The Ladies and a Gentleman

Painted Lady, American Lady, West Coast Lady and Red Admiral Butterflies

Brush-footed butterflies belonging to the genus Vanessa, the name of the genus may have been taken from the character Vanessa in Jonathan Swift’s poem “Cadenus and Vanessa,” which is the source of the woman’s name Vanessa. In the poem Vanessa is called a “nymph” eleven times, and the genus is closely related to the previously-named genus Nymphalis (Wikipedia).

Painted Lady

The Painted Lady, Vanessa cardul, is the most widespread of all butterfly species, and, like the Monarch, has an amazing migratory story to tell.

Distinguishing features include 4-5 submarginal spots on the underside of the wing, and a white outline at the outer edges of the top of the wing near the white spots.

Larval host plants include Arizona Thistle, Desert Cotton, Globemallows, Western Betony, Mexican Sunflower Bush, Yarrow and Western Mugwort. Adults feed on nectar.

Males perch on shrubs or hilltops and patrol for females. Females are generally larger than males.

Females lay eggs singly on the top of host plant leaves. Caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves tied with silk. Adults hibernate in mild winters.

West Coast Lady

The West Coast Lady, Vanessa annabella, are the least ranging of the Vanessa species in the continental U.S. In fact, it’s typically limited to the Western part of the country.

Distinguishing features include an orange patch at the top outer edge of the wing on the top side and 4-5 submarginal spots on the underside.

Larval host plants include Globemallows, Hollyhocks and other plants in the mallow family. Adults feed on nectar.

Males perch to watch for receptive females. Females lay eggs singly on upperside of host plant leaves; caterpillars eat leaves and live in a silken nest. Adults hibernate.

American Lady

The American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis, reside in the Southern United States and temporarily colonize the northern states.

Distinguishing features include two large eye spots on the underside of the wing, and a white spot in the orange field on the topside of the wing.

Larval host plants include Globemallows, Western Mugwort, Sonoran Everlasting and Groundsel. Adults feed on nectar.

In the afternoon, males perch on hilltops or vegetation to patrol for females.

Females lay eggs singly on the top of host plant leaves. Caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves tied with silk. Adults hibernate.

photo by justmarys on iNaturalist

Red Admiral

The Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, is wide ranging from Mexico up to Canada, but cannot survive cold winters so most of the northern U.S. is recolonized each spring by southern migrants.

Markings are quite easy to distinguish from the Ladies. Red admirals are territorial; females will only mate with males that hold territory. 

photo by burkardleitner on iNaturalist

Larval host plants include New Mexico Hops and plants in the nettles family.

The Red Admiral has a very erratic, rapid flight. Males perch, on ridgetops if available, in the afternoon to wait for females, who lay eggs singly on the tops of host plant leaves. Young caterpillars eat and live within a shelter of folded leaves; older caterpillars make a nest of leaves tied together with silk. Adults hibernate.


The Gulf Fritillary Butterfly

The Gulf fritillary or passion butterfly (Agraulis vanillae/Dione vanillae) is a bright orange butterfly in the subfamily Heliconiinae of the family Nymphalidae.

Females are generally larger and have more brown in their markings. Gulf fritillaries have a chemical defense mechanism in which they release odorous chemicals in response to predator sightings. As a result, common predators learn to avoid this species.

Gulf Fritillaries have several broods in spring and summer, and can survive winter temperatures as low as 21 degrees F. Adults overwinter.

Favorite nectar plants include Lantana, Butterfly Bush, Zinnia, Aster and Thistle.

Yellow eggs are laid singly on or near some species of Passion Vines like Maypops (Passiflora incarnata), Passiflora lutea and Passiflora affinis. Eggs gradually turn a brownish-red color.

Left: A Gulf Fritillary nectaring on Lantana

Suitable host plant species provide a good structure for larval host habitats which enables young populations of gulf fritillaries to be sufficiently nurtured and protected.

The driving factor behind what causes the female to oviposit on or near the host plant is most likely due to the certain chemical composition of the specific genus of the host plant. Once the female recognizes the chemical composition (by using the antennae), the female will oviposit.

Larvae may feed on all parts of the plant and can rapidly defoliate host vines.

Right: Caterpillar on Bluecrown Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)

Gulf Fritillary and chrysalis

When the caterpillar is ready to create a chrysalis, it turns a grayish color and begins to spin a silk-like ball that it uses to attach to a surface.

The pupa is mottled brown and resembles a dead leaf.

Egg stage – 4 to 8 days
Caterpillar – 2 to 3 weeks
Chrysalis – 5 to 10 days
Butterfly – 2 to 4 weeks


Butterflies at Home

University of Florida


Monarchs Are on Their Way

Monarchs leave their Mexican roosts in the second week of March

For those of us in the South, Monarchs are already creating the 1st generation of the year, moving north from Mexico and laying eggs on milkweed plants. These Monarchs have had an incredible journey in their migration south in the fall, and now they work to create the generation that will recolonize the southern United States.

The Monarchs develop from egg to adult in about 30 days:

  • Eggs hatch in about 4 days. Females lay one egg on a plant; in their lifetime they will lay 100-300 eggs.
  • Caterpillars go through five instars in about 14 days. When they first hatch, caterpillars eat the egg shell for nourishment. Similarly, they eat shed skin after every molt.
  • Chrysalis stage is about 14 days

The overwintering generation lives about eight months due to a biologic change that stops reproductive behavior during their migration south. The summer generations of the butterfly live only three to five weeks.


Monarchwatch Migration and Tagging

Monarchwatch Biology

Great Purple Hairstreak

Family Lycaenida, Gossamer Wing Butterflies – Jewels of the Insect World

Also known as the Great Blue Hairstreak, Atlides halesus is one of the largest gossamer wing butterflies, but it’s solitary and uncommon. The caterpillars feed on mistletoes (Phoradendron spp.) and there are several broods during the year.

The best time to view the Great Purple Hairstreak is whenever Desert Broom or Seep Willow are in bloom, although I just observed on in the backyard enjoying the nectar of Desert Marigold:

Female nectaring on Desert Marigold in March
Male Great Purple Hairstreak (iridescent blue streak on the underside of the front wing)


  • Egg – 4 to 6 days
  • Caterpillar – 3 to 4 weeks
  • Chrysalis – 10 to 20 days
  • Adult – 4 to 10 days

Caterpillars are unremarkable in color (mostly match the mistletoe host) and about 1″ long. The species gains protective toxins from their larval host plants that stay in their system into adulthood. Adult butterflies have their orange and black colorings to signal the protective toxins and even have a behavior of rubbing their wings together. This draws attention to the markings on their back wings that serve as a “false head.”

The larvae pupate in well-protected areas close to the base of the tree, under pieces of bark or fallen leaves.

In the spring, male butterflies compete for the right to occupy the highest point in a territory in order to attract a female.


Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Butterflies

Butterflies at Home


Butterflies and Moths of North America


University of Florida: Featured Critters

Migration Cycle of the Painted Lady

Africa to Europe Migration of 10,000 KM; U.S. from Canada to Mexico

Museu De Ciencies Naturals De Granollers presents a fascinating journey of the Painted Lady butterfly from Subtropical Africa to Morocco. Painted Lady are the most widespread butterfly species in the world, and uniquely, their migrations don’t follow a stringent seasonal pattern.

Ever notice a Painted Lady with faded colors, or how about worn down wings? It’s easy to lose perspective of the amazing journey these butterflies take, spanning multiple generations. Click on the graphic below for a high resolution depiction of the Africa/Europe migration.

The Incredible Migration of the Painted Lady butterfly

Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) have 6-8 generations per year, with the lifecycle of one generation lasting 1-2 months. Adults live for 3-4 weeks.

The butterflies have numerous natural enemies, including birds, and in the case of the caterpillars, parasitizing wasps. Frogs can also be a predator in some regions.

After their long migrations, many butterflies arrive having lost their bright colors and with broken wings.

U.S. Migration (West Coast)

It’s thought that the Painted Lady migratory patterns are affected by heavy rains like El Nino, which can impact the abundance of larval host plants (in Arizona this includes Arizona Thistle, Desert Cotton, Globemallows, Western Betony, Mexican Sunflower Bush, Yarrow and Western Mugwort).

It can take 6 generations for the complete migration from Mexico to Canada and back, a 9,000 mile journey, with a Northwest migratory path in the Spring and sometimes a second migration back southward in Autumn. The butterflies may fly as much as 12 hours per day, using the sun to figure out the direction.

In addition to the normal challenges that Painted Lady butterflies face in their west coast migration, wildfires are presenting additional challenges. Plants that they normally rely on may have been burned, smoke can block out the sun, and in the event of a really large fire that can create its own weather pattern, strong winds.


The Incredible Migration of the Painted Lady (between Africa and Europe)

University of Colorado Boulder, Painted Lady Butterfly

The Washington Post: Weather and wildfires may threaten painted lady butterflies’ migration

Gardening for Wildlife with Native Plants

Plant a Park! Your Adventure Awaits 

People go to national parks for adventure, beauty, relaxation, and the sense of wonder of visiting a pristine natural area. Planting a tiny “national park” in your yard can bring those benefits home for you and your family to enjoy year-round. If Americans were to replace only half their lawns with native plants, we could build a 20-million-acre network of habitat!

National Park Service – read full article here.

A great article that echos Doug Tallamy’s Home Grown National Park message (see Elliott’s corresponding blog post here). Includes a case study of One Park Ranger’s Story.

To What Extent Should We Help Pollinators?

We plant natives, we irrigate and then admire the parade of pollinators in our garden. But we’re also enabling predators like assassin bugs, crab spiders and small milkweed bugs.

A shocking number of plants in my garden are homes to predators. It’s painful to observe the latest victims to this insect offense. Should we sit back and let nature takes its course, or intervene and cull the predator population?

Considering that we’re already determining what gets planted where, and providing an unnatural amount of water for our selections, and trimming plants that become too large for the space, does it make sense to trim the predator populations too to further our pollinator agenda?

Every observation in my yard of a Leafhopper Assassin Bug with prey, shows the prey as being a beneficial pollinator, not a pest, although many in the pest category are very small critters that may escape notice. I expect there is scientific observation out there somewhere that would address this question; time will tell!

Please comment below and let us know your perspective and thoughts.

Leafhopper Assassin Bug
Leaf Hopper Assassin Bug Nymph
Small Milkweed Bug and Leafhopper Assassin Bug
Crab Spider

Green Desert – February 28th 2022

We had some winter rain, but then a lengthy dry spell, until just the other day, another .5″ of rain! What does this mean for wildflowers – a reasonable carpet, but most plants have stunted growth. Let’s take a look at the last dat in February…

Teddy Bear Cholla and Saguaro in a green carpet
California Poppies and Coulter’s Lupine
Desert Mistletoe
Blue Dicks
Small Seed Sandmats
Prairie Clover
Gordon’s Bladderpod
Redstem Stork’s Bill
Heliotrope Phacelia
Gordon’s Bladderpod
Smallflower Stalk

Keystone Plants, and the Plants Beneath (Soft Landing)

Similar to permaculture principles where you layer the plants for a forest garden, having ground covers, plants and leaf litter under keystone tree species amplifies benefits for the ecosystem.

Learn More: 1 2 3

Arizona Keystone Trees

  • Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
  • Oaks (Quercus spp)
    • Arizona White Oak (Quercus arizonica)
    • Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis)
    • Belota (Quercus emoryi)
    • Gambel’s Oak (Quercus gambellii)
    • Gray Oak (Quercus grisea)
    • Silverleaf Oak (Quercus hypoleucoides)
    • Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
    • Mexican Blue Oak (Quercus oblongifolia)
    • Dunn’s Oak (Quercus Palmeri)
    • Sandpaper Oak (Quercus pungens)
    • Netleaf Oak (Quercus rugosa)
    • Toumey Oak (Quercus toumeyi)
    • Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella)
  • Pines (Pinus spp)
    • Arizona Pine (Pinus arizonica)
    • Border Pinon (Pinus cembroides)
    • Pinon Pine (Pinus edulis)
    • Apache Pine (Pinus engelmanii)
    • Chihuahua Pine (Pinus leiophylla var. chihuanuana)
    • Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum)
    • Southwestern White Pine (Pinus strobiformis)
  • Willows (Salix spp)
    • Peachleaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides)
    • Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepis)
  • Aspen
  • Cottonwood
  • Poplar