Saturday, October 7, 2017

Painted Lady Butterflies Making Mass Migration

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.

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Amanda Korb is a senior at St. Lawrence University and an intern at the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

10 Responses

  1. Boreas says:


    Does the PL migration north take place in one generation, or is it gradual over several generations as with Monarchs?

  2. Amanda Korb says:


    I believe the PL migration is multigenerational!

    • Boreas says:

      Thanks Amanda! I was trying to figure out why Monarch migration south was done in one trip vs. northbound being several generations long. The fact that PLs and perhaps other migrating species supports my thoughts that it is a very good system. If you think of it, spreading a migration out over several years and multiple generations helps ensure species survival in case of an abnormally destructive season or year with food or weather and high mortality. If an entire generation is wiped out in the south, the north will still harbor a few generations, and vice-versa. I am always amazed at the different ways Nature hedges her bets!

  3. Wally Elton says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been seeing them.

  4. Marisa Muratori says:

    Ah! I was wondering about the recent prevalence of these beauties. Now I know …thanks

  5. Charlie S says:

    I saw these butterflies in great numbers a few weeks ago near Day, NY and in Northville, Edinburg and all over that area. Also just a few days ago I saw a bunch of them in Blue Mountain Lake coming to the flowers at the Adirondack Museum. A positive note…“most massive migration since the ’80’s”

  6. Larry Roth says:

    There are several articles of interest about the Painted Ladies at the BBC.
    Their swarms this year have been big enough to show up on radar in the Denver area.

    Radar has also solved the mystery of their migration out of England every year – they travel at high altitude on their 9,000 mile journey to warmer climes. This beats the more famous Monarch migration for distance traveled.

    There’s a documentary about their journeys.

  7. Les clark says:

    Why are they migrating north west frm colorado?
    Why is compass misguiding them? Or is it informing them?

    R they affected by pesticides on farms?

    What about northwest fires n smoke?

    Thanks so much,

    Les Clark

  8. Mark Story Jenks says:

    Right now I have loads of them here in New Jersey.

  9. […] Throughout the summer, I kept finding more caterpillars and moving them to the new licorice plant in the back yard. My husband decided to “go green” and not use pesticides in our yard. Our reward, one afternoon in October, my husband walked by the brilliantly flowering lantana plant and the sky filled with at least twenty butterflies.  Over the next two weeks, we had countless painted lady butterflies in our flower gardens collecting nectar for their long migration to Mexico. […]

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