“The painted ladies are migrating.”
Puzzled looks prompted our biology teacher to describe the butterflies he’d noticed.
Sure enough, as I drove home that afternoon, I glimpsed a smallish orange and black butterfly wafting along. Then a few more and a few more, all fluttering north. Unreal! As a lifelong Puebloan, I’d lived in the path of the great painted lady migration for 35 years and never noticed. That evening, I shared the news with my mother. She’d seen no signs of a butterfly migration in her area of Colorado’s Grand Valley. An hour later she called back, amazed at having missed such a blatant wonder.
Painted ladies specialize in wonders. Those 2-3” whisps of color and willpower flutter through wind, sleet, sandstorms, and predators from Mexico to Canada and back. Their cousins fly a 9000-mile Africa/Scandinavia circuit. The kicker: painted ladies are butterflies for only two weeks. How the heck do they manage a multi-continent journey?
Painted lady migrations stretch over 6-generations. Their caterpillars also pitch in by gorging for 10 days to stockpile fuel. After another 10 days in remodeling, the new butterflies emerge, bursting with energy to soar to 30 mph for up to 100 miles a day. They see more territory in a week than most earthbound creatures ever will.
Then, one mid-life afternoon, the “ladies” suddenly realize that there’s more to life than fast lane flight, and just like that, the males abandon their marathon and find a treetop with a view. When a likely sweetheart comes along, a charmer flutters her way, and the couple flirt circles around one another before retiring to a treetop to mate through the night. A good long honeymoon is well earned, and that enchanted remembrance may help buoy the female through her next assignment.
Over the decades since painted ladies hit my watchlist, I’ve witnessed their migrations all over the southwest—in deserts, prairies, and on mesas. While walking a mountain road south of Gunnison, I noticed a few ladies lighting briefly on prickly-looking plants. Why touchdown there, I wondered. Shouldn’t butterflies be gathering nectar from flowers?
Yes, painted lady butterflies do sip nectar, but their caterpillars thrive on prickly plants, especially toxic ones. They use those toxins to discourage predators. So…it seems the ladies on that country road were laying eggs. That task is grueling because a painted lady deposits each of her 500 eggs separately to allow ample forage for her hatchlings, and her quest for 500 suitable nurseries can’t be streamlined through a hasty, airborne eyeballing. She must “taste” every potential laying spot with her specialized leg hair.
Lighthearted and fancy free? Not with two weeks to fly hundreds of miles, find a fella, dance on air, transfer DNA, and make 500 eggs to deposit just so. To up the pressure, the toxins those ladies search out, teach predators to avoid all painted ladies, so the task is key to protecting their entire species. That’s a lot to put on an ultra-lightweight, but thanks to hardcore supermoms, painted ladies are the earth’s most widely distributed butterfly, flitting purposefully over every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
TIPS FOR WATCHING:
~ Painted ladies pass through Colorado in spring and fall. The migration timetable is iffy because departures are driven by the need for fresh pastures as well as the changing season. We watchers can only stay alert and hope the flightpath doesn’t take them into the upper atmosphere. One fall, the Denver weather radar detected a flock of painted ladies 70 miles wide, flying above the clouds. Confused to see that convoy moving northward, the weatherman checked his readings and realized that a headwind was carrying the travelers backward.
~ Painted ladies fade as they age, so less colorful ladies visiting prickly leaves are likely preparing to pass the baton to the next generation. Keep an eye out for their hatchlings some 25 days later.
~ On cloudy days painted ladies hunker in small hollows. When the sun shines, they visit blossoms for nectar or prickly leaves to deposit eggs. Their tiny, fragile eggs look like pale, skinless grapes. On hatching, the caterpillar spins herself a tent of silk to dine under.
~ Until 2009, no one knew that painted ladies flew to Africa when they vanished from the UK each fall. Researchers weren’t even sure whether the butterflies left or just died. Tracking these ladies is such a challenge that the 9000-mile migration mystery was only solved with the help of volunteer citizen scientists. If you’d like to contribute to the next big discovery, these folks will be delighted to hear from you: BUTTERFLY MIGRATION – The project
Cool science finds like these helped lure me into writing a mystery novel set in a Colorado science lab. Writing Mile High Lab Rat was a kick despite my frustrations at having to leave out fun details like painted ladies. Between creating realistic characters and settings, slipping in suspicious, scary happenings, clues, strategies, suspense, and a killer chase scene, there wasn’t room for even a smallish butterfly. Thank goodness my deadline was more generous than two weeks.