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Painted lady butterflies grace yards in search of dandelions

Along with the warmer weather and boundless blooming flowers, May is the beginning of insect time (better known as the bug season). The insects that now reach maturity include lesser loved ones such as black flies and mosquitoes, but these are ju...

Along with the warmer weather and boundless blooming flowers, May is the beginning of insect time (better known as the bug season). The insects that now reach maturity include lesser loved ones such as black flies and mosquitoes, but these are just a few.
Now we also see May beetles (June bugs), ground beetles and the first fireflies. Large green darner dragonflies patrol the wetlands, while bumble bees begin their new underground colonies. And, of course, the large numbers of army worms and other caterpillars continue to grow.
Not to be overlooked in all this are spring butterflies. Waking from hibernation, the commas, tortoiseshells and mourning cloaks have been with us for more than a month. Emerging recently from a chrysalis (cocoon) is the tiny blue butterfly called spring azure, and now a white one, the cabbage butterfly, and a yellow one, the sulphur, are in the yard, too. Within a few weeks, there will be many more kinds fluttering in the meadows of June.
A couple of migratory butterflies have arrived here, too. If you've been seeing small orange and black butterflies in your yard lately, you're not alone. These butterflies, known as painted ladies, readily come to feed on the dandelions that thrive in spring sunlight. Nearly every clear day has been showing many of these insects. Glancing at them casually, we could mistake them for another orange and black migrant butterfly -- the monarch. Going as far as they do, to central Mexico, monarchs are not able to get back to the Northland until near the end of May; some years not until June.
A closer look shows a different color pattern in the painted ladies. The orange and black on the wing surfaces are scattered in spots and not lined. The underside is brown or gray with large circles called eyespots on the hind wings. It is, however, the pink spot on the ventral front wing that gives the painted lady its name. They are also called thistle butterflies, which may be more accurate since the larvae feed on the leaves of Canada thistle. Many of these black spiny caterpillars can strip the plants bare.
Painted ladies are both cyclic and migratory. Being cyclic, they have years of population highs and lows. Being migratory, they winter in the southern United States and return early in spring. The number of these butterflies that we see each year will vary, and it appears as though this is a year where painted ladies are either at or near a population high.
Often they are accompanied by another butterfly that is showing up in the Northland now, too -- the red admiral. This butterfly, a close cousin to the painted lady, is easy to discern. Red admirals have black wings with red stripes on each of the four wings.
They now actively feed, bask, and mate during this time in May. Adults lay eggs and die by the end of the month. By late summer, the next generation of painted ladies will visit the garden flowers or gather soil minerals. But now in May is the time to take a closer look at these charming and common migrants, the painted ladies.

Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.
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