Painted Lady Butterfly (Cynthia cardui) — ID Guide

The Painted Lady is a migrant species of butterfly that travels from as far away as Morocco. On some occasions we can get a great influx of the species, with it being found throughout the country, while other years you may be lucky to see one or two, if any. The number that we see is generally linked to conditions in the country of origin, amount of foodplants available, winds etc.

It certainly is a rather attractive butterfly and while at rest does not look much like any of our other species, and can sometimes be mistaken for others in flight. The species is relatively large, noticeably larger than a Small Tortoiseshell, but again when some of these species are flying past and you only get a glance, it can be difficult to be certain of your sighting.

Painted Lady – From Tory Island, Co. Donegal. Showing the topside of the wing, you can clearly see the black wing tips with white mottling. Oisín Duffy
Painted Lady – From Tory Island, Co. Donegal. Showing the topside of the wing, you can clearly see the black wing tips with white mottling. Oisín Duffy

Waiting till the species is nectaring or basking, can take patience, but is a good method for getting a closer look. Of course you can also choose to catch the butterfly in a net and then identify it, if you need a better look at the species you can always put it in a container (a small amount of toilet paper in the container will mean that the species will “walk” rather than “fly” around it). The benefit to placing toilet paper in is that it will allow you to get a better look at the species and also keep the individual from battering it’s wing scales all off the sides of the container (butterflies, along with moths, make up a family called lepidoptera, which comes from Greek meaning something along the lines of “wings of scales” or “scaled wings”. This is why if you have ever picked up or moved a dead butterfly or moth you will notice a “dusting” on your hands or fingers, this is in fact numerous scales from their wings).

Painted Lady nectaring on Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) – Oisín Duffy
Painted Lady nectaring on Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) – Oisín Duffy

The species itself is mainly orange with black markings and distinctive black wing tips with white mottling. Unlike the last few species we’ve covered, the Painted Lady actually has a conventionally interesting underside. Chequered and mottled with beautiful sandy browns and white, with subtle eyespots along the underside of the hindwing. This underside can make it difficult to see on stone as it blends in quite well.

Close-up of the underside of a Painted Lady, this particular individual was very hard to see from a distance and taking the picture involved lying prone on an old railway track – Oisín Duffy
Close-up of the underside of a Painted Lady, this particular individual was very hard to see from a distance and taking the picture involved lying prone on an old railway track – Oisín Duffy

The Painted Lady can be found in a number of habitats, it is a migratory species making a journey from as far away as Morocco. The South-East and East Coast of Ireland seem like good spots to get your first glimpse during a Painted Lady year but luckily they don’t stop there, the species will travel throughout the country from these locations. I even spotted a number of Painted Lady’s on Tory Island this Summer during Ireland’s Island BioBlitz.

The Painted Lady does not overwinter in Ireland, but the main foodplants for this species are Thistles. It’s another case of beautiful butterfly species coming from rather humble roots, Thistles and Nettles (foodplants for the last three species we covered) aren’t often highly thought of by gardeners or homeowners, but are great for pollinator species.

 

Cheat Sheet (TLDR Version):

Name: Painted Lady (Cynthia cardui)

Larval Foodplant: Thistles – But does not overwinter in Ireland.

Distribution: Common and widespread – during Painted Lady years.

When: Generally start from the end of May / early June and can be seen on the wing all the way till the end of September into early October.

 

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestions regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.

 

Oisín Duffy
About Oisín Duffy 23 Articles
Oisín Duffy is an ecologist and environmental educator with a special interest in the Flora of Ireland and Pollinators. He is the photographer and co-author of Biodiversity Ireland’s identification guide on “Trees and Shrubs”. He has a BA from NUIG and an MSc from NUIG and UL. Oisín is an active biological recorder, and current Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) Vice-county recorder for East Donegal (H34) and participates in a number of recording schemes run by the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Bat Conservation Ireland (BCI) and others. In 2016, Oisín worked in conjunction with the National Biodiversity Data Centre to develop a plant monitoring scheme for Ireland. During the Summer of 2016, he toured Ireland giving workshops for the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. His most recent work has been as a photographer and author of the “Wildflowers in South Armagh”.

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