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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“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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