The Adirondack Park is tinted with a new hue of brown this past week, and not from the changing foliage of deciduous trees for winter. The painted lady butterfly with its cinnamon orange wings outlined by mocha appendages is making moves South for what is seemingly the “most massive migration since the ’80’s” as Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch claims.
Commonly mistaken for the monarch butterfly because of the similar coloration, the painted lady finds residence on all continents except for Australia and Antarctica. In the United States, extremely well breeding populations are found in the North, West and Eastern regions. Taylor said he is receiving “reports from Montreal to the Front Range of Colorado [that] entail the mid-continental migration of possibly billions of painted lady butterflies” this year.
“What’s stunning for me is the starkly different bottom. There is so much color and variety on such a flitting creature,” as Simon Schreier, a naturalist with the Wild Center, describes. Just a few days ago Schreier spotted a cluster feeding on goldenrod near the Wild Walk.
Last week was the peak of the migration, which does occur annually, although not in such astounding numbers. Taylor believes the abnormal high count is a compilation of ideal factors for population growth, such as abundant rain, and lack of predation. Notably, other closely related species have not reproduced as successfully in Kansas, Taylor’s region of expertise.
While the rain hindered any outdoor enthusiasts from recreating, the precipitation promoted the growth of sweet and fragrant flowers like asters, the food of choice for painted lady butterflies. “The availability of resources is a huge control factor for pollinators,” says Schreier. Having an abundance of food that withstands the upbeat temperatures of spring to the brisk temperatures of fall is important for long-term viability, painted lady butterflies included.
Taylor also attributes the massive population boom largely to the lack of parasites. He recalls, “When I was a kid, I used to collect [butterflies and caterpillars]. Most caterpillars had fly larvae and such attached to them, so I knew they were going to die.” Taylor believes both the parasite and predator populations, which range from ants to birds, will catch up by next year, thereby balancing the painted lady population.
Painted ladies, like monarchs, are non-reproductive until they migrate south towards Texas or Northern Mexico. Ostensibly, the butterflies store their energy for the flight to warmer climates as cool temperatures set in Northward. Once south, the butterflies remain for two to three generations before making the return journey north. Taylor mentioned in Europe painted lady butterflies are said to fly to the Artic Circle, a 9,000-mile round-trip journey throughout the six generations.
This impressive flight is achievable because painted lady butterflies utilize over one-hundred different plants as host sights for eggs, ranging from soybeans to sunflowers to burdocks — most butterflies only lay eggs on either one or two host species. The host species of choice for the painted lady is a thistle; however, this plant, which naturally wards off predators, doesn’t grow in colder climates and upshots in the need for migration.
Taylor warns fellow naturalists not to “expect for this to happen again for a long time!”
In the Adirondacks and surrounding regions, Schreier encourages people to step into their gardens among the roses to witness this profound migration. “You don’t need to have be in the wild to witness nature. Have a nice moment in your own backyard!”
Photo: Painted Lady Butterfly, courtesy Chip Taylor.