Red admiral butterflies are one of several colorful butterfly species found in Missouri and, in mild winters, adult red admirals can be seen in the Ozarks. Red admirals seen here in winter are likely a mix of over-wintering residents and migrants from colder areas to the north.
Species: Red admiral butterfly
Scientific name: Vanessa atalanta
Claim to fame: Red admiral butterflies are one of several colorful butterfly species found in Missouri and, in mild winters, adult red admirals can be seen in the Ozarks. Red admirals seen here in winter are likely a mix of over-wintering residents and migrants from colder areas to the north.
Though their migrations aren’t as publicized as the long journeys of monarch butterflies, red admirals are one of several butterflies that migrate on a smaller scale. There is some form of southerly migration each year, but it’s the northern migrations of this insect that provides greater benefit to the species.
Red admirals cannot survive severe cold, which means each winter; the majority of red admiral butterflies in northern states that can’t stay ahead of the changing weather conditions die off. The following spring, in addition to re-generation that occurs from over-wintering larvae, red admiral populations in these areas receive significant boosts in the form of migrations from the south.
Species status: Red admiral butterfly populations are thought to be stable throughout most of the insect’s range, including here in Missouri. In addition to North America, red admiral butterflies are found in Europe, Africa and Asia.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the red admiral butterfly was written by the famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. The name “admiral” is a corruption of the word “admirable;” a term given to the butterfly by early naturalists because of its striking coloration.
Family matters: Red admiral butterflies belong to the insect family Nymphalidae, a collection of insects referred to as the brush-footed butterflies. Ironically, red admirals are not considered “true” admirals. True admiral butterflies belong to the sub-family Limenitidinae.
Length: Red admirals have wing spans up to two inches.
Diet: Unlike many species of butterflies, plant nectar is not the main food source for red admiral butterflies. They prefer to feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, animal dung and carrion. However, red admirals will visit some flowering plants if these primary sources of food aren’t available.
Weight: not available
Distinguishing characteristics: The wings of a red admiral are black-brown with an orangish-red bar across the upper surface of the forewings and orangish-red bars extending along the bottom side of the wing. Males have an orangish section along the edge of the hindwing. The tip of the forewing has white spots and there are black and blue dots on the hind wing border.
Life span: Red admirals in the over-wintering generation can live up to 10 months; the life span of earlier generations is shorter. For species that produce more than one generation per year, the life span depends on which generation you’re referring to.
Habitat: Red admirals prefer wooded places but they can be found in fields and around farms and orchards.
Life cycle: Red admirals produce two generations per year in most parts of its range. In the spring or early summer, females will lay up to 500 eggs on several varieties of nettle plants. Over the summer, the eggs become caterpillars. These caterpillars vary in color from black to greenish-gray, with a yellow line along each side. The caterpillar forms chrysalis, and from this chrysalis, a butterfly later emerges.