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Care Guide: Painted Lady Butterfly

Living Care Information

Vanessa cardui

commonly known as painted lady,
thistle butterfly, cosmopolitan butterfly

Quick Start Information

We ship egg, larval, pupal, and adult life stages of this organism. These care instructions are organized by stage.

  • For a shipment of eggs, begin with the instructions under Eggs.

  • For a shipment of larvae, begin with the instructions under Larvae.

  • For a shipment of pupae, begin with the instructions under Chrysalides.

  • For the care of adults, refer to the instructions under Butterflies.

About the Organism

  • The painted lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world.
  • The scientific name Vanessa cardui translates to "butterfly of thistle."
  • Painted lady caterpillars weave silk tents.
  • During migration, painted lady adults can cover up to 100 miles per day and reach a speed of nearly 30 miles per hour.
  • Painted lady butterflies have over 100 host plants; favorites include thistle, hollyhock, and mallow.
  • Domain: Eukarya
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Nymphalidae
  • Genus: Vanessa
  • Species: cardui



Note: We recommend beginning with eggs only under certain conditions. First, we recommend you have experience raising painted lady butterflies, and second, you should be willing to accept a higher mortality rate for larvae than the mortality rate associated with other life stages. Newly hatched larvae are tiny and will dehydrate rapidly. It is important to be well prepared if you are ordering painted lady eggs.

Larvae in self-contained cups with food

Our Painted Lady Butterfly Culture includes 5 larvae in an 8-oz cup containing enough food to sustain the larvae to maturity.

Our Mini Cup Sets include 2 larvae shipped in 1-oz cups containing enough food to sustain the larvae to maturity.

Larvae/food sets for use with classroom kits

We recommend these sets only if you have a kit containing the needed supplies, other than the larvae and food. These sets do not include instructions. Use the instructions in your kit for specific information regarding how to divide your larvae. What is provided below is meant as a general guide.

Our Painted Lady Butterfly Culture Components 33 Larvae Set includes 1 cup of larvae and 1 cup of food.

Our Painted Lady Butterfly Culture Components 60 to 75 Larvae Set includes 2 cups of larvae and food.


Chrysalides are shipped in small cups containing packing material. If the larvae you have raised have formed chrysalides, it is important to give them time to harden. When the last larvae forms a chrysalis, leave the cup undisturbed for 1 to 2 days, or until the chrysalides darken. Any chrysalides that fall into the food medium should be removed and placed in the flight cage immediately. Long periods of exposure to the moisture in the food will kill the developing butterfly.


We recommend adult butterflies for display at special events and workshops. Adult butterflies are sold individually. If you wish to order a large quantity of adult butterflies, we require 3 weeks’ advance notice so that the specified number of adults is available for your request. Adult butterflies arrive in cups containing folded paper towel. The butterflies are in the folds. Upon receipt, open the lid of the cup just enough to peer inside and confirm that the butterflies are in good condition.



Painted lady eggs are shipped in a small plastic tube. This tube is sealed inside of a plastic bag. Each tube contains 30 to 35 eggs that will hatch in 3 to 5 days. You may be able to delay hatching for a few days by refrigerating the eggs at 45 to 50° F (7 to 10° C).

Eggs will need to be transferred to a new container for hatching. A 16-oz or larger container with a lid facilitates hatching. Use a push pin to make a few small holes in the lid, but do not make the holes too large or the tiny larvae may escape. Place a layer of painted lady food on the bottom of the container. The layer of food should be no more than ¼" (6mm) deep.

Cut a square of waxed paper (1" square) and fold the edges to make a shallow pan. Gently transfer the eggs onto the paper. Place the waxed paper pan onto the food. Note: Do not place eggs in direct contact with food. This will kill the eggs. As larvae hatch, they will crawl off the paper onto the food and begin to eat.

Larvae in self-contained cups with food

Avoid opening the cups or removing the larvae from the cups. Doing so can introduce bacteria and kill your larvae.

Larvae/food sets for use with classroom kits

There is not enough food or space in the shipping cup to grow the larvae to maturity. If the larvae are left in the shipping cup and not provided additional care, the majority will die.

If you do not order a kit, you will need to purchase 1-oz cups with lids. We offer the additional materials needed to maintain 33 larvae in individual cups.


Prepare your butterfly cage. A soft-sided cage—such as the Carolina® Butterfly Sanctuary for up to 35 butterflies or Amazing Bugs® Habitat for up to 8 butterflies—works best. You can also make a cage from a box or other materials.

Open the cup and remove the paper with the hardened chrysalides attached. Pin or tape the paper to the inside of the butterfly cage on either the top or the side. This allows the chrysalides to hang in a natural position. Hanging the chrysalides will allow the wings of the butterflies to develop normally once the adults emerge. Do not puncture or squeeze the chrysalides during this process. Work gently using clean fingers or forceps.

If your chrysalides are not attached to tissue paper, you can easily attach it. Place a small drop of a white, water-based (non-toxic) school glue on the tissue paper. Use a pencil or toothpick to move the chrysalis until the tip of its abdomen is in the glue. You can identify the abdomen because it is more pointed than the head. It may have some tissue paper attached, and the old larval skin, which looks like a spiky ball, may be attached near the abdominal tip. Allow the glue to dry overnight before pinning the paper inside the cage.

Alternately, chrysalides can be placed in the bottom of a flight cage on a paper towel. Be sure to place the chrysalis near the wall of the cage so the adult butterfly is able to climb up and spread its wings. If an adult butterfly is not able to spread its wings before they harden, their wings will be deformed, and they will not be able to fly.


Adult butterflies require a flight cage. We recommend our Butterfly Sanctuary for up to 35 adult butterflies.

Our Butterfly Display Cage makes an attractive display at a school, science center, or special event. These cages have soft sides that protect the butterflies’ wings.

To transfer the butterflies, set the shipping cup inside the cage and remove the lid. Carefully pull out the paper towel with one hand while using the other to remove any butterflies that cling to the paper towel. Wad the toweling and remove it with the cup, then close the cage.



We recommend using our Painted Lady Culture Medium as a food source for raising painted lady larvae. One 8-oz cup is sufficient to sustain 35 larvae to the chrysalis stage. You can also hatch eggs on plants. Be aware that once the eggs hatch, the larvae grow quickly and are voracious eaters. Be sure to have an adequate supply plants on hand before beginning. Suitable host plants include mallow, hollyhock, thistle, daisy, purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, and Rudbeckia. Note that once larvae begin feeding on plants, they may not accept our food medium.

Be sure that any plant material you choose is free of residual pesticides. The presence of these chemicals can damage your larvae. Pick leaves from an appropriate host plant and place them in a container with a lid. Place the eggs in a shallow waxed paper pan as described above. As larvae hatch, they will crawl off the paper onto the leaves and begin to eat. Replace plant material that becomes moldy or wilted. Take care not to discard larvae while replacing their food. New leaves will need to be added several times a week to sustain the growing larvae. You can also transfer larvae onto plants growing in a garden.

Larvae in self-contained cups with food

The cup(s) contain the larvae with enough food to sustain them to maturity. No further feeding is necessary.

Larvae/food sets for use with classroom kits

To ensure that the specified number of larvae emerge as healthy adults, additional larvae are supplied with both larvae sets. The quantity of food is sufficient for the number of larvae specified in the set. If you wish to maintain additional larvae, you should purchase additional food.


No further feeding is necessary for the chrysalis stage.


In the wild, adult painted lady butterflies feed on nectar produced by flowering host plants. They need the sugar in the nectar to power their flight muscles. They do not require other food. To make food for your adult butterflies, dissolve 2 tsp of white or brown sugar in ½ c of water. In lieu of a sugar-water solution, you can also offer sports drink as a feeding solution. Painted ladies will also feed on slices of fresh fruit, such as oranges. Students often enjoy watching the butterflies extend their proboscis to collect nectar from the fruit slices.

Do not put an open container of liquid food in your butterfly habitat. A simple feeder can be constructed using a shallow dish containing some cotton balls or crumpled paper towels. Pour the feeding solution over the cotton balls or paper towels. This gives the butterflies a place to land so they will not fall into the feeding solution and drown.

Keep feeding solutions refrigerated when not in use. Replace feeding solution and the cotton balls or paper towels every other day. With proper nutrition, adult butterflies generally live for 1 to 2 weeks, sometimes as long as 3 weeks.

Maintaining and culturing


Keep the hatching cups out of direct sunlight, which can cause overheating and kill the eggs. Keep at room temperature. Larvae will hatch in 3 to 5 days. Newly emerged larvae are fragile. We recommend waiting to transfer them into new containers until they are 5 to 6 days old.

Larvae in self-contained cups with food

Keep the cups out of direct sunlight, which can cause overheating and kill the larvae. Keep at room temperature. The cups should not be shaken or disturbed if possible. Larvae will mature in 5 to 10 days. To pupate, larvae will climb to the top of the cup and attach themselves to the tissue paper cover. They will undergo their final molt and form a chrysalis.

Larvae/food sets for use with classroom kits

We recommend that the teacher or other adult prepare the cups before they are distributed to students. Wash your hands well and dry them before beginning. Use a clean plastic spoon to transfer 1 level tsp of food into each 1-oz cup. Lightly press the food to the bottom to create a good seal. The depth of the food in each cup should not exceed ¼" (6mm). If you overfill the cups, you will run out of food, or there will not be enough space for the larvae to pupate.

Use a small brush to transfer 1 larvae to each cup. If you have extra larvae that you would like to keep, cups can accommodate a maximum of 2 larvae if prepared under the conditions described above. Place a piece of tissue paper over the mouth of the cup and snap on the lid. Trim the excess paper. Keep the cups out of direct sunlight, which can cause overheating and kill the larvae. Keep at room temperature. The cups should not be shaken or disturbed if possible. Larvae mature in 5 to 10 days. To pupate, larvae will climb to the top of the cup and attach themselves to the tissue paper cover. They will undergo their final molt and form a chrysalis.


Keep the chrysalides out of direct sunlight, which can cause overheating and kill the organisms. Keep at room temperature. The chrysalides should not be shaken or disturbed. Adult butterflies should emerge in 7 to 10 days.


Your female butterflies may lay eggs 5 to 7 days after emerging. Look for pinhead-sized, mint-green dots. If you place a potted plant in the cage, the females will deposit most of their eggs onto the leaves. Fertile eggs hatch in 3 to 5 days. Painted lady eggs can be collected with a soft brush.


We do not advocate the release of organisms into the environment. Please contact your local (state) Department of Agriculture for any restrictions on release of organisms. As a last resort, place unwanted organisms in a sealable container and freeze for 48 hours. Dispose of the organisms in the regular solid waste.


Wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling living organisms.



My caterpillars are not moving. Are they dead?

Probably not. Caterpillars often rest for hours at a time, especially just before molting. To see if a caterpillar is alive, open the cup and gently touch the caterpillar with the tip of a soft brush. This should cause the caterpillar to move, if only slightly.

Can I take larvae out of the cup?

It is best not to open the cup until you are ready to move the chrysalides into the flight cage. Harmful salts and oils from your hands can transfer to the caterpillars during handling. Opening the cup can also allow bacteria or mold to enter, which could spoil the food.

My caterpillars aren’t growing. What’s wrong?

There are several possibilities; the most common is low temperature at night and over the weekend. Also, the caterpillars may be preparing to molt.

My caterpillars are turning red or pink. What’s wrong?

The caterpillars have a bacterial infection that will kill them. Contact Carolina Customer Service (800.334.5551) for replacements. Discard all infected caterpillars. Also discard equipment that had contact with them or treat the equipment with a bleach solution (1 part bleach in 9 parts water) and rinse well before reusing.

The caterpillars are so hungry that they are eating away the paper at the top of the cup.

The caterpillars chew the paper to move beyond the cup because they are responding to an instinctive urge to disperse before molting into a chrysalis. Few caterpillars engage in this interesting behavior pattern. If it becomes a problem, clean and dry your hands, then remove the old paper and replace it with a fresh piece of tissue paper. Avoid papers that contain perfumes or lotions. You will not have to replace the paper again; the caterpillars are too close to molting to eat through another piece.

What about air for the caterpillars?

Examine the cup’s lid. There should be some tiny holes punched in it. If not, punch 3 to 5 holes in it with a push pin. The caterpillars do not need much air. In fact, too much air causes their food to become dry and inedible.

My butterflies just emerged and there is red liquid all over. Is it blood? Are my butterflies OK?

Your butterflies are fine. The red liquid is not blood. It is meconium—liquid waste mixed with extra pigment left over from wing formation. Try putting a paper towel in the bottom of the cage to absorb the mess. Interesting fact: insect blood is clear, not red.

Some of the butterflies have crumpled wings. What can I do?

When the butterflies first emerge, their wings are crumpled and soft. The butterfly pumps blood into its wings to expand them. If the humidity is too low, the wings may dry and harden before they can expand. Try misting the inside of the cage with water to raise the humidity level and facilitate later emerging butterflies in properly expanding their wings.

Note: Misting only prevents the wings from drying and hardening. It will not reverse drying and hardening that has already occurred. Once hardened, the wing shape cannot be changed.

What is a chrysalis?

Insects that undergo complete metamorphosis have a 4-stage life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. The chrysalis is a pupa with a hard outer shell. Many moths produce a cocoon, which is a silk case that contains a pupa.

The chrysalis fell to the bottom of the cup. What should I do?

Follow the instructions in the chrysalis section for attaching the chrysalis to the paper.

Can my butterflies feed from flowers?

Yes, nectar from flowers is a natural food. Place a pot of petunias, marigolds, or other flowering plants in the butterfly cage. It may help to sprinkle the plants with sugar-water solution. You will probably see the butterflies feeding once they discover the flowers. If you use cut flowers, put them in a vase with a narrow neck so the butterflies cannot fall into the water and drown.

I only see 2 pairs of legs on each butterfly. What happened to the other pair?

The painted lady does not use its first pair of legs for walking. Instead, these legs are feathery and wrap around the butterfly’s neck like a scarf.

How can I tell the male from the female?

Female butterflies have a larger, more rounded abdomen than males. This is due to the female’s egg mass. The male’s abdomen, when viewed from the top, has fairly straight sides. From the same view, the sides of the female’s abdomen curve outward.

My larvae have produced webbing. Why are they doing this?

This is a normal behavior for painted lady larvae. The webbing protects the larvae from predators and drying out. The larvae also use the webbing to grip onto their host plants as wind can blow them off the leaves.

How many molts do painted lady larvae undergo?

Painted lady larvae shed their exoskeletons 5 times during development. Each developmental stage is known as an instar.

There are brown balls appearing in my cup. What are they?

This material is called frass. Frass is waste from digestion of the larvae’s food.

Need help?

We want you to have a good experience. Orders and replacements: 800.334.5551, then select Customer Service. Technical support and questions: caresheets@carolina.com

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