Red Admiral Butterfly

Red Admiral Butterfly

American Lady Butterfly

American Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly

West Cost Lady Butterfly

West Coast Lady Butterfly

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 above 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: mariposa@iastate.edu

This site was most recently updated on October 29, 2019.

Recent News

October 8, 2019

Although Red Admirals were first seen migrating southward in central Iowa in early September, their migration remained sporadic and sparse here until the end of the month.  This year, unlike during 2017, most of the migrating Vanessa have been staying to the north, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, for much of September.  That is, until the weather patterns changed during the past week....

Larger numbers of Red Admirals first appeared in Ames on  September 30, when an unseasonably warm and humid air mass over the Midwest led to the development of gusty south winds that kept the butterflies, along with some roosting Monarchs, from proceeding further southward. Some of these butterflies, seen feeding on fallen apples in an orchard, were an intermixture of fresh and partly-worn individuals, perhaps from two different generations.

A cold front moving eastward into this warm, humid air mass spawned strong to severe thunderstorms during the afternoon and evening of October 1, which was followed by cool overcast for the next two days.  October 4 then dawned mostly sunny, a cool, crisp day with light to moderate winds alternating between northeasterly and southeasterly.  And that's when the migrants appeared again - a nearly equal mixture of Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, along with three Monarchs, flying generally south-southwest from 1 to 3 p.m. through cool air that never got warmer than 60 F.

October 5 was another thundery day of heavy rain, followed by a cool sunny day on the 6th, when the Vanessa butterflies were once again out and about and showing signs of moving.  Then the migration really picked up on the 7th.  As the air warmed above 60 F after 10 a.m., the butterflies started moving, and by 12 p.m., the southward migration was definitely underway.  Being mostly Red Admirals this time, the migrants arrived on average once every four minutes across a 100-foot east-west line, with sometimes two or three coming in a minute around the 1 p.m. peak.  The migration then gradually decreased and ended for the day shortly after 3 p.m.  At that point, I went back to the orchard that I had visited on September 30 and found about 30 Red Admirals there along with a few Polygonia comma, all feeding on fallen apples (pictures at https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/34054397).  They remained active there until after 4:45 p.m., when the area was becoming shaded and the butterflies started departing for the evening.

Although migrating Vanessa butterflies are not as obvious as Monarchs, when they are as abundant as they have been here recently, they are readily spotted flying generally southward.  Go out to an open area on clear, crisp days with nearly-calm to moderate northerly or westerly winds and watch for dark or orange butterflies smaller than Monarchs flying from near the ground to eye level to 30 feet/10 meters overhead.  Even if you do not see any flying, look at the fallen fruit beneath fruit trees for Red Admirals and other butterflies taking advantage of the feast.

-- Royce Bitzer, October 8, 2019

July 31, 2019

One month after the last Painted Lady irruption in the final days of June, another generation, perhaps even larger, suddenly emerged in central Iowa on July 29 and 30.  I went out on a survey and collecting trip in Story and Boone Counties on the 30th, and found hundreds of fresh butterflies milling around and flying across Highway 17 and other local roads between Boone and Luther.  There was also a large emergence between Polk City and Ankeny, with perhaps 200 along a stretch of highway between these towns.  Hundreds were also observed along Interstate 80 in eastern Polk, Jasper, and Poweshiek Counties, but there were very few along I-80 farther east in Iowa and Johnson Counties, suggesting a somewhat localized irruption so far.  Many of the butterflies seen along I-80 were flying north, but others were flying in various different directions.

Farmers in our area continue to have problems with "thistle caterpillars" feeding on their soybeans.  While I was out monitoring yesterday, I met one grower who said that he had had to spend $30,000 this year for spraying his soybean fields for Painted Lady caterpillars.  He was also disappointed to hear from me that there could be yet another generation of larvae before a final brood of butterflies emerges in early September to fly south.

This irruption began earlier in the month in the Omaha, Nebraska area, sometime between July 18 and July 23, as reported by @langabee [https://www.inaturalist.org/people/langabee ] from weekly surveys there.  From those reports, I was anticipating another irruption in central Iowa, while wondering why it wasn't happening here for another week to 10 days after beginning in eastern Nebraska.  Perhaps some observers in western Iowa can fill in the blanks here.

-- Royce Bitzer, July 31, 2019

July 31, 2019

There were several first-of-season Painted Lady observations reported through the CarolinaLeps newsgroup in early to mid-July.  The first was observed on July 9 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina by Gene Schepker.  Two Painted Ladies, along with 7 American Ladies, were observed by Harry LeGrand on July 10 in North Carolina State University farm fields south of Raleigh.  Another first-of-season Painted Lady was observed on July 14 by Carolyn Seaton in Lancaster County, South Carolina.  Painted Ladies typically tend to first arrive in the Carolinas in early to mid-summer, and are often considered noteworthy when they are spotted there.

-- Royce Bitzer, July 31, 2019

July 5, 2019

Large numbers of Painted Ladies have been emerging in central and western Iowa and in the Omaha, Nebraska area (and most likely elsewhere in Iowa and the upper Midwest).  In central Iowa, the numbers of adult butterflies were relatively low up to and on June 27.  However, large numbers of mature 5th-instar larvae were observed feeding on thistles near Dawson, Iowa on June 17, and larvae were also reaching pest levels in some Iowa soybean fields - suggesting a huge irruption was about to occur.  Then, beginning on June 29, the next generation suddenly emerged in huge swarms, with hundreds along a typical mile of Iowa roadside.    Painted Ladies had not yet emerged in northeast Iowa as of July 3, but larvae were present. suggesting that the irruption there is just a matter of time, and is likely to be accompanied by other butterflies arriving from more southerly regions.

These are the abundant offspring of a previous generation of butterflies that arrived in Iowa this spring from the western U.S., perhaps from regions such as Colorado or New Mexico, where large outbreaks had occurred from early April to mid-May.  The butterflies emerging now are perhaps the fourth or fifth generation since the first ones appeared in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico late last winter. 

April 30, 2019

Red Admirals continue to become more abundant in the upper Midwest and southern Ontario, despite several intervening interludes of cold weather. They migrated in on days when warmer, moister air was flowing up from the south. The first of two migration waves occurred on April 15-16, resulting in an abrupt increase in both butterflies and observers noticing them for the first time this year. Locally, I observed Red Admirals flying consistently northward on the 16th, as well as a threefold increase of Red Admirals in territories late that afternoon, as compared with a previous survey a week earlier. After a cooler period, a second and perhaps larger wave arrived in various parts of the Midwest from April 21 -24, again resulting in a further increase in the local population. Observers in Minneapolis, southern Wisconsin, southern Michigan, and southern Ontario reported large increases in Red Admirals, and some substantial northward migrations occurred in southern Ontario, raising the question of whether Red Admirals were actually crossing Lakes Erie and Ontario.

A subsequent period of cooler weather has quieted their activity recently, with far fewer seen during a local survey on April 29th than during a previous one on April 23. Whether this is due to the butterflies sheltering from the cool weather or to an actual decrease in numbers remains to be seen.

-- Royce Bitzer, April 30, 2019