This migratory butterfly species is starting to reveal its secrets.
The Painted Lady, also known as Sondagsrokkie or, more officially Vanessa cardui, is a common butterfly in the family Nymphalidae. This family is called “brush-footed butterflies” because, in the adults, the front legs are small brush-like sensory organs—they thus appear to have only four legs and not six. It is one of the most widely distributed species of butterfly, found on all continents except Antarctica and South America.
Painted Ladies are a strongly migratory species over most of their very extensive range. In Southern Africa, spring and early summer migrations from inland to the KwaZulu-Natal coast have been seen, while in the Western Cape, spring migrations from the north to the Cape Peninsula are frequent.
Recent research has uncovered one of the mysteries about Painted Ladies in Britain. Thebutterflies migrate there in summer from the Continent, but then disappear in autumn. Do they make a return journey or do they just die in the icy British winter? A massive citizen science project that also included scientists from Butterfly Conservation, the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Rothamsted Research, among others, has now shown that the migration to Britain in summer is mirrored by a southward migration back to Europe but at an altitude of 500m, out of the sight of observers.
The research also showed that these migrations are part of an astonishing 14 000 km round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle, a spectacular Odyssey that surpasses that of the Monarch butterflies of North America. This migration is not undertaken by individual butterflies but by successive (up to six) generations. More information is available here.
Painted Ladies’ flight is low down and very rapid, but specimens settle frequently. Males often establish territories on flat ground near large trees and perch on bare patches of earth with open wings. Males also “hilltop”. Hilltopping is a common way for dragonflies, bumblebees, wasps, beetles and flies to attract mates. The males settle on hilltops and females who want to mate know to go there.
Both sexes are very fond of flowers. The species is very tolerant of cold and can be seen on the wing in temperatures that keep most other species grounded.
Painted Ladies feed off a wide spectrum of plants, including Carduus spp., Arctotheca calendula, Arctotis stoechadifolia, Gazania spp., Berkheya discolor and Malva parviflora.
MC Williams, Afrotropical Butterflies, www.metamorphosis.org.za, February 2022
S Woodhall, Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa. Struik, Cape Town, 2020