Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
If you happen upon this week’s crawly, give them a quick salute; it’s only proper. Meet the red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta).
Unlike Lorquin’s admiral, who we’ve previously met, the red admiral is an officer amongst ladies.
Lorquin’s are in the Subfamily Limenitidinae along with other admirals.
Reds on the other hand (wing?) are in the Subfamily Nymphalinae in the Genus Vanessa literally with all the “Ladies” (painted lady, west coast lady and American lady) – lucky red admirals.
With their wings up, showing just the underwings, red admirals can be easily confused with painted ladies. With wings open, you can easily see the vibrant orange wing bars that give the red admirals their name.
Really, though, red admirals could claim their moniker for their propensity for world domination. They are at home just about everywhere!
Their range extends around the Northern Hemisphere, from northern Canada to Guatemala in the western hemisphere, and from Scandinavia and northern Russia south to North Africa and China in the east. They are also established on Bermuda, the Azores, and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, and the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. They have even been introduced to and breed in New Zealand as well.
One reason red admirals are so successful is they overwinter as adults, and like monarch and painted lady butterflies they migrate to warmer climates to do so.
Our area is warm enough to suit them, and you can spot a red admiral any month of the year. If we get a warm (60F), sunny day in winter, red admirals will pop out of hibernation to soak up the sun for a day or two.
Red admiral caterpillars have quite an interesting diet. Their food of choice is any plant in the Genus Urtica AKA nettles. Yep. Tough little admiral ‘pillars will even chow down on stinging nettle.
Adult red admirals love nectaring at composite flowers, such as milkweed, aster, red clover and alfalfa. However, they don’t always flit from flower to flower, but prefer a steady diet of fermenting fruits, bird droppings and sap from trees.
They also think human sweat is pretty tasty. They are known as “people friendly” butterflies and will approach and even land on you. You may not want to be licked by a butterfly that’s just been licking bird poo, but they’re happy to use you as a salt lick if you’re amenable.
When it comes to male red admirals, they absolutely prefer people to other male red admirals. They are fiercely territorial, and each male will defend their territory from all other males. Red admirals vary in size from one and three-quarter inches up to three inches, and they’ll defend an oblong territory many times their size. Territories run from 4 -12 yards wide and 7 – 21 yards long.
Lady red admirals are, of course, welcome. Females will produce two broods per year (except in the coldest places admirals live.) They lay eggs singly on top of nettle leaves so the caterpillars have a meal ready immediately upon hatching.
Admiral caterpillars are black and spiky-looking with green or yellow stripes on the lower half of their abdomens. Their chrysalises look like dried leaves.
Red admirals – beautifully bold, nettle munchers and people friendly – what’s not to love?