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A Comprehensive Guide to the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

Introduction to the American Lady Butterfly

The American Lady is native to essentially all of the continental United States, the southern tier of Canada, and south into Columbia. The host plants for this species are members of the Aster Family (Asteraceae), including everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium), pussy-toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), ironweed (Vernonia spp.), and burdock (Arctium spp.). The American Lady flies from May to November and 3-4 broods in a year, depending on location.

Taxonomy and Naming of the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

American lady butterfly on moist ground.
American Lady Butterfly on Ground — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Taxonomy

The American Lady was named and described by Dru Drury in 1773. This butterfly is a member of the Brushfoot Family (Nymphalidae) and the subfamily Nymphalinae.

Meaning the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Vanessa, is Latin for “of Venus”. However, in Greek this name is associated to Pandora’s daughter, who had a fascination with butterflies (Sheknows). The species name, virginiensis, is a Latinized version of the description location, Virginia.

Common and Alternative Names

The common name of this butterfly describes its main flying area. Other common names include the American Painted Lady (Jackson 1987), Hunter’s Butterfly (Mousley 1919), and Virginia Lady (Pyle 1981). There is also a name of “Hunter’s Painted Lady”, for form huntera of this butterfly (Bretherton 1968). Note: Vanessa cardui can also be called the “Painted Lady”, so you need to be careful of which species a source is referring to.

Physical Description of the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

American lady butterfly on white flower.
American Lady Butterfly on Flower — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Color: This butterfly is orange in the center with brown edges. The forewing of this butterfly has the white spots that are typical of members of the Vanessa genus. This species in particular has a distinctive white dot on the forewing and the ventral wing has two large “eyes” (Monroe and Wright 2017).
  • Wingspan: 1.75 to 2.6 inches
  • Active Flying Time: Late Spring to Fall in the US, can be longer, almost year-round in other warmer locations. This species has been noted to often perch off the ground, more so than others of the genus (Shields 1967).

Lifecycle of this Butterfly

American lady caterpillar on vegetation.
American Lady Caterpillar — Jacy Lucier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Life Stages

  • Eggs: The eggs are yellow-green, barrel-shaped and laid singly on the host plant (Pyle 1981), often those plants that are seedlings (Shields et al 1969).
  • Larvae (Caterpillar): The caterpillars are black with yellow and white stripes and rusty colored dots. The caterpillar make a nest of silk and leaves from the host plant (Pyle 1981).
  • Chrysalis: The chrysalis is gold-spotted.
  • Adult: The adults overwinter, however, those in northern areas probably do not survive. However, this species has been noted as being resistant to the cold (Shapiro 1982).

Habitat

Meadow habitat in Europe.
Meadow Habitat — Leonhard Lenz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This butterfly lives on the edges of wooded areas and openings such as fields, right-ways, meadows, and gardens. Generally all of the areas where it is found have low vegetation.

Range of the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) in the United States and Canada

Range map of the American Lady Butterfly (Vanessa virgniensis) in the United States and Canada.

This butterfly flies throughout the United States including Hawaii, the southern tier of Canada, most of Central America, Galapagos (Roque-Albelo 2004), the Canary Islands, and Europe. This species has been noted to hibernate in some locations such as California (Shapiro 1977).

Host Plants

Purple flowers of New York ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis).
Flowers of New York Ironweed — Author Image

The caterpillars of this butterfly feed on members of the Aster Family (Asteraceae) including pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) (McCabe 1991), little-leaf pussytoes (Antennaria parvifolia) (Remington 1952), pussy-toes (Antennaria spp.), burduck (Arctium spp.), thistles (Cirsium spp.), and ironweeds (Vernonia spp.). The hosts can vary based on location, though. In the Canary Islands, the caterpillars have been noted on Jersey cudweed (Gnaphalium luteoalbum) (Hall and Russell 2000).

Nectar Plants

Flowers of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a North Carolina milkweed.
Flowers of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) — Author Image

The adults of the American Lady butterfly are fond of flower nectars from many different flowers. Some of the most common are milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.). Others include toothed calico flower (Downingia cuspidata) (Martin and Lathrop 1986) and Carolina redroot (Lachnanthes carolinianum) and Lantana (Lantana camara) (Minno 1992). This particular species has been observed having more of a preference for species native to area it inhabits (Jackson 1987).

What other Butterflies look similar to this one?

This species looks similar to the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), but the painted lady has four submarginal black spots (Bouseman and Sternburg 2001). The resemblance of Vanessa virginiensis to V. cardui has resulted in some record confusion between the two species (Johnson 1972).

Where can you get more information on this butterfly?

Do the Sexes of this butterfly differ?

The different sexes of this butterfly do not differ (Bouseman and Sternburg 2001). This species has been noted to show some differentiation between wet weather and dry weather individuals. The wet weather forms are noted as being larger and brighter colored (Anderson 1972).

References

  • Anderson, Robert S. 1972. Butterflies of the Serpentine Barrens of Pennsylvania. Entomological News 82: 5-12.
  • Bouseman, John K. and James G. Sternburg. 2001. Field Guide to the Butterflies of Illinois. (Champaign, Il: Illinois Natural History Survey. Manual 9.
  • Bretheton, R.F. 1968. The Butterflies of Britain in Relation to Those of Adjacent Parts of the Continent. Proceedings and Transactions of the British Entomological and Natural History Society 1(1): 7-15.
  • Hall, David and PJC Russell. 2000. American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) (Drury) (Lep.:Nymphalidae) on La Gomera, Canary Islands. Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation 112: 210.
  • Jackson, Bernard S. 1987. Observations on the Ecology, Nectar Sources, and Occurrence of Vanessa cardui and Vanessa virginiensis in the Memorial University Botanical Garden (Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland, Canada). Atala 15: 10-13.
  • Johnson, Kurt. 1972. The Butterflies of Nebraska. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 11(1): 5-64.
  • Martin, Bradford D. and Earl W. Lathrop. 1986. Niche Partioning in Downingia bella and D. cuspidata (Campanulaceae) in the Vernal Pools of the Santa Rosa Plateau Preserve, California. Madrono 33: 284-299.
  • McCabe, Timothy L. 1991. Atlas of Adirondack Caterpillars, With a Host List, Rearing Notes, and a Selected Bibliography of Works Depicting Caterpillars. New York State Museum Bulletin No. 470.
  • Minno, Marc C. 1992. Butterflies of the Archbold Biological Station, Highlands County, Florida. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 46: 138-158.
  • Monroe, James L. and David M. Wright. 2017. Butterflies of Pennsylvania; a field guide. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press).
  • Mousley, Henry. 1919. The Rhopalocera, or Butterflies, of Hatley, Stanstead County, Quebec, 1919. The Canadian Field Naturalist 34: 7-10.
  • Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).
  • Remington, Charles L. 1952. The Biology of Nearctic Lepidoptera-Part I: Foodplants and Life-Histories of Colorado Papilionoidea. Psyche 59: 61-70.
  • Roque-Abelo, Lazaro. 2004. The Butterflies (Papilionoidea, Hesperioidea) of the Galapago Islands, Ecuador: Distribution, Host Plants and Biology. Journal of the Lepidopterist’s Society 58(1): 33-43.
  • Shapiro, Arthur M. 1982. A new record of Vanessa virginiensis “ab. ahwatee” from Northern California (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 20: 176-178.
  • Shapiro, Arthur M. 1977. Autumnal False Broods of Multivoltine Butterflies at Donner Pass, California. The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 16: 83-86.
  • Shields, Oakley, John F. Emmel, and Dennis E. Breedlove. 1969. Butterfly larval foodplant records and a procedure for reporting foodplants. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 8: 21-36.
  • Shields, Oakley. 1967. An Ecological Study of Summit Congregation Behavior of Butterflies on a Southern California Hill. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera 6: 69-178.

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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.