One of Millions.jpg

One of millions of American Painted Ladies recently migrating through Minnesota sips nectar from a zinnia in Linda's Garden.

Two of my columns over the past five weeks have been on butterflies. But given the news dominated by hurricane disasters, deporting of quality citizens, and possible nuclear conflict, I figured we could all use one more butterfly column, especially since the topic species is going through an "epic migration," rarer than a full eclipse.

This featured butterfly is one that many of you with gardens still blooming the past few weeks have seen on your flowers. While not as large as the regal monarch, the painted lady butterfly certainly is colorful, and literally millions of them in the genus Vanessa have been on the move this year.

The painted lady, Vanessa cardui, is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world, while in North America, we have the American painted lady, Vanessa virginiensis.

Earlier this month, traveling from my backwater cabin to Whitewater to do a bird banding program, I noticed hundreds of butterflies on the road. They seemed darker than the hackberry emperors I often see in large numbers there, but not having time to stop for a closer look, I was stumped. That was, until friend Jim Hair called a few days later to say his sister, Phyllis, told him she had "a bunch of miniature monarchs" visiting her garden.

We decided to take a look, as I wanted to not only see the butterflies, but also the great city view Phyllis has from her northeast Rochester hilltop home. While waiting in my driveway for Jim, I watched at least a dozen butterflies flitting about in Linda's garden and quickly recognized them as American painted ladies, solving both the question about the "miniature monarchs" and what I had seen on the Whitewater road.

Interesting to me, I noticed they were doing their nectar sipping from zinnias, and blazing star I had previously written about. My reason for surprise was because one site I found on blazing stars noted "it gives off an attractant only recognized by monarchs." Not sure how researchers know that, but the painted ladies seemed to like it as well.

In Phyllis' garden, we first saw only a couple flitting about. But the sun was temporarily under a cloud and, when it peeked out in a few minutes, more butterflies magically returned. We watched this ebb and flow with the cloud cover and butterflies, which reminded me how important sun is to feeding butterflies.

American painted ladies are a migratory butterfly that breeds in the southern U.S., Mexico and Central America. Each year we see them in reasonable numbers, until it becomes an invasion year. One of the things that stumped me about this year's "epic invasion" is my assumption that the painted ladies we are seeing now in September are moving southward, making them a two-way migrant, a trait I usually reserved only for monarchs.

According to an earlier CBC News report in Alberta, Canada, "A rare kaleidoscope of painted-lady butterflies will invade Alberta this summer, during an epic migration that only happens every 10 to 15 years." Canadian naturalist John Acorn, who also dubs himself the "Nature Nut," notes, "We get used to migrating birds coming north and south every year like clockwork, but some butterflies are not like that at all." (Hope he doesn't sue me for name infringement.)

And, after a little research, I came up with a study in England on painted ladies, noting "the species undertakes a phenomenal 9,000 mile round-trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle — almost double the length of the migrations undertaken by monarch butterflies in North America."

It further noted, "The whole journey is not individual butterflies, but by up to six successive generations" — more than the three or four of the monarch migration. And, as with the monarchs, it is a mystery how each generation knows where to go.

Anyway, I hope many of my readers enjoyed recent sightings of these butterflies to help take your minds off the troubles in the world, if only for a fleeting moment. And if you have painted lady observations to share, please email them to me.

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. If you have questions, comments or column ideas, contact Munson at naturenutgm@gmail.com.

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