Adults: Like the painted lady (V. cardui), this is an orange and black butterfly with white spots on the dark forewing tips and white cobwebbing on the brown underside of the hindwing. The American lady, however, has a somewhat concave or "notched" outer edge of the forewing. Also, there are 2 large (not 4 small) eyespots on the underside of the hindwing. Seen from above, the wide dark median forewing band is broken into two parts, without a connecting bar. The upperside hindwing spots are very close together, often with a somewhat smeared appearance; the first spot (not counting a smaller spot that can sometimes be before it) is noticeably larger than the others. American ladies also frequently have a small white spot in the orange field near the edge of the forewing, seen from above.
Larvae: Black with yellowish crossbands, black spines, and white spots on the sides of the abdominal segments; head black.
Similar species: The painted lady (V. cardui) is very similar. The easiest way to tell them apart is the eyespots on the underside of the hindwing: American lady has 2 large ones, and painted lady has 4 small ones.
Length: 1½–2¼ inches; larvae to about 1½ inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Found in open areas and gardens statewide. In afternoons, males typically patrol hilltops or perch atop large plants. As they seek receptive females, male butterflies of some species, including perhaps this one, have been shown to hold and defend territories against other males of the same species.
Caterpillars feed from inside a tent they build of silk and leaves of pussytoes (Antennaria), everlastings, or other members of the sunflower family. Adults visit a variety of flowers for nectar but can be attracted to tree sap and the juices of decaying fruit.
Breeding summer resident. As a group, butterflies in the genus Vanessa, including the American lady, painted lady, and red admiral, are sometimes called “lady butterflies” or “thistle butterflies,” the latter because the adults frequently visit thistle flowers.
American ladies arrive from the south in March and continue to fly into November. There are multiple broods. Females lay eggs singly on the leaves of host plants. Larvae construct tents, using silk to bind together the leaves of the food plant, typically at the tips of flower stalks. Hibernation occurs in the adult stage, though they do not survive very cold temperatures. In that case, regions with cold winters are recolonized by new butterflies arriving north in spring.
Some lepidopterists (biologists specializing in butterflies and moths) who study this genus suspect that two very similar lady butterflies in South America may actually be subspecies of the American lady. If so, then this species ranges throughout the Americas.
The eyespots that so often appear on the edges of butterfly wings apparently direct a predator’s attack to the wing edges, away from the head. This allows the butterfly to escape with its life. Wing damage is frequently seen on butterflies that have such eyespots, which supports this idea.