Move over Monarch butterflies, Painted ladies are coming to town

While we wait for Monarch butterflies to make their seasonal pass through town, another long distance butterfly migrant is making its presence known in large numbers along the IH35 corridor: Vanessa cardui, commonly known as the Painted lady.

Painted lady, Venessa cardui, on zinnias in Drake White’s garden. Photo by Drake White, the Nectar Bar

Reports of an epic surge of the most common butterfly in the world surfaced last weekend when the ubiquitous speckled insect showed up by the thousands at the University of Kansas at Lawrence’s annual Monarch Watch Open House. The event typically serves as a showcase for Monarch butterflies, which generally migrate through Kansas during these early September weeks.

This year, however, Painted ladies crashed the party, showing up in droves and stealing attention from America’s most iconic insect.

“This is probably the largest migration of that species I’ve seen in over 30 years,” Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch and a host for the event, told the Lawrence Journal World September 8. Taylor will join us here in San Antonio for our festival and symposium, “Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration and our Changing Climate October 20.”

Painted lady

Painted lady, wings open. Photo by Drake White, the Nectar Bar

Some would argue it’s high time the pervasive Painted lady shares in the butterfly limelight. Dusky and speckled when folded, bold, orange and black when open, wings of the Painted lady carry her through Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Central America. Painted ladies are constantly on the move, migrating periodically from the east coast of the U.S. to the deserts of the Southwest to northern Mexico in sporadic and sometimes dramatic numbers. Unlike Monarchs, which only eat milkweed in their caterpillar stage, Painted ladies are much less fussy about their host plant. The caterpillars consume thistles, mallow, legumes and hollyhocks. They even like soybeans, says Dr. Royce Bitzer, a Painted lady expert based at the Iowa State University at Ames. Painted ladies also show no fidelity to a particular roosting spot or overwintering site. They go dormant just about anywhere.

 

Painted lady sightings

Painted lady sightings on iNaturalist. Photo via iNaturalist

Bitzer has been studying the versatile insects for years and tracks them via citizen science reports, personal observation and radar. “Monarchs get all the attention. They’re the big charismatic species,” says Bitzer, whose  Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site provides a comprehensive overview of the butterfly and its close cousins.

Bitzer has been trying with mixed success to do a more systematic assessment of Painted lady life cycles and populations through his website and the citizen scientist app iNaturalist. Those interested can create an account on his site and report sightings here. The observations will be geolocated and shown on a map.

Painted lady on liatris spotted at Kerrville Schreiner Park on September 14. Photo by Cathy Downs

Another option is to join the hundreds of other observers who have filed 4,000 Painted lady observations on iNaturalist. The result of such citizen science is reflected in the map above, which shows the Painted ladies via orange dots on the map.

Bitzer says interest in Painted ladies is as ephemeral as their transitory presence.  “When they have big swarms, large migrations, that’s when I get 20 -30 people a week reporting on the website,” he says.

tagged recovered Monarch

Tagging Monarchs is only workable because they overwinter in the same place, making tag recovery possible. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With this surge in Painted lady population, perhaps that can change. Or, maybe Bitzer could start a Painted lady tagging program like the one implemented by Monarch Watch?

Not likely, since Painted ladies don’t all roost in one place, as Monarchs do each winter in Mexico. Tag recovery would be extremely rare. For that same reason, we don’t tag Monarchs in the spring. Recovering tags is too impossible.

The Painted lady parade in Texas appears to have begun. Butterfly observers on the DPLEX list, an email list serv that reaches more than 800 butterfly scientists, citizen scientists and butterfly fans, are seeing them in Dallas.

“I am seeing dozens of Painted ladies nectaring in spots all over the Fort Worth Botanic Garden,” posted Gail Manning, Entomologist and Education Team Leader for that North Texas-based organization.

Linda Rippert of Meadows Place, Texas, reported Painted ladies “nectaring on all sorts of plants” southwest of Houston. We’re seeing them here in San Antonio, too.

Several Painted ladies nectared on lantana along the South Channel of the Riverwalk earlier this week, and today one fueled up on Duranta in my downtown front yard.  Nectar Bar operator Drake White reports myriad sightings in North San Antonio at her home and Phil Hardberger Park.

Stay tuned for more. They may not be as dramatic as the memorable snout-nosed butterfly invasion of South Texas last September, but the Painted ladies are on their way.

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Red Admiral butterflies everywhere

While we’re waiting for Monarch butterflies to leave their roosts in Mexico and make their way through South Texas, let’s take a moment to appreciate Red Admirals, a striking butterfly that often kicks off the season in late winter and early spring.

Red Admiral on tree

Classic Red Admiral pose: resting on a tree limb. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, have black wings with a white stripe and a distinctive red epaulet when their wings are open; with wings closed, they sport a mottled look like their close cousin, the Painted Lady.

Red Admirals are unusual in that they prefer oozing sap, rotten fruit and even dung to flower nectar. Perhaps their preference for sap, made accessible to them thanks to woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers poking holes in trees, explains their penchant for hanging out on the edges of woods.

Red Admiral wings closed

With wings closed, Red Admirals sport a mottled coloration similar to Painted ladies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They seem to be everywhere lately–lilting on the understory of brush, resting in tree limbs, puddling on damp ground or sunning on warm rocks. In Texas, Red Admirals show up early in the butterfly season. They host on pellitory and members of the nettles family. In the caterpillar stage, they appear blackish-grey with white flecks and harmless spikes.  Their chrysalis looks like a twisted, gold-dusted dead leaf.

“Territorial males like to patrol and perch in the late summer afternoon, darting rapidly after anything to investigate possible females,” said Todd Stout, owner of Raising Butterflies and a past president of the Utah Lepidopterists’ Society.

Adults overwinter and migrate much like their Painted Lady cousins and have even been spotted migrating with Painted Ladies during hatches of the latter, said Stout.  Check out Stout’s thorough account of the Red Admiral life cycle from egg to butterfly on his Raising Butterflies website.

Red admiral chrysalis

Red Admiral chrysalis looks like a dead leaf with gold flecks. Photo by Todd Stout, Raising Butterflies.

Red Admirals also have a reputation as one of the “friendliest” butterfly species.

“Unmistakeable and unforgettable,” reads the description of Red Admirals in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. “The Red Admiral will alight on a person’s shoulder day after day in a garden.” Stories of the small butterflies landing on shoulders, hats and fingers, “riding” with humans are not uncommon.

Connie Hodsdon, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee in Florida, once told me that none of the many species in her massive butterfly garden is as friendly as Red Admirals.

Hodsdon relayed that she once was talking with a friend and pointed to a Red Admiral in her butterfly garden.  “It landed on my finger,” said Hodsdon, who has been breeding butterflies for research, education and celebrations for more than a decade.

“When I reached for it with my other hand, it flew off.  Thinking that what had just happened was a fluke, I put my finger out again and the butterfly came back and landed.  This time, I just walked it back to the flight house and it rode on my finger all the way. ”

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Hodsdon added that you can watch Red Admirals “cleaning their feet,” as the sap makes them sticky.

If you think you might enjoy raising Red Admirals at home, check out the free tutorials on how to do so made available by the International Butterfly Breeders Association, a trade and educational organization for hobbyist and commercial butterfly breeders.

Part I:  https://vimeo.com/120015044
Part II: https://vimeo.com/120123630

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Address Commercial Butterfly Breeders in San Antonio Nov. 7-10

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, will address almost 100 professional butterfly breeders this week at their annual conference in San Antonio.   Dr. Taylor oversees the citizen scientist tagging program that tracks the Monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to Canada and back each year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country last year.  Dr. Taylor will be in town this week to address the International Butterfly Breeders and the Association for Butterflies combined annual convention.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The conference, a combined effort of the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association (IBBA) and the Association for Butterflies (AFB), will bring professional butterfly breeders and butterfly enthusiasts–mariposistas, as I like to call them–to the Drury Inn at La Cantera Parkway in San Antonio, November 7-10. The far-flung butterfly fans will gather from as far away as Costa Rica and as close as Rockport, Texas for education, networking and fun.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady butterflies and Monarchs are the “money crops” of the commercial butterfly breeding industry. Photo courtesy Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

This year’s convention commemorates the IBBA’s 15th year and the founding of the multimillion dollar commercial butterfly breeding industry.   The butterfly breeding business supplies butterflies to schools, museums, zoos and exhibits for education and scientific purposes.  Live butterflies also are tapped to commemorate weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

The conference is open to the public.   “Butterfly beginners are welcome,” said Kathy Marshburn of Vibrant Wings Butterflies in South Carolina and Texas. Marshburn, who serves as IBBA president and conference organizer, pointed to sessions on butterfly gardening, parasites and how to raise butterflies as worthy investments of beginners’ time.

Butterfly garden harvest, May 8, 2011

Getting a caterpillar to the chrysalis stage can be challenging. Come learn the tricks of the trade from the professionals. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This will be my fourth IBBA convention.   Back in 2010, I attended my first in the unlikely venue of Las Vegas.  It set me off on a learning streak.

By the end of 2011 I thought I might want to raise butterflies full-time, as a profession.  I quit my corporate marketing position, applied for USDA permits to ship butterflies to the 48 contiguous states and cultivated my membership in the IBBA.

While my fantasy of becoming a professional breeder lasted only five months (Raising butterflies is too stressful–I’d rather meet copywriting deadlines!), it has been a great investment in my butterfly education. I’ve learned an immense amount and continue to enjoy the friendship and enlightenment offered by my professional butterfly breeder friends. 

Most impressive is the amazing generosity and knowlege-sharing of this fine group of ferociously independent professionals, the majority of whom chose this career because of a sheer love of butterflies.

If you want to learn or refine your butterfly rearing or caterpillar wrangling, I strongly encourage you to check out the program.  Depending on how many sessions you attend, cost ranges from $35 to hear Dr. Chip Taylor at the keynote dinner on Saturday night to $50 for a day pass.  Or you can spring for the whole three-day conference, which includes meals, for  $95–truly a butterfly bargain.   You can register online.

Todd Stout

Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, will lead a “butterfly hunt” in San Antonio. Courtesy photo

The conference kicks off on Thursday with a “butterfly hunt” led by Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, a butterfly breeder and lepidopterist who has scouted some of the best places to see butterflies in San Antonio.

“We’re looking forward to seeing lots of butterflies, including common mestra, variegated fritillary, lysine sulphurs, sleepy orange, and dainty sulphure,” Stout relayed via email.

You can learn how to raise Monarchs and Painted Ladies, what to plant in a butterfly garden, enter “The Secret World of the Monarch Metamorphosis,” take classes on pests and parasitoids, and meet the authors of more than half a dozen books on rearing, chasing, and gardening for butterflies.   Oh, and if you’re a devotee of butterfly oriented jewelry or merchandise, don’t miss the silent auction.  Vendors of butterfly paraphernalia, breeding supplies, books and more will also be on hand during breaks.

The conference will peak on Saturday evening when Dr. Taylor addresses the group.  Taylor has been involved in Monarch conservation for decades and is synonymous with the citizen scientist tagging program which he and his team oversee each year.  He’ll tackle the complex topic of the Monarch migration in the context of climate change.

“All of us face the challenge to engage in conservation of pollinator habitat,” said Dr. Taylor by phone.  “Monarchs are the poster child and the threats to their migration are symbolic of what we’re doing to pollinators in this country–ignoring the fact that 80% of our crops require insect pollination and 70% of our vegetation, period, requires insect pollination.  We do this at our own peril.”

Hmm….is there a role in there for professional butterfly breeders?  Can’t wait to find out.

Take a look at the program.   I look forward to seeing you there.

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“Common” Painted Lady Butterflies Providing Not-so-Common Insights on the Development of Tiny Flying Robots

The Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui, claims the title as most common butterfly in North America–and inhabits almost every corner of the globe.  The multi-colored flutterers brag five white spots on each black-and-orange forewing and have been tapped

Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady Butterfly is being studied to develop micro aerial vehicles, MAVs.

for elementary school science classes for years since they are readily available and can complete their life cycle on an artificial diet.  In the wild, Painted Ladies host on thistle and a variety of common weeds.

But now this common butterfly is helping scientists figure out the intricacies of micro aerial maneuvering in a study at John Hopkins University that will hopefully lead to refinements in a new class of tiny flying machines:  micro aerial vehicles,  or MAVS.

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs: CLICK to view the video.

A team of researchers at the Maryland campus has received funding from the U.S. government to study flight in butterflies with the intent to develop tiny flying robots that can be used for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue missions.

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle"

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle" --photo courtesy Harvard University

“We look to nature for inspiration,” said Tiras Lin, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at John Hopkins who is working on the study.  “What can we learn from the flight…of a butterfly?”

A lot, apparently.

Lin and his team used three high speed 3-D cameras to closely observe tthe Painted Lady’s amazing agility and maneuverability.  Click on the second photo in this post to see the video and some of the fascinating footage.

He compared the creature’s aerial maneuvers to those of an ice skater, suggesting that like a spinning skater, they “alter their moment of inertia” depending on whether they want to speed up or slow down.

Rajat Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at John Hopkins and who is overseeing the study, pointed out that mechanical engineers typically are well-suited and successful at designing large things like aircraft or ships” but when it comes to designing small things we are fairly deficient.”

The Painted Lady is providing insight and inspiration, making her not so common after all.

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