Insect of the day: Painted lady butterfly (Cynthia cardui or Vanessa cardui)

Painted lady butterfly drinking juice from fallen apples, Madison, Wisconsin, September 30, 2017.

I saw some woodpeckers and dark-eyed juncos from my kitchen window today, but only mallards and gulls while we were out on our walk today. It was very windy, and though I heard what sounded like a downy woodpecker peep, I never saw it.

We have a few bald eagles around here, and I got a glimpse of one of them in flight.

But no photos! So here I’m sharing a picture I took while picking apples with DeKalb on September 30th. At the time, I had no idea what this butterfly was, so it sent me on a fun adventure of learning. I narrowed it down to the Cynthia subgenus of the genus Vanessa, which includes painted lady butterflies and American painted lady butterflies. I was initially panicked to discover that the butterflies within this genus are so similar-looking at first glance, but this post on Bug Guide help me narrow it down to the painted lady. The giveaway is the four eyespots on the underside of the lower wings. (On the upper side of the wings, they appear as four black spots, but the fourth one on the  right lower wing is hidden in this picture by the upper part of that wing.)

Painted ladies are related to monarch butterflies and can go through several generations in a summer. Despite the name, they’re not all female.

Why are these butterflies called painted ladies when other butterflies exist that are much more colorful? I didn’t find the answer to that question in my research, but the American painted lady has tiny splotches of blue on the lower wings, and other species have colors as bright as purple. So maybe it’s the color variety across the subgenus, rather than in any single individual.

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