Which Vanessa?

Two butterflies, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atlanta) and the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), are both migrants to the UK from their breeding grounds in Europe, and in the case of the Painted Lady, North Africa and Arabia. Both species can breed successfully in the UK, if arrival is early enough and produce a second generation that is then believed to migrate back to its original breeding grounds. Given the right conditions some can hibernate as adults throughout the winter in the UK.  They can therefore be found all year, but especially from April-October. In favourable years these species can be found throughout the UK, with the Painted Lady being known to migrate to the Arctic Circle. They are easy to spot as they visit nectar rich flowers, especially Buddleja davidii, with the Red Admiral also visiting tree sap runs, and rotten fruit for sugars.

The Painted Lady is very much a brilliant orange from above, with areas of dark brown to black near the forewing tips, interspersed with a row of white dots. There are also rows of dark brown to black spots across the hindwing, and the veins on the wings appear dark brown to black, see image 1. From beneath, the wings are both patterned with white and golden browns, with the hindwing having a row of eyes, see image 2.

The Red Admiral on the other hand is mainly black from above, with a dark orange to red strip across each forewing and the edge of the hindwing, with several white spots near the forewing tips, see image 3. From beneath, the wings are highly patterned and appear to look metallic, except the red stripe on the forewing and several small eye spots, see image 4.

The species larval food plant is mainly Nettles, both Common (Urtica dioica) and Annual (Urtica urens) for the Red Admiral, Thistle species (Cirsium spp.) for the Painted Lady, see images 5-6. Both species’ caterpillars form tents of leaves and silk, feeding on the tender shoots within, before moving and creating another tent. The chrysalises of both are also two of the easiest to find on the food plant, spinning several leaves together and pupating within them on the plant, see image 7. Typically the Red Admiral caterpillar is black with tufts of hairs, with a yellow stripe down either side of the body, the Painted Lady is similar, but has a thinner stripe and the underside of the body is a grey brown, see images 8-9.

As you may have been aware, starting the 21st of May 2009 and ending a few weeks later, Painted Ladies migrated in significant numbers to the UK, possibly the largest number ever in recorded history, with over 1 billion individuals. I for one, in Hampshire, counted thousands an hour coming up a small field from the south coast!

Sites you may wish to visit are:





Please record any sighting on campus including the date, in the comments section below, for assessment by subsequent authors.

We thank photographers from UK Butterflies for permission to use their images.  Individual credits are given with each image.

About Justin Anthony Groves

As a student of Ecology and Conservation at Reading University i am very interested many other insect groups, botany and the interaction in nature. Over a number of blogs I hope to pass my knowledge to others but also gain from the many other interesting posts.
This entry was posted in Animals, Asteraceae, Butterflies, Flowering Plants, Insects, Lepidoptera, Plants. Bookmark the permalink.

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