Painted Lady

Vanessa cardui (va-NESS-uh KAR-doo-eye)

Painted-Lady- 5D30342 Lincs 18 Aug 2013
Photo © IainLeach

Male: 58 - 70mm
Female: 62 - 74mm

Checklist Number

Family:NymphalidaeRafinesque, 1815
Subfamily:NymphalinaeRafinesque, 1815
Tribe:NymphaliniRafinesque, 1815
Genus:VanessaFabricius, 1807
Species:cardui(Linnaeus, 1758)

< Previous SpeciesNext Species >


This species is a migrant to our shores and, in some years, the migration can be spectacular. The most-recent spectacle, in 2009, is considered to be one of the greatest migrations ever, with sightings from all over the British Isles that are definitely on a par with previous cardui years.

This species originates from north Africa, and it has been suggested that the urge to migrate is triggered when an individual encounters a certain density of its own kind within a given area. This theory makes perfect sense, since this species can occur in high densities that result in foodplants being stripped bare on occasion with many larvae perishing as a result.

Unfortunately, this species is unable to survive our winter in any stage. This is a real shame, for not only does this species often arrive in large numbers, but is a welcome sight as it nectars in gardens throughout the British Isles in late summer. This butterfly has a strong flight and can be found anywhere in the British Isles, including Orkney and Shetland. An interesting fact is that this butterfly is the only butterfly species ever to have been recorded from Iceland.

Vanessa cardui

This species was first defined in Linnaeus (1758) as shown here (type locality: Europe, Africa).

Painted Lady - Rackham Gulley, Sussex 4-Aug-2013

Photo © Neil Hulme

Painted-Lady- 5D34781 Lincs 18 Aug 2013

Male Underside
Photo © IainLeach

Painted Lady  (Reared - Freshly Hatched) Caterham, Surrey 28-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady, Abbots Wood, 27/07/2014

Female Underside
Photo © Pauline

Photo Album ...


The table below shows a chronology of vernacular names attributed to this species. Any qualification of the name (e.g. male, female) is shown in brackets after the name.

1699Papilio Bella DonnaPetiver (1695-1703)
1699Painted LadyPetiver (1695-1703)
1795Thistle ButterflyLewin (1795)

Conservation Status

Long term distribution and population trends both show an increase. Since the presence of this species in the British isles is wholly dependent on immigrants from the continent, this species is not a conservation concern.

UK BAP StatusOccurrence Change
1976-2014 (%)
Abundance Change
1976-2014 (%)
Occurrence Change
2005-2014 (%)
Abundance Change
2005-2014 (%)
Not Listed
Large Increase+133
Large Decrease-84

The table above shows the occurrence (distribution) and abundance (population) trends, using information from The State of the UK's Butterflies 2015 (Fox, 2015). Any UK BAP status is taken from the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) (2007 review).


This butterfly can be found almost anywhere, from the seashore and town gardens, to the tops of the highest mountains. This is one of the few species that can breed in intensive farmland since even these sites typically contain a patch of Thistles, the primary foodplant of this species.



Click here to see the distribution of this species or here to see the distribution of this species together with specific site information overlaid.

Life Cycle

Adults are first seen in late March as they start to arrive on our shores and numbers build up in May and June as further migrants arrive from the continent. These breed and give rise to the next generation that peaks in early August. There may be more than one brood in the British Isles each year - depending largely on the weather.

This butterfly is continuously brooded on the continent, which may be the cause of its ultimate demise in the British Isles, since it seems unable to survive our winter in any stage. However, it is thought that some individuals may make an attempt at a return migration in autumn.

The chart(s) above have been correlated with the phenology plot below, taken from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. The blue line gives average counts over the full data set from 1976 to date, and the red line gives the average for the last year.


A newly-emerged adult is flushed with a beautiful salmon-pink and is a most-beautiful insect. This colouring, however, fades rapidly with the passage of time - adults not only appear drab, but are occasionally missing various pieces of their wings, especially the apex of their forewings, no doubt the result of nectaring on plants such as Thistles and Brambles.

Adults feed primarily on Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.). Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Bugle (Ajuga reptans), Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris), Hawkweeds (Hieracium/Hypochoeris), Heather (Calluna vulgaris / Erica spp.), Ivy (Hedera helix), Knapweeds (Centaurea spp.), Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) are also used.

Vanessa cardui

Painted Lady [Nick Sampford]

Photo © Nick Sampford

Painted Lady (with blue hindwing spots) Denbies Hillside Surrey 8th September 2016

Photo © millerd

Painted Lady - Solihull West Midlands 22.08.2015

Photo © Neil Freeman

Painted-Lady- 5D36212 Lincs 18 Aug 2013

Photo © IainLeach

Painted-Lady- 5D37374 Lincs 18 Aug 2013

Photo © IainLeach

Painted-Lady- 5D30342 Lincs 18 Aug 2013

Photo © IainLeach

Painted Lady - Alpes-Maritimes - 7 June 2014

Photo © CFB

Painted Lady  Butterfly World, St. Albans, Herts  18th July 2009

Photo © millerd

Painted Lady, Kithurst Hill (13 September 2011)

Photo © Mark Colvin

Painted Lady - imago - Sarnano, Italy - 18-Jun-08 (1)

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady. Ashdown Forest. 8/8/2013.

Photo © badgerbob

Painted-Lady- 5D35274 Lincs 18 Aug 2013

Photo © IainLeach

Painted Lady, West Sussex (10 September 2012)

Photo © Mark Colvin

Painted Lady - Danebury - 26-7-09

Photo © Gwenhwyfar

Painted Lady - Magdalen Hill Down - 11 Aug 2009

Photo © Clive

Painted Lady - Imago - Brampton Wood, CAMBS - 20-09-09

Photo © Trev Sawyer

Painted-Lady- 5D30094 Lincs 18 Aug 2013

Photo © IainLeach

Painted Lady - Five Rivers - 26 August 2012

Photo © Wurzel

Male and Female Painted Lady - Wolstonbury Hill, Sussex 8-Aug-2103 [Richard Roebuck]

Photo © Richard Roebuck

Painted Lady (newly hatched) - Caterham, Surrey 25-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Photo Album (42 photos) ...


Eggs are laid singly on a leaf of the foodplant, usually on the leaf upperside. They are light green when first laid but turn grey before hatching. This stage lasts just over a week.

Painted Lady - ovum - Unknown location - 2004 [REARED] [Reg Fry]

Photo © Reg Fry

Painted Lady Egg - The Gallops, Friston Forest, Sussex 11-June-2016

Photo © Gary.N

Photo Album (2 photos) ...


On emerging from the egg, the larva moves to the underside of the leaf to feed on the cuticle. This leaves a transparent patch when looked on from above, and the young larva can be quite easy to find as a result. As the larva grows, it builds a silk tent around one or more leaves from which it feeds. This makes them very easy to find in the wild but difficult, no doubt, for a predator to penetrate. As the larva continues to grow, it builds successively larger tents, providing tell-tale clues of its presence to the trained eye.

Larvae seldom leave their original plant and, if several eggs are laid on the same plant, this can lead to starvation as the number of larvae outstrips the available food source. Larvae need good periods of warmth to reach the pupal stage and perish in prolonged periods of cold and damp. There are 4 moults in total.

The primary larval foodplant is Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.). Common Nettle (Urtica dioica), Mallows (various) (Malva spp.) and Viper's-bugloss (Echium vulgare) are also used.

Painted Lady - larva - Pamber Forest - 19-Jul-03

Photo © Pete Eeles

Photo Album (1 photos) ...

1st Instar

Description to be completed.

2nd Instar

Description to be completed.

3rd Instar

Description to be completed.

Painted Lady Larva - Bentley Wood - 27-6-09

Photo © Gwenhwyfar

Painted Lady (3rd instar larva) - Caterham, Surrey 26-June-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady (3rd instar larva) - Caterham, Surrey 3-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady (3rd instar larva) - Caterham, Surrey 3-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady (3rd instar larva) - Caterham, Surrey 4-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Photo Album (5 photos) ...

4th Instar

Description to be completed.

Painted Lady caterpillar, Malaga, Spain - March 2013

Photo © Padfield
Probably an early 4th instar on Borage

Painted Lady Larvae, Dollis Valley Walk, Finchley, London July 2nd 2009

Photo © bugboy

Photo Album (2 photos) ...

5th Instar

Description to be completed.

Painted Lady Larva - Bentley wood - 3-7-09

Photo © Gwenhwyfar

Painted Lady - larva - Bentley Wood - 03-Jul-09 (1)

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady - larva - Bentley Wood - 03-Jul-09 (2)

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady - larva - Bentley Wood - 03-Jul-09 (3)

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady - larva - Bentley Wood - 03-Jul-09 (4)

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady - larva - Forton, Somerset 23 July 09 [Adrian Dexter]

Photo © Adrian Dexter

Painted Lady larva - Caterham, Surrey 30-June-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady larva (coloured form) - Caterham, Surrey 5-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady larva - Whiteford Barrows NNR, Gower, Wales (August 2016)

Photo © Sylvie_h

Photo Album (9 photos) ...


The pupa is formed in a tent of vegetation, using either the foodplant or some other convenient shrub, loosely spun together with silk. The pupa is hung upside down within the tent, attached by the cremaster. This stages lasts around a fortnight.

Painted Lady Pupa (Dark Form), Caterham, Surrey 12-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady Pupa (Pale Form), Caterham, Surrey 15-July-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady - pupa - Thatcham - 31-Jul-03 (3)

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady-pupa-Prestatyn-July,2009.

Photo © Ray

Painted Lady - pupa - Thatcham - 19-Jul-09 (1) {REARED}

Photo © Pete Eeles

Painted Lady Pupa - Caterham, Surrey 5-Nov-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Painted Lady Pupa (2 hours before hatching) - Caterham, Surrey 17-Nov-09

Photo © Vince Massimo

Photo Album (7 photos) ...


Description to be completed.

Click here to see the aberration descriptions and images for this species.

Similar Species

American Painted Lady

Description to be completed.


Watch Video
Watch Video

The following links provide additional information on this butterfly.


The species description provided here references the following publications:

Fabricius (1807) Fabricius, J.C. (1807) Magazin für Insektenkunde, herausgegeben von Karl Illiger.
Lewin (1795) Lewin, W. (1795) The Papilios of Great Britain.
Linnaeus (1758) Linnaeus, C. (1758) Systema Naturae. Edition 10.
Petiver (1695-1703) Petiver, J. (1695-1703) Musei Petiveriani centuria prima-decima, rariora naturae continens.
Rafinesque (1815) Rafinesque, C.S. (1815) Analyse de la nature ou Tableau de l'univers et des corps organisés.