I am no expert photographer, preferring to capture the moment than get a perfectly composed shot. The pictures on my blog are either taken with a compact Canon, a Panasonic Lumix FZ150 or on my phone.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui

Back in 2016 I posted about the Painted Lady and wondered if 2016 would turn out to be a Painted Lady year. As it turns out, it wasn't a bad year, but it was nothing compared with 2019.

At the start of June I received reports of Painted Ladies being seen flying in from the coast and once inland they continued to fly westwards. This seemed very exciting, but it was nothing compared to the second wave of arrivals.

Towards the end of July a second, much bigger, wave arrived. An almost continuous stream of butterflies were seen flying westwards from the coast. By the end of the year I had received records of 5,395 Painted Ladies, but that must have been a fraction of the number that were actually here.

There are 15 Painted Ladies in this picture!

To give you an idea I normally receive records of somewhere between 25 to 100 Painted Ladies and the best year before this I received records of 176, so in 2019 we saw 30 times more Painted Ladies than we had ever seen.

These butterflies spend the winter in north Africa and then over three or four generations make their way north to Scotland or Scandinavia. I speculated where ours had flown in from and I imagine it was probably the Netherlands or Denmark. That means that they had flown non-stop over the North Sea for over 600 kilometres. I believe that they can fly up to 150 miles a day, which means that they had been flying for four days and nights. I find this quite remarkable. Although we usually only see butterflies flying when the sun is shining, these butterflies had clearly been flying in the dark.

I remember once experiencing a mass arrival of Red Admirals along the coast on a cold, misty day and thinking that it was remarkable that they were flying on a day like that. However, I guess they have no choice once they have set off over the sea but to continue no matter what the weather.

It used to be thought that the adults perished in the UK, unable to survive the cold winter. However, in 2009 sensitive radar picked them up flying south in enormous numbers. These butterflies were heading back to where their great grandparents set off from earlier in the year.

More recent research has been able to trace where a butterfly has spend its life as a caterpillar by identifying the ratio of Hydrogen isotopes found in the butterfly's wings. This has proved that Painted Ladies found in Europe in early spring have originated from Sub-Sahara Africa. So, they have not only crossed the Mediterranean Sea, but also the Sahara Desert. The round trip, though several generations, is about 12,000 kilometres.

Some of my pictures show quite worn Painted Ladies, but I think they deserve to be photographed just as much as a pristine example. They are my heroes of the insect world!


  1. Lovely shots! Let's hope 2021 is a bumper year for them & other migrant insects. Think I saw either 3 or 4 Painted Ladies this year with just one in my garden.

    1. Thank you. You have done better than me. I only saw one Painted Lady this year in June. It was laying eggs but sadly heavy rain the following day washed them away.

  2. Good to see a butterfly post at this time of year Nick. Just one Painted Lady sighting for me on the Isle of Wight in 2020.A brief sighting in the garden,when it was attracted by the verbena. Last year of course I could guarantee that I would see several each day during the summer.

    1. Thanks Peter. I am completely behind with my posts. I will make more effort next year!
      It is interesting what a difference there can be in Painted Lady between years.

  3. Strangely you had far more Painted Ladies last year than we did down South. Most seemed to fly straight through here and head North.

    1. That is interesting. Apparently they arrived in the Outer Hebrides in large numbers in 2019. I often wonder if they continue north west and perish in the Atlantic.

  4. It really is amazing considering them flying this far and for so many Km daily. I might have asked you this before. How do you know that you are not counting the same butterfly more than once?
    We have painted ladies here too, though not in winter.
    Our state butterfly the mourning cloak is said to fly off to somewhere else for winter, but some of them hibernate under the bark of a tree and the first warm-ish day they come out and fly. I have seen one or two on a first warm day of spring.

    1. Hi Tammie Lee. You can't be sure that we are not counting the same butterfly more than once. Most of the records I receive are from scattered places across the county of East Lothian, so there are very unlikely to be repeat counts of the same individual butterfly. However, when there is a small colony of a rare butterfly it is more likely the same individuals are being recorded by more than one person. For instance in 2019 a colony of Holly Blues was found for the first time in East Lothian. Several enthusiasts went to see them and sent me their record, so I had to take that into account, knowing that the four that one person had seen were most likely included in the seven that someone else recorded that same day. In that case I just use the highest count for the day.
      At home, I have been counting Red Admirals each day on my Buddleia bushes. Certainly, I was counting the same butterflies day after day, but I just wanted to see how the number fluctuated, before they migrated south. My intention would be to take the maximum count each week in that case.
      It doesn't really matter if we count a butterfly twice, so long as we count butterflies in the same way year after year to see how they are doing.
      I would love to see a Mourning Cloak. They are very rare visitors to the UK and called the Camberwell Beauty here!