Column: Painted ladies are migrating en masse

Painted Lady butterfly on a Marjoram plant
Painted Lady butterfly on a Marjoram plant

So far this year there have been phenomenal numbers of painted lady butterflies in our gardens and across the countryside in general.

They are obvious everywhere there are wild or planted flowers in bloom where they can feed on the nectar and, if suitable host plants are growing, lay their eggs for the next generation of caterpillars to feed on.

Amazingly, the painted lady does not survive the winter in this country and we rely each year on butterflies migrating here from north Africa or around the Mediterranean where they overwinter. Occasionally, the weather conditions and a good breeding season around the Mediterranean coincide and vast numbers migrate north across Europe and we can get a huge influx, as has happened this year. The last time we had this phenomena was in 2009.

Butterflies may seem fragile, but when weather conditions are suitable they can cover 100 miles per day, flying about ½ a mile high in the sky. So, with a warm southerly wind, they can soon cover vast distances.

If you watched butterflies flying very fast around your garden in the late spring or early summer they probably were painted ladies, with males trying to chase away other males or follow females around your garden. After a few weeks of this dashing around they became rather faded and tattier as time progressed and gradually more or less died out.

Then suddenly, about two weeks, ago it started up again with lots of butterflies everywhere. I’m not sure if they were another big influx of migrants arriving, if the young originating from the first generation were already on the wing, which seems very quick, or if it was a combination of both. Anyway, there are many butterflies again.

On one marjoram plant in my garden I counted 11 nice fresh specimens and on a buddleia –a favourite nectar plant – there were dozens on the spikes of sweet-scented flowers and again they are dashing around chasing each other all over the place.

The main food plants for their caterpillars are various thistles, nettles, mallows and a range of other plants.

Come the autumn the older individuals will perish, but young freshly-emerged butterflies will head south to warmer climates where, with luck, they will breed and their offspring may fly back to grace our gardens next year.

scottish wildlife trust is a registered charity. to find out more phone ron mcbeath on 01289 308515 or visit