Nature’s Notes: Painted Lady PSA

Before beginning, you might be interested in checking out Michelle’s Rambling Woods. Michelle hosts Nature Notes each Tuesday. This week she has a special post about insect songs.

Painted Lady sipping sage nectar
Painted Lady sipping sage nectar

I love seeing how particular plants go in and out of fashion for wildlife. A couple of weeks ago everyone was partying at the mistflower. Today? The mistflowers are ghost towns. All dried up. Nothing to see but dust devils and a passing tumble-weed.

This week the blue sage is where it’s at. Spotted in the crowd were some of those disreputable Painted Ladies you sometimes hear about.

Trigger Warning: Orange Butterflies Ahead

Though the problem is usually left unspoken, amateur butterfly lovers are frequently afflicted by something known in the business as Orange Butterfly Anxiety Syndrome (OBAS). Locals be advised, the CDC has isolated Texas as a prime epicentre for this problem since hundreds of resident butterfly species happen to be coloured orange.

Symptoms include a clenched jaw, shortness of breath, generalized anxiety and a compulsive need to search through butterfly identification guides. Should symptoms persist or get worse be aware that margaritas can sometimes dull the pain.

Luckily, I’ve been vaccinated against this particular orange butterfly. Turn back now if necessary but if you are feeling brave please allow me to be your guide. Together we can face any monster — no matter how orange she may appear.

(Full disclosure — I am not a professional.)

The opening photo shows a Painted Lady. They are extremely common butterflies across the continent and are often used in classrooms to demonstrate the process of metamorphosis. If you gently touch her front legs with an extended finger, she will almost always hop up. Free living jewellery. People who wear lab coats will tell you it is a reflex action but I prefer to imagine they are simply being sociable.

Painted Lady or American Painted Lady?

The Painted Lady is easily confused with the American Painted Butterfly but if the wings are open there is a quick and dirty field mark to look for:

The American Painted Lady has an extra white spot on the open wing …

wing spot on american painted lady
American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

See how the Painted Lady below is missing that white spot …

painted lady3 aug 2015
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Closed Wings?

If the wings are closed look at the big circles on the bottom wing. This is not as reliable as the white spot mark but it can be helpful.

  • Several peacock circles? Painted Lady
  • Only a couple? American Painted Lady
  • Are the spots clearly blue? West Coast Painted Lady

What?!? Wait-a-minute, just how many Painted Ladies are out there? Breathe. Relax. As far as I know, there are only three here in Texas though they do have a cousin, Vanessa kershawi, living in Australia.

Note: I have oversimplified as these butterflies have winter and summer forms. The summer forms are much more brightly coloured. So much so that the regular Painted Lady’s spots might appear as blue as the West Coast Lady’s. But let us cut our losses. The American Painted Lady still has that extra white spot and fewer peacock circles.

Below: Four large peacock spots. Painted Lady or West Coast Lady? –shrug– and –who cares really–

painted lady 4 aug 2015


Below: American Painted Lady showing two large peacock circles.

photo courtesy Patrick Coin, Wikipedia creative commons
Closed wings of the American Painted Lady photo courtesy Patrick Coin, Wikipedia Creative Commons


Fine print: I could be wrong about anything or everything. Corrections are welcome.


22 thoughts on “Nature’s Notes: Painted Lady PSA

  1. All righty then .. I’d love to take a butterfly ID class from you. I know I’d need those margaritas. Seriously love the pics and the info as well as the humor. Cheers! My word press ab log is old, I now blog at typepad. Your comment form doesn’t allow me to change …. If you want to visit, I’m next door to you at Nature Nutes.


  2. Even looking at photos with diagnostic guidelines I often goof the identification of these up. I think your Margarita point is well made. I’ve tried white wine and it simply can’t carry the burden.

    Wonderful wonderful photos. I (almost) don’t care what we are supposed to call the butterflies when I can get such a great close look this way. Absolutely stunning work.


  3. I also enjoy your sense of humor..I should try using mine when I write as in person, I use it a lot… Interesting as I appreciate seeing the photos with the information and I think I have seen a painted lady once and not sure if I have a photo to look at… Hmmm..will have to check that out.. If you ever have an insect that you would like an ID on, there is Bugguide and you can upload a photo and some nice person will answer it and you go and look and it is a a pre-teen who loves insects and is very smart or someone who wrote a book…. I had a posted an ODE to a group on Facebook and was told that the angle would not allow to tell the the difference between two very similar dragons…posted by the guy who wrote the guide on ODES I have… Ed Lam … guess he knows… Michelle


    1. Thanks, Michelle. I -LOVE- bugguide. They have helped me out many times and when I read the comments I am astonished by the precision of their observations. I have this love/hate thing going on with idenitifying things. I like to know the name of something because that knowledge can help me learn more about its fit in the place where I see it. That name can provide some context for understanding. But that’s where my interest kind of stops. I am bothered that naming things has a tendency to pull me outside the moment. I’d far rather just enjoy it for its beauty or presence.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your posts and photos teach me and others so much about the diversity and wonder of life, Debra. I appreciate the beauty you share in the context of an honest assessment of environmental challenges and practical considerations of interdependence and balance.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello, lovely photos of the butterflies. I have learned from your post today, now I have to find a Painted Lady. I am not sure if I can find them in this area. Great post, enjoy your day!


    1. Thanks, Eileen. I am certain you will be able to find some. They are scattered all over the globe. Really. I think the only places you can’t find them are South America and Antarctica.


  5. Love your pics and thanks for the quick guide. Orange is a good way to let birds know the meal won’t taste good! We’re still swimming in fritillaries and a second round of swallowtails. Coneflower and phlox seem to the plants of choice lately. :-)


    1. Thanks, Eliza. Orange. I wouldn’t mind so much if there weren’t mimics, seasonal forms, regional variations and sex differences. It all adds up to some crazy complications.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the depth of your thoughts and humour, the beauty of your photographs and the generosity of your time to bring this here for all to share!


    1. Thanks, David. I find that if I try to explain something to someone I am more likely to remember. Hopefully, I won’t have to run to an ID guide the next time I see one. =)


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