The Admiral and the Lady

Although butterflies are pretty scarce in the garden these days, I thought it was appropriate to showcase the red, white, and blue of the Red Admiral in a July 4th post.  I saw just one Red Admiral last week, but back in April (17th to be exact), they were abundant nectaring on the creeping Charlie that is running rampant through the backyard.  Flitting and perching everywhere, they were so numerous I started to lose interest in them in favor of finding something a little rarer to photograph.

Red Admirals can overwinter in temperate parts of North America, Europe, and Asia, and thus can be one of the first butterflies we see in the spring.  Males defend a small territory, perching high and swooping down on likely female targets.  Females lay their eggs singly on low vegetation, preferring nettle, which had just barely emerged this early in the spring.  Bad timing for caterpillar production.

Red Admirals are named for the red-orange, white, and blue color scheme in their forewing, which you can just barely detect in this photo.

A close cousin (i.e., same genus and subgenus) of the Admiral is the Painted Lady, probably the most widely distributed butterfly in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica and South America.  I saw Painted Ladies in May in the backyard this year, and thought they were Eastern Commas.  Going back to look at those photos again, I realized the butterflies had eyespots on their hindwings, which Commas don’t have.

This morning, one lonely and bedraggled American Painted Lady fed on the purple coneflowers, but it was so hot already at 9 a.m., there was no need for the butterfly to spread out its wings to let its abdomen heat up.  So this was the only glimpse of the top of its wings I got.

The colors are faded and large chunks of the wings are missing, so this must be an elderly butterfly.  Black and white spots on the forewing resemble those in the Admiral, but the rest of the pattern is entirely different.  Resting in the closed-wing position, you can easily see the distinguishing eyespots of the American Lady on the underside of the hindwing, and the slightly pinkish-orange color of the forewing, both diagnostic for this species.

The dispersal migration of American Painted Lady butterflies from the southwestern U.S. can be quite dramatic, as thousands of butterflies move inland to feed and breed on desert vegetation that springs up following the rainfall of an El Nino winter.  As in Monarch butterflies, there is a generation of these butterflies that migrates south again in the fall, to replenish the overwintering populations.

Painted Lady butterflies are popular subjects for elementary school science classes because their caterpillar stage takes only 7-11 days, and another 7-11 days for the pupa to mature and emerge as a new butterfly.

3 thoughts on “The Admiral and the Lady

    • When was that? We had lots of them here in early spring and then they disappeared. With all the warm weather in the north woods this year, maybe the butterflies kept right on going up to Canada!

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