Traveller’s tales: the painted lady
This high-flying migrant covers an astonishing 9,000 miles a year, travelling from Africa to Europe and back
Each year, painted lady butterflies fly north from the Atlas mountains on the edge of the Sahara desert in North Africa to find European breeding sites. They arrive in the UK every year and breed here during summer, with their offspring then emigrating southwards. Typically the first big influx each year takes place in late May/early June. Numbers vary greatly each year, but the last mass migration occurred in 2009. The return journey is made at high altitude – radar records suggest an average altitude of more than 500m on their southbound trip, travelling at speeds of 30mph by selecting favourable conditions. The tiny butterflies cover an amazing 9,000-mile round trip from Africa as far as the Arctic Circle – in a series of steps by up to six successive generations. “The extent of their annual journey is astonishing,” says Richard Fox, Surveys Manager at Butterfly Conservation. “This tiny creature weighing less than a gram with a brain the size of a pin head and no opportunity to learn from experienced individuals, undertakes an epic intercontinental migration to find the right plants for its caterpillars to eat.” What a treat to find them in our gardens!
“Radar records suggest an average altitude of 500m, at speeds of 30mph”
Painted lady caterpillar (Vanesssa cardui)