Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Kate Crowley
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Butterflies abound

Going Nature’s Way


October 12, 2017

With the recent continuing warm weather and the flowers still blooming, the bees and butterflies continued to visit the blossoms, gathering nectar and pollen like their lives depended on it — which of course they do. My social media account has been "aflutter" with excited astonishment at the abundance of Painted Lady butterflies. None of us have ever seen so many of these small orange and black butterflies (wingspread of 2 inches). Some people mistook them at first for the larger Monarchs (wingspread of 3.5 inches) since their wings are also orange, black and white, although in a different pattern.

Turns out this abundance or explosion of Painted Ladies is not just in our area, but spread across the country. I read reports from New Jersey to Colorado and in between and everywhere people are commenting on these winged beauties. Someone in Iowa said they were "blanketed" in Painted Ladies.

Until I started looking into this genus (Vanessa) I didn’t know that it was the most widespread of all butterflies in the world, found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Because of that fact, they are sometimes called the Cosmopolitan; and also known as the Thistle butterfly since that is its preferred food as a caterpillar.

Like Monarchs these butterflies spend the winters, with few exceptions, in northern Mexico or the Southwest U.S. They, too, have several generations in their move northward each spring and summer, but irruptions like this one don’t happen every year. At Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa, a butterfly survey counted 747 individual painted lady butterflies in a one-week survey period in early September of this year. Last year’s counts were between 11 and 21 butterflies in the same period.

Another report from the southern edge of Nebraska counties indicated there were tens of thousands in the area, so much so, that a gravel road was completely covered by them for about 12 feet. The butterflies were taking moisture from manure on the road.

A curator at the Reiman Gardens speculated that the increase “could be due to a combination of factors, including favorable spring weather that let them migrate farther north and low predation rates.” It is also possible that a population explosion in Mexico caused massive northward migration in the spring and we are seeing the resultant reproduction after an ideal summer.

I saw the most Painted Ladies on Autumn Joy sedum flowers, but they were reported to be feeding on nectar from native goldenrod and sunflowers, and garden plants such as zinnias, mums, marigolds, dahlias, asters, phlox, verbena and showy stonecrop. I even saw one on top of Brockway Mountain in the U.P. of Michigan last week feeding on the invasive spotted knapweed flowers. I guess it’s "any port in a storm" during migration.

The caterpillars (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one) are fuzzy, spiky looking creatures — somewhat resembling the spines on the thistle plants they feed on. It takes seven-11 days to turn from a chrysalis to butterfly.

I suspect most of these pretty little butterflies have moved south now, as cooler temperatures and more northern winds arrived, but it may still be possible to see a Monarch coming through in the next week or two. Even though the Painted Ladies had a super summer in terms of reproduction success, the same is not necessarily true for the Monarchs. We know they started out with lower numbers this spring and only time will tell if they had the kind of success needed to bring their winter population back up. If you want to follow their numbers and migration be sure to check out Journey North at


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