Cherish the Ladies

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

February 4, 2013

Long ago I served in Hawai’i. When I left the islands, I bought a wildlife painting to commemorate my tour. The painting shows an Old World flycatcher named the ‘Elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis)—nifty little bird—which the Hawaiians considered to be the guardian spirit of canoe makers.1 Nearby, there is a butterfly, one of only two native butterfly species in the islands.2

Painting by Charles C. Thompson © Hawaii Museum of Natural History

Elepaio by Charles C. Thompson © Hawaii Museum of Natural History

The butterfly is a Lady.

Detail of butterfly from Elepaio by Charles C. Thompson © Hawaii Museum of Natural History

Detail of butterfly from Elepaio by Charles C. Thompson © Hawaii Museum of Natural History

To be exact, it is the Kameama (Vanessa tameamea), named after Hawai’i's greatest king.3

The butterflies known as Ladies belong to the genus Vanessa.4 We have a total of three species of Vanessa in Pennsylvania.

Of these three, one is the unmistakable Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).5  There is nothing around here that comes close to this black butterfly with the bold red slash.

Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

Red Admiral (Vanessa atatlanta)

And where the topside is bold, the underside is elegant and understated.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atatlanta), underwing.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atatlanta), underwing.

Red Admirals can be explosive breeders, and they also migrate northward as summer progresses. Some years they arrive by the thousands.

We also have both the American Lady (V. virginiensis) and the Painted Lady (V. cardui).

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

I see the American Ladies first. I have records as early as 19 April and as late as 16 July.

American Lady caterpillars are picky eaters. They limit themselves to the little woolly-white members of the Composite family.6 Last August the 8th, I came across a stand of Pearly Everlasting (Anaphilis margaritacea) on the side of a forestry road in the Bald Eagle State Forest. One plant seemed to be attached to its neighbor.

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphilis margaritacea)

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphilis margaritacea)

And there was a surprise inside.

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) caterpillar

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) caterpillar

See that little brown and black nuggy thing below the caterpillar? Right there—see it?

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) caterpillar

See the brownish nuggy thing?




That’s frass, also known as insect poop. Frass is one of my favorite words. It’s German originally, in which language it is the past tense of the verb to eat (fressen), and if you think about it, that’s pretty much appropriate—it has been eaten. Always looking for a chance to work frass into a story.7

The Painted Lady tends to show up a little later; my records go from 15 June to 1 August, but they are liable to show up just about anywhere; they are a commodity.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady caterpillars aren’t finicky eaters, which makes them ideal to fill those “Butterflies in the Classroom Kits” that are sold to schools.8 Despite this distribution, I have never seen a Painted Lady caterpillar in the wild.

Both Ladies avoid the cold; they cannot overwinter here. They migrate southward in the fall, returning eventually in the spring. Like many butterflies, the insects that return in the spring are most likely the kids, or even grandkids, of the ones that flew south in the fall.

Once here, they will produce at least two or three generation before cold weather forces them back south.

The two Ladies are very similar. From the topside, look for a tiny white dot on the wing of the American Lady.

American Lady Vanessa virginiensis

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). Note the tiny white dot in the first large rectangular orange cell aft of the black part of the forewing.

Comparison of Vanessa wings

American Lady on the left–note white dot. Painted Lady on the right.

From underneath, the American Lady has two big eyes on the hindwing.

American Lady detail of underwing.

American Ladies have big eyes.

The Painted Lady has four medium eyes.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), underwing with four eyespots.

On a final, more musical note, I should explain that Cherish the Ladies is the name of a terrific Celtic musical group, whom you may listen to here.


  1. The painting is signed by Charles C. Thompson, and the print is copyrighed to the “Hawaii Museum of Natural History.” I suspect the Museum is the Bishop Museum, although I’m not sure. Sadly, I can find no record of Mr. Thompson. []
  2. The other is the Hawaiian Blue (Udara blackburnii), a tiny little thing similar to a Hairstreak. []
  3. Kamehameha I consolidated power over the Hawaiian Islands in a series of military operations. He maintained Hawai’i's independence throughout his reign (1810-1819), and his policies kept Hawai’i independent until the overthrow of Lili’uokalani in 1893. []
  4. Four members of the genus Vanessa live in the United States: the Kameamea (Vanessa tameamea), which is limited to Hawai’i; the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui); which is found in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia; the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis), which is, appropriately, found in North America; the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella), which is found west of the Rockies, and the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), which is found in North America, Europe and Asia. []
  5. All Ladies are Vanessas, but not all Vanessas are Ladies. Still, I have taken to calling V. atalanta, the Lady Admiral. []
  6. For example, Pearly Everlasting (Anaphilis margaritacea), Cudweed (Pseudognaphalium spp.) and Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) []
  7. Check out this article from Dr. Martha Weiss: Good Housekeeping: why do shelter-dwelling caterpillars fling their frass? According to Dr. Martha R. Weiss, some caterpillars fling their frass. Wouldn’t you just like to have a cup of coffee and talk some frass with Dr. Weiss? []
  8. See, for example, Carolina Biological Supply.  I approve of this, by the way, I’m willing to sacrifice a few caterpillars here and there to neglect if it results in the occasional young person awakened to the wonder of it all; to the teachers, attaboy or attagirl, as appropriate. []

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4 Responses

  1. David said:

    Excellent. Reads like a story. I appreciate a writer that blends in personal experience when relaying natural history details. Word origins are also interesting.

  2. Rick Fearman said:

    I am curious why you indicate the painter of the Elepaio and Kamehameha Butterfly is by Charles C Thompson…when it is signed by Dale C Thompson. Seems the latter is a Canadian painter born in Montreal lived mostly in Alberta.

  3. Rick Fearman said:

    If anyone knows the estimated value of a reprint of this picture….I would like to know. Please contact me at Rick

    • Doh, I’m not sure! I had the picture sitting in my lap when I wrote the article. Just missed it. I also must have searched the web for Charles C. Thompson; I was amazed not to find him. Found Dale C. Thompson pretty quickly. He was apparently an illustrator for the National Park Service for 20 years; still living somewhere around Seattle, I believe. I will try to put this to rights next week. Thanks for pointing out the error.

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