Skip to main content

Painted Lady Caterpillars to Butterflies: The Butterfly Lifecycle

Menagerie refers to the wildly varying topics covered here in my eclectic collection of carefully crafted creations.

All about the painted lady butterfly

All about the painted lady butterfly

The Beautiful Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady or Vanessa Cardui (Cardui comes from the Latin word "kardos" which means "Thistle") is named after the caterpillar's favorite host plant. They are also commonly known as the Thistle Butterfly or The Cosmopolitan (due to their worldwide distribution.)

Painted Ladies are great butterflies to raise because they can be found almost everywhere in the world. The trick to finding Painted Lady caterpillars is knowing when and where to look. In this case, you want to look at the host plant, Thistle, about the time that it has flower buds.

Caterpillars to Butterflies

Caterpillars to Butterflies

Step #1: Finding and Collecting the Painted Lady Caterpillars

The Painted Lady caterpillars build a web-like tent and live one individual per nest. They spend almost the entire larval stage inside this one nest, although it may get "remodeled" from time-to -time. These nests are are made from the caterpillar's silk and are intended as protection. However, for us humans, it is exactly these silk tents that makes these particular caterpillars so easy to find.

Look for these silky nests on the Thistle plants about the time that the Thistles are about to flower. Often the frass (poo) which has collected in the bottom of the web is easier to spot than the actual caterpillar. You will have to open the webs to collect the caterpillars. I recommend gloves here just because the Thistle is so prickly (and the poo is a little bit gross.) You are looking for spiky, mostly-black caterpillars.

The caterpillars' color can very greatly.  These are all the same species.

The caterpillars' color can very greatly. These are all the same species.

Step #2: Caring for the Caterpillars

On July 19th, I collected these four caterpillars in different "instars." Instars are the five stages that caterpillars go through before they pupate. At the end of each instar they will shed their old, outgrown skin and emerge bigger and sometimes a different color. Their color can vary greatly from one stage to the next as well as from one individual to the next.

When I collected these, I originally kept them in a jar and tried to bring them fresh leaves daily. The trouble with this method was that the caterpillars would stubbornly cling to the old dying leaves (which they had attached themselves to with silk) and would ignore the fresh leaves. Also, it is no fun clipping Thistle leaves...ouch. So I decided to try cutting a whole Thistle stalk. Then I put the plant stem into a small necked bottle with water. I wrapped a little foil around the bottle opening so that the caterpillars could not go down into the water and drown themselves. (They are just children after all, we have to watch out for them.) This plan worked well; the plant lasted until the last caterpillar pupated. I put the entire thing: plant. bottle, and caterpillars, inside a fish tank. You could also use a screened cage or those pop-up butterfly enclosures you can buy online.

Also, you can keep the caterpillars all together on the same plant. They will leave each other alone for the most part. If they eat all the leaves you will need to start over with a new Thistle, but I don't think you would have to do this more than once or twice. Also, you should clean the frass out of the enclosure every few days, otherwise your caterpillars could get sick.

These prepupa caterpillars look like they are praying

These prepupa caterpillars look like they are praying

Step #3: The Caterpillars Pupate

When the caterpillars are close to pupating at the end of the fifth instar, they will become suddenly active as they search for a good location to transform into a chrysalis. (Note: generally speaking, butterflies do not make "cocoons." That is more of a moth thing: the moth still has a chrysalis, it is just inside the spun cocoon.) This period of activity is what I call the "wandering stage."

Once a caterpillar starts wandering, I will move it to a jar with either a twig or a paper towel-secured-with-rubber-band lid or both. They do not eat during this wandering stage so no food is necessary, just a place to hang upside-down. After caterpillars choose their spot they will assume what I call the "prayer position." Above are the first two individuals about to pupate on July 21st.

The beautiful golden chrysalis

The beautiful golden chrysalis

Once the caterpillars are "praying" you can expect the pupation to happen within the next several hours. Try not to disturb the caterpillar but also keep watch because you will want to see the actual transformation. It is incredible.

Shortly before they pupate, the caterpillar will start to pulse in little waves from top to bottom. Then a small opening in the skin will appear just behind the head. With each pulse, the skin will slowly work its way toward the base, like a sock being pushed down. Finally, the whole outer skin will be crunched up at the base of what is now a chrysalis.

Let the chrysalis harden for a day or so. Then transfer the paper or stick with the pupa on it back into your aquarium or large enclosure. Make sure your container has plenty of room for the butterfly to emerge because crowding can result in misshapen wings. Also, the butterfly will need to hang from something while it pumps out its new wings. Usually the chrysalis itself will suffice here but some prefer a paper towel hung vertically.

Look closely: you can clearly see the developing butterfly inside.

Look closely: you can clearly see the developing butterfly inside.

Step #4: The Adult Painted Lady Butterfly

After about 10 days to 2 weeks, the beautiful adult butterfly will emerge or "eclose." This one (in the photo) made its debut on July 31st, 10 days after pupating. The Adult has bold orange and black wings with white and black wing tips. The wingspan is 2-3 inches across (5-8 cm,) a mid-size butterfly.

The tops of the wings have bold black and orange patterns.

The tops of the wings have bold black and orange patterns.

The underside of the wings have pinks, blues and soft browns.

The underside of the wings have pinks, blues and soft browns.

The Painted Lady belongs to the Brush-footed family of butterflies. Other Brush foots include: Admirals, Fritillaries and Tortoiseshells. Brush-foot adults only have 4 legs as opposed to the more common 6. Similar butterflies to the Painted Lady include the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis,) the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella,) and the Australian Lady (Vanessa kershawi.)

The adults are a sporadic migratory species following no particular pattern or season but when they do migrate, it can be in vast numbers and is quite a spectacle to see. The adults only live a few weeks, which is why we usually release ours within a day or two of their emergence. However, you can give them a sprig of the host plant on which to lay eggs, and then raise the next generation. But that is another story for another day. Have fun!

Read About Raising Other Types of Butterflies...

I Welcome Your Comments

Don on December 04, 2019:

Awesome pics. I found one and I followed the instructions. It turned out great. Thanks

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on May 16, 2011:

Thanks Moonlake!

moonlake from America on May 16, 2011:

This is great and so interesting.

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on May 11, 2011:

Hey thanks Cumulonimbus!

Cumulonimbus from Buffalo,NY on May 11, 2011:

how awesome is that!

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on March 25, 2011:

Thank you 2uesday...I find them fascinating too.

2uesday on March 20, 2011:

I voted this up and as awesome, the photos of the butterflies are lovely. Although I was aware of the life cycle stages, I have never seen them in photos or in real life and found them fascinating to see and read about here.

Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on March 14, 2011:

Thank you Naturegirl7 and I have read some of your hubs...I think great minds think alike, don't you?

Yvonne L. B. from South Louisiana on March 14, 2011:

Very interesting hub with lovely pictures.