The Painted Lady is a stunning migrant butterfly species which spends much of winter feeding in northern Africa before migrating up into Europe as the weather here improves. This is likely because it is at this time of year that Africa becomes dry and barren and so few food plants are available for the Painted Ladys to breed on.
In many ways the Painted Lady appears as a more fragile and subtle version of the Small Tortoiseshell (Anglais urticae) though the base colour is more orange than red. It is an average-sized butterfly with gentle markings on the wings.
Once the Painted Lady reaches the UK it can be found in most habitats as a widespread sign of summer. They enjoy feeding on nectar-rich plants like many butterflies and so are often encountered in gardens feeding on Buddleia and the like. They may also be encountered in grassland, forest edges and virtually anywhere that they may be gathering nectar are looking for egg laying locations.
The young larvae feed on thistles or nettles in the UK. Caterpillars which pupate early in the season may try to breed in the UK laying a second generation of eggs. In the autumn, adults fly back south down to northern Africa for the winter.
The complete breeding cycle was unknown until 2009 when the UK as well as much of Europe experienced one of their largest influxes of this species ever. Public interest and a combination of media sources such as daily newspapers, Butterfly Conservation and BBC2’s Autumn Watch helped us to trace the flight-paths of the species, and so prove once and for all that the adults do indeed migrate back to Africa in the autumn.