If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a Fairy Princess Nature Goddess, you should make your way to the Southern California coast ASAP. Experts estimate there are upwards of a billion Painted Lady butterflies migrating through southern California right now. Is it a blessing? Is it an omen? Is it an Instagram filter come to life?
The literal millions (perhaps even billions) of Painted Ladies butterflies are a distant cousin to the Monarch butterfly and one of the most common species of butterfly. They can be found on every continent except South America and Antarctica. Vanessa cardui, the current scientific and perhaps future drag queen name for the Painted Ladies, are a medium-sized species of butterfly. You can spot them by their pale orange upper wings, with black tips and dots of white. If you’re looking up at their undersides — which is probably the case as they’re all flying quickly overhead right now — are pale and have blue eyespots similar to that of a peacock feather. What else did you expect from a butterfly nicknamed “Painted Lady”?
Though the species is common, this current migratory swarm isn’t. According to scientists, the Painted Lady butterflies are experiencing a particularly heavy migration season. As Tom Merriman, a director San Diego nonprofit organization Butterfly Farms, told the Pasadena Star News, “They’ve laid tons of eggs in the desert, and so there may be over a billion butterflies.”
Traveling at about 20 miles per hour (which is fast for a butterfly), the Pasadena Star reports sightings of the butterfly migration have come in from costal communities like Orange County and Inglewood to areas farther inland like Pasadena and Burbank. The Painted Ladies have even been spotted as far east as San Bernardino and as south as Palm Desert. This is estimated to be the largest migration of these butterflies since 2005.
Who hath summoned at the butterflies? Was it you? Probably not but it’d be fun to pretend, right. To quote acclaimed scientist Missy Elliot, blame it on the rain. “In good rainy years, the migration is really noticeable,” Brian Brown, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told Curbed LA. Basically, an increase in rain means an increase in plants means an increase in butterflies.
“[A]ny year you have a real big bloom in the desert is potentially a big year for Painted Ladies,” Art Shapiro, an ecologist at UC Davis, told the Los Angeles Times.
The giant groups of Painted Ladies are migrating from the deserts of Mexico up to the lush Pacific Northwest. Los Angeles and its surrounding areas are lucky enough to be a flyover state on their way. Scientifically speaking, it really is a sight to behold.
Doug Yanega, a senior museum scientist at UC Riverside’s Entomology Research Museum, told the LA Times he and his colleagues “were seeing at least 100 of them a minute.” “That’s just looking out one window,” he continued. “We’re talking about a population in the millions, easily no question.” Yanega said people doing field work where butterflies are migrating have a similar response. “They’re saying, ‘Holy crap,’” he told the Times. Holy crap, indeed.
James Danoff-Burg, the conservation director at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, had a similar response when crossing paths with a pack of Painted Ladies. “They were flying parallel to me, just bobbing along as I rode past the date palms,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It was absolutely magical. I felt like a Disney princess.”
Butterfly Farm’s Tom Merriman estimates the migration, which is happening around the world including Africa and Europe, will continue for another month or so. The lifespan of a Painted Lady butterfly is about six weeks. So, migratory groups are made up of multiple generations: a butterfly will fly a distance, lay eggs, and those hatchlings will continue the journey north.
While you may be tempted to go full Pocahontas and catch the butterflies, experts advise against disturbing them. “Let them go,” Merriman said. “They are determined to go where they want to go. They want to go north, and they are moving pretty quick,” he said.
Soak in all your Disney Butterfly Princess vibes when you can.