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Butterfly Conservation

Butterfly Conservation- Glasgow & South West Scotland Branch

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)


The Painted Lady is a large migratory butterfly (wingspan 58-74 mm) that arrives in varying numbers each year in south west Scotland. Both sexes are similar with beautiful salmon-pink/orange wings marked with patches, stripes and spots of black and white. The underside of the hindwing is brown with white venation and a row of blue eye spots along the outer edge. The underside of the forewing has a bright patch of deep pink and stripes of black and white along the leading edge.

Adults seen in late summer from broods bred in Scotland are about two thirds of the size of the migrant forms which arrive from Africa in late May and June.

Credit: Jim Black
Credit: Scott Shanks
Credit: Scott Shanks

Life Cycle

Adult Painted Lady butterflies arrive each year from breeding grounds in North Africa. Some of the earliest adults to arrive in the UK are thought to have flown directly from Africa. Later in the year numbers are enhanced by individuals from broods produced in Europe as the butterflies move north. The entire life cycle from egg to adult can take just over a month so multiple broods can be produced during warm years. The female Painted lady lays her green beach-ball shaped eggs singly on the leaves of thistles (Carduus Spp. and Cirsium Spp.), or occasionally mallows (Malva Spp.) and common nettles (Urtica dioica). The black spiny larvae live in a succession of silk tents on the leaves of the food plant, which is also where the pupae are formed.

Flight Times

Adults may potentially be seen at anytime of the year, as individuals can travel huge distances from the permanent breeding grounds in north Africa. In south west Scotland, adults are most often seen from the end of May through to mid October with a peak in June and another peak from mid August to mid September. Adult Painted Lady are very swift flyers but if you see a large orange butterfly in early summer which passes you before you can identify it, it is certain to be a migrant Painted Lady from Africa heading north.

Habitat & Distribution in SW Scotland

Distribution map 2010

The Painted Lady does not form discrete colonies in the UK. It can be found in large numbers when migrating, and sizable numbers can be attracted to open areas with lots of thistles, knapweed or other good nectar sources and it is in such places that eggs are laid during the summer and the home-grown Painted Lady breed. The Painted Lady cannot survive the winter in northern Europe, although there are a few confirmed records of individuals surviving in sheds or buildings in Southern England.

However, unlike the Red Admiral, Painted Lady do not appear to make a reverse migration south each autumn which is odd as there is no evolutionary advantage in migrating north to breed in Britain and other European countries each summer if there is no reverse migration back south each autumn. Alternatively, Painted Lady do migrate south each autumn, but don't congregate in large numbers like Red Admiral and so go un-noticed. This issue has been resolved in 2009 when some recorders witnessed Painted Ladys heading out to sea from the South Coast. See Butterfly Conservation Press Release..

In its breeding grounds in Africa, the species continually produces broods and doesnít have a hibernation stage. It has been estimated that some of migratory individuals have flown at speeds of over 150 km per day to get here. The abundance of butterflies reaching the UK is dependent on successful breeding populations in Africa and favourable winds from the south which can bring large influxes into Britain in some summers. Migrants regularly reach as far north as northern Scotland and some individuals have been seen on St Kilda.


  • Barbour, D., Moran, S, Mainwood, T & Slater, B 2008. Atlas ofr Butterflies in Highland & Moray. Big Sky.
  • Futter, K., Sutcliffe, R., Welham, D., Welham, A., Rostron, A., MacKay, J., Gregory, N., McCleary, J., Tait, T., Black, J. & Kirkland, P. 2006. Butterflies of South West Scotland. Argyll Publishing. (see Atlas page)
  • Asher, J., Warren, M, Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G., Jeffcoate, S. 2001. The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain & Ireland. Oxford University Press.
  • Fox, R., Asher, J., Brereton, T., Roy, D., Warren, M. 2006. The State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Pisces Publications.
  • Thomson, G. 1982. The Butterflies of Scotland. Croom Helm London.
  • Tomlinson, D. & Still, R. 2002. Britainís Butterflies. WILDGuides.

Written by Scott Shanks & Andrew Masterman

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