The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is commonly found around world-wide except on Antarctica and with limited range on Australia. It is also known as the 'Cosmopolitan' or 'Thistle' butterfly.  If you have ever purchased or received a butterfly ‘kit’ and its accompanying larvae (caterpillars)  then chances are, you are familiar with these darling little butterflies.

The Vanessa cardui is a small- to medium-sized butterfly (wingspan no wider than about 2.875") in the Brush-foot (Nymphalidae) family. If you were to look at it closely, it appears to only have four legs because its first two are a bit smaller and are often not even noticeable.

The Painted Lady uses  plants in the Malvaceae family for a host. There are over 100 known plants and some of the more common plants include: Thistle, Hollyhock, Cheeseweed, and Tree Mallow.

Cheeseweed is quite common in the garden and its leaves look suspiciously like those of a Geranium. If you wander around your yard or a park, you will probably come across this particular plant. This is a favourite of the Painted Ladies here in Southern California. After an El Niño year, this plant grows like crazy and the migration of the Vanessa cardui is an amazing sight in the spring due to the growth of this plant.

Now, although Cheeseweed does pop up my garden (much to my poor husband’s annoyance since I want to save all butterfly plants, even the weeds!), I prefer to keep another plant for the ladies—the Lavatera maritima or Tree Mallow, as it is a pretty ornamental plant as well as a good host plant. (It does not have a nice fragrance so don’t let the pretty blossom fool you!)

Click Google, Bing, or Yahoo and search to find images of other host plants but, be careful! Sometimes, people post pictures of what they THINK are the right plants!

IF you have received the five Painted Lady larvae from a butterfly kit then they came in a cup with this goopy khaki smooshy stuff that is an artificial diet along with some literature that states “3 out of the 5 caterpillars will become butterflies.”  Personally, if you hand-raise caterpillars, there should be a better statistic than a 40% mortality rate particularly since most of the kits send out larvae that are not 1st instars (and if a Painted Lady is going to die, chances are more likely it will die during the 1st instar unless you stab it!). Of course, this is an editorial comment…and not intended to anger any of the suppliers! But,…on that note…

Let’s face it, the artificial diet is really not THE thing for these poor babies. I highly recommend that you begin them on an organic diet immediately. Switching over to the organic (as in PLANT) will more than likely increase your chance in getting 100% adult butterflies as opposed to 60%. The literature also states that you should NOT open the lid of the cup for any reason because the container is ‘sterile.’ Ha! Those poor things end up living in their own excrement if you don’t open it up and toss out the frass (poop)! A few are probably dying because they are living in an unclean an unsterile environment! How can the environment be ‘sterile’ if it is poopy? I say open it and toss out the frass. Check out the Raising Butterflies page for more info.

        Special Note: Once a caterpillar HAS been switched over to the organic that it will not go back to the artificial! So, be    

        prepared once you do make the switch to have plenty of fresh leaves available.

Each Spring, Painted Lady butterflies begin migrating northward, much like the ‘famous’ Monarchs. In California, every few years, particularly after an El Niño, there is a massive migration of Painted Ladies that will come up from Mexico. The rains from the El Niño help to increase the number of Cheeseweed and other host plants to grow, and the Vanessa cardui have loads of places upon which to oviposit eggs as they travel. Although they migrate annual, it is during these especially  unusual years where it is most noticeable to see the butterflies because, literally, hundreds of them will be traveling together, en masse, and it makes for a rather awesome sight.

Painted Lady Life-cycle

Let’s take a look at the life-cycle of these little butterflies. The ova (egg) is is a light green somewhat spherical, yet, barrel-shape and is laid singly on the top of host plant leaves. 

Here is a close-up one one.

Painted Ladies can, and may, lay several eggs on one leaf. In this picture, there are four eggs on this Lavatera maritima leaf.

The caterpillars hatch about four days later and look like little ants. The 1st instars are SUPER fast travelers so if you are raising them in a container, I highly recommend that you do not have any holes in the container (unless it is an airtight container which then, you should place either a sheet of tissue paper/coffee filter/paper towel over the top before replacing the lid) because the little things WILL escape! Experience, believe me…

Young Painted Lady larva have an interesting defense behaviour; if startled, they will ‘drop’ as though skydiving or base-jumping! You will think, “What happened?” only to find that the little caterpillar actually dropped a line of silk and was quite clever in tricking his/her predator by disappearing from view this way. After a bit of time, using the silk as a leash or guideline, it will crawl/climb back up. Very fascinating! Sort of like watching Spiderman in action.

Beginning in the 2nd instar you can see the prolegs. The larva do not look the same at the initial instars, much like some other butterfly larvae, which change drastically (like human children). The bristles are beginning to show now (look closely).

Here’s a picture showing several early instars. Note the difference in colouring. The one on the far right is a 1st instar, the middle is a 2nd insta, then a 3rd instar.

(So, the order is 3, 2, 1)

And, here’s as picture of a 4th instar larva. The colouration has changed dramatically from the earlier instars. The spiracles are clearly observable along the sides as well as the bristles (which are not dangerous)


After about two weeks of eating and pooping, the larva will have grown to a length of about 1.25”. Its movement is slower and it becomes restless indicating it is time to pupate. Painted Ladies will pupate with their heads down in a ‘J’ position. With their last molt, the head capsule pops off (that’s that little black thing you often see either attached to a chrysalis or falling to the bottom of a container).

The pupa is a somewhat nondescript brownish colour with pretty golden dots. It is a small pupa that can give you a shock because all of a sudden, it will start jiggling like mad! Yes, another one of those defense mechanisms that the Painted Lady has is during the pupal stage it will shake and jiggle like crazy in an effort to scare off predators. The first time it happens, you will wonder what is going on, believe me.

In about two weeks, a pretty little butterfly will eclose (come out of the chrysalis). Now, these little critters seem to have an inordinate amount of meconium (waste material) when they eclose. The meconium is that reddish-orange liquid and is not blood but is made up of the waste materials during the metamorphosis. It can stain something fierce (use organic dish detergent containing coconut oils to remove the stain; Clorox Greenworks is great for this).

The Vanessa cardui will live for only about two weeks. Unfortunately, it is a favourite food for many birds!

Raising Painted Lady butterflies

If you choose to keep the Painted Ladies that you’ve raised in your kit, please be kind and allow them plenty of room to fly as well as something to nectar upon. They are living creatures, after all. Although the mesh pop-up kit is large, it really doesn’t seem large enough to me and a larger habitat would be much more humane (but, that’s a personal opinion). Keep in mind, once again, that these butterflies will usually live for no more than two weeks! At the end of this time, you will find them dead on the bottom of your habitat…

A mesh laundry hamper (the pop-up style) will work fine. Even a children’s playhouse/tent will work well.

(I purchased a Playhut playhouse and have Insectlore’s Butterfly Pavilion which is larger than their Butterfly Garden pop-up).

For ‘nectar,’ the kits recommend a sugar-water solution. I have found that using an organic food-source works much better (and probably tastes better). Using slices of California Navel Oranges, easily found in grocery stores (I have my own tree) or using slices of fresh Watermelon or even a small bowl of Gatorade or Juicy Juice (place a sponge or a scrubby like loofah inside so the butterfly can have something to stand on).

*Note: I have found that providing California Navel Oranges have been like an aphrodisiac to the Vanessa cardui and I’ve had many a pairing afterwards…

If you do use Navel Orange simply place the fruit in a small bowl or on a plate and place it inside with the butterflies. Score the top of the fruit with a knife so the pulp is cut open a bit.

If you use a juice solution, pour it into a bowl and place a clean plastic kitchen scrubby or sponge on the top. The butterflies will sit on top of that to ‘nectar.’

Be sure to change the juice and/or fruit at least every other day to avoid mold growth.

If you do hope to have your butterflies pair up so that you can get some more eggs, then be sure to include the right host plant inside the habitat~

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