Spring in Santa Fe came with a noticeable wave of winged migrants from the south. While people were spending extra time at home due to COVID-19 public health orders, some looked to their blooming apricot trees with wonder.

What's with all the butterflies?

Steve Cary, local author of Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico, says the insects in question are painted ladies. Though some people saw red and black and assumed they were monarchs, Cary says the ladies are a lesser known, smaller butterfly species that has similar migration patterns.

Most years, the ladies suffer high mortality crossing Interstate 10 as they emerge from the winter spent in Mexico. Cary has seen windshield wipers put to use as vehicles and butterflies collide. But this year, it seems more made it through to the Santa Fe area. Since few other flowers were in bloom, the butterflies congregated on early-blooming fruit trees in a noticeable fashion.

Many of the painted ladies continued on further north. However, the eggs they laid here could lead to another big burst in the early summer.

"Obviously the flood of painted ladies that we had this spring indicates that there was very successful reproduction in Mexico over the winter. So they flooded north. We'll just have to wait and see what happens," Cary tells SFR. "If conditions are good for them, which typically means that the caterpillars have lots of good food to eat…if it's a good year for thistles, it probably means we'll have a good population, another generation of painted ladies flying around."

The species is among 320 found in New Mexico, and that's about half the number counted all over North America.

"Most of them are very small so that they go unnoticed," says Cary. "Most people like to see the bigger swallowtails and the monarchs, kind of the big bright ones, but there are lots of other species that are small, living in specialized habitats, that only fly for a brief time during the year. So, most people don't see those. You only see them if you know where to go, when to go, where to look."

Cary heard from at least one person who pondered the arrival of "baby monarchs," so he says observers should remember the life cycle of butterflies. Eggs hatch into caterpillars, which eat and grow and later turn into the winged creatures. They emerge from the chrysalis fully grown and don't interbreed between species.

Painted lady on the left; monarch on the right
Painted lady on the left; monarch on the right | Steve Cary / Public Domain

Painted ladies have a wingspan of about 2-3 inches. That's smaller compared to the monarch, often called the king of butterflies, with wingspans at 3-4 inches. The ladies are also more subtly colored, with less black and more white. While monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, painted ladies are more general diners and pollinators. That was likely good news for the fruit trees here.

Cary isn't attributing the painted lady surge to the slowdown in human activity that has helped other parts of nature this spring, however.

"It's possible. There is probably no way to prove it one way or the other," he says, adding later that while for mammals, humans and their activities are "a much more immediate, visual, detectable threat, for most insects, they don't notice people. Their worlds are a lot smaller. Deer might live for eight years and they learn stuff. They learn where people go and they don't go and they modify their behaviors accordingly. A butterfly is only going to be a butterfly for a month. It goes quickly through its lifecycle, so what happened last year at that spot? It has no idea."

Fruit trees like this plum benefit from pollinators like the painted lady | Photo by Nedret Gürler
Fruit trees like this plum benefit from pollinators like the painted lady | Photo by Nedret Gürler

Another insect on everyone's mind this year is the butterfly's cousin moth. A moth family called Noctuidae has also had lots of population success this season. KRQE-13 talked to the entomologist at Albuquerque's Biopark, who said another generation of that insect will likely come in great numbers again in the summer.