The Painted Lady Butterfly

On thinking about it, there are few species of butterflies I don’t love, but Vanessa cardui or the Painted Lady is another of my absolute favourites. When they have a good year, they fill the first spring flowers with life. When I was a kid there were swarms of them. Even in more recent years there have been occasional times where I’ve seen a nice “flock” of painted ladies on an apple or cherry tree.

They’re a migrating butterfly, and they fly across Lake Ontario to reach my location. They’re exhausted upon arrival, and they search out the nearest blooms. What decides whether they flourish in any given year is the timing of the flowers along their migratory path. There have been years where they crossed Lake Ontario only to find nothing to eat, and they collapsed. It was because we had a late spring, which is an increasing trend related to our climate crisis. The apple and cherry trees, and other early flowers bloomed too late to be any use to them. I think the same happened this spring, though not right here. This year they just didn’t come. Not in my field of vision, anyway. It’s a local observation.

I love the intense salmon pinks to be found in their underwing scales. At their centers, the eye spots contain transparent and iridescent setae that depict the reflections in an eye. Their eyes are completely covered with very fine setae, giving them a distinctive “furry eyeballs” look. Some people find this unsettling. I remember reading in a recent article that these setae can deflect more than 90% of debris colliding with the eye, which would be tremendously important in flight. Still, it must feel very different to go through life unable to close your furry eyes.