we’re seeing since this weekend appeared rather suddenly here in central Iowa on May 3, migrating northward, and they still continue to do so. They arrived in Story County, Pocahontas County, and doubtless in many other parts of the state at this time, flying toward the north-northeast. They probably came with the arrival of the first warm, humid air mass to reach our area this spring. When the winds picked up from the south, so did the butterflies, riding the wind flow northward from some as-yet-unknown area to the south.

Accompanying this wave of Red Admirals has been a relatively small number of American Ladies traveling northward with them.

From where have these butterflies been coming?  Have any observers in states south of Iowa been seeing this migration before May 3?

-- Royce Bitzer, May 6, 2015

Red Admiral

Painted Lady

American Lady

West Coast Lady