Three Midwestern Vanessas

Three butterfly species in the genus Vanessa are often seen in the Midwest, and can be difficult to separate. Vanessa atalanta, Vanessa cardui, and Vanessa virginiensis are commonly known as red admirals, painted ladies, and American ladies, respectively. Below we have provided illustrations of each of these butterflies, along with comments on how to identify them. A fourth North American Vanessa species, Vanessa annabella, is found in western North America.

Who comes up with the "common names" for butterflies? Why are two of these species "ladies," and one an "admiral?" Nowadays it is perfectly likely that an admiral might be a woman, but one wonders whether the red admiral's name is a remnant of outdated gender-based stereotyping (and, if so, what it is about the red admiral's colors that seem "male") . . . or is it just that the red bands on the red admiral's wings are reminiscent of flashy epaulettes? And do admirals even wear epaulettes? (Based on Googling images, navy admirals appear to wear epaulettes only with their white uniforms, and the epaulettes are gold.) And what on earth makes the "ladies" below "lady-like?"

Midwestern range
midwestern range
for all three butterflies

Vanessa atalanta (red admiral)

The red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, is the most easily separated Midwestern Vanessa. Its wings are dark brown to nearly black, with striking white spots and orange-red bands on the front wings. The rear wings feature an orange-red band along the outer edge. Underneath, the red admirals wings are mottled brown and gray, with the front wings decorated by a red-orange band and white spots. Males and females look the same, although females are a little larger. Additionally, while the other Midwestern Vanessas are usually seen feeding on flowers, the red admiral prefers other foods, like bird droppings, decaying fruits, and tree sap, feeding on flower nectar much less often. Thus the red admiral is often seen in places that don't seem very "butterfly-ish," on the ground, on logs and trees, on sidewalks, on car hoods, and so on.

Vanessa atalanta
upper wings are nearly black, with prominent orange-red bands and white spots


Vanessa atalanta
under wings are mottled brown and gray, with white spots and orange-red on the front wing

Vanessa virginiensis (American lady)

Look for the tiny white spot in the orange section on the upper, front wing—and, on the under wings, look for the two large eyespots. These features handily separate Vanessa virginiensis, the American lady, from Vanessa cardui, the painted lady (treated below). However, on casual inspection the butterflies are very similar. Females and males are virtually identical, except that females are slightly bigger. The American lady is fond of flower nectar, and is especially partial to dogbane, asters, goldenrods, self-heal, vetch, and common milkweed.

Vanessa virginiensis
upper wings are mostly orange, with brown and black; note small white spot surrounded by orange


Vanessa virginiensis
under wings are mottled brown and gray, with white spots and orange-red on the front wing; note two large eyespots on the hind wing

Vanessa cardui (painted lady)

Very similar to the American lady (treated above), the painted lady, Vanessa cardui, is orange, with brown, black, and white decorations. However, there is no place on the upper wings where a small white spot is surrounded by orange, and the under wings feature five small eyespots, rather than two large ones. As with the other Vanessa species, males and females are similar except that females are slightly larger. Painted ladies feed primarily on flower nectar, and are fond of red clover and milkweeds.

Vanessa cardui
upper wings are orange and black, with white spots surrounded by black


Vanessa cardui
under wings feature five small eyespots

References: Bland & Jaques 1978, Milne & Milne 1980, Scott 1986, Arnett 2000, Lotts & Naberhaus 2022.

Kuo, Michael & Melissa Kuo (May, 2022). Three Midwestern Vanessas. Retrieved from the midwestnaturalist.com website: www.midwestnaturalist.com/vanessa_spp.html

All text and images © , midwestnaturalist.com.