“It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies,” mused Vladimir Nabokov, a novelist who may be remembered for Lolita, but who also enjoys enduring fame among entomologists and butterfly collectors as one of the great lepidopterists of the twentieth century.
Our butterfly of choice this summer is the painted lady. We chose it because it is easy to overlook, but when actually observed is spectacular.
The painted lady can’t match the blatantly big size of the giant swallowtail (Outside, August 2015) or the uniformly bright coloration of the familiar monarch (August 2014). When seen flying below eye level, the topside of this lady’s wings (there is more than one species of lady) are mostly a pinkish orange with dark marking–nothing to call immediate attention to this flyer.
But wings have two sides. When the painted lady perches to drink nectar at a flower and raises its wings, revealing the underside, there is a lot to get excited about. As with most butterfly species, the underside looks totally different from the topside. It is very fancy. There is a multiplicity of patterns, a complexity of design, an image that looks like pure fantasy.
Is there a purpose to the orange and dark topside and the patterned underside? We are driven to find meaning in everything, even the color and design of butterfly wings. Sharman Apt Russell, the author of An Obsession with Butterflies, offers a novel view about the painted lady’s wings. After noting that orange and dark are warning colors and the underside colors blend with surroundings, she writes that if the perched butterfly is discovered by a predator, it will move a forewing to flash a hidden orange patch. “The blue jay is startled and his search image becomes confused. Am I looking for something colored or something camouflaged?”
The underside design includes four eyespots. Do these too have a purpose? Butterfly literature theorizes that eyespots are an attempt to scare off predators. Several butterfly species have eyespots, including the American lady, which has two large eyespots on the wing underside (as opposed to the painted lady’s four smaller ones), and the common buckeye butterfly, which has eyespots on both sides of its wings.
The eyespots certainly add interest to the design. The painted ladies we have seen here in late summer have some blue in the eyespots. Not all painted ladies have blue eyes; some field guides do not mention this variation.
We would tell you about the painted lady caterpillar, but we have never seen one. Ronda Spink, coordinator of the Michigan Butterfly Network, says she has seen plenty of painted lady caterpillars–but never one in Michigan in a natural environment.
This is not to say that there are no painted lady caterpillars in Michigan. Raised commercially, they are commonly sold to schools for classroom projects. The butterflies themselves are also sold for release at weddings and other special events. (Trafficking in butterflies is controversial; the North American Butterfly Association frowns on it.)
When and where to see painted ladies? They are a migratory species and the most widely distributed butterfly in the world. And yet while they are sometime present in large numbers, sometimes they are scarce. No one has pinned down the reason for this fluctuation.
They can show up in a wide variety of natural habitats. We have seen them in our front yard–although all our “butterfly friendly” plants are in the backyard. In public places, we suggest starting with Matthaei Botanical Gardens; we have had good luck there. Among city parks, Natural Areas Preservation stewardship specialist Becky Gajewski says their records show Olson Park as the one where the most painted ladies have been observed.
Our experience is that this butterfly does not show up until late August or September. Spink also sees painted ladies as being late arrivals. When you see one, be sure to patiently stay with it until it perches and raises its wings. Magic!
Cherish the view; painted ladies have a lifespan of only about two weeks.