As a migrant the Painted Lady may be met in almost any part of Britain. It feeds avidly from any good source of nectar, so is very much a garden butterfly. It is also commonly seen on downland and in woods.
Thistle, probably all species, is the principal foodplant. The larvae will feed on burdock, viperís bugloss (Echium), mallow, stinging nettle, runner bean and the everlasting-flower, Helichrysum. There may be many unrecorded foodplants as the species breeds in the extreme south of Europe and in North Africa. It can be found in every continent except the polar ice caps.
The Painted Lady is continuously brooded but cannot withstand our winter and either migrates south or perishes at the end of autumn. The first immigrants are usually seen in May and June. These breed here and produce more butterflies in July and August which are augmented by new arrivals from abroad. There is no hibernation stage.
Many aspects of the behaviour of this species resemble those of the Red Admiral. The butterflies first seen in the year are migrants from the Mediterranean region. The eggs are laid singly, usually on thistle leaves, and the caterpillar lives a solitary life. It conceals itself by drawing the leaf together with a network of silk, and feeds on the underside, removing the surface without biting right through. Later it leaves its shelter and lives openly. The pupa is formed inside a leaf shelter which the caterpillar constructs before it hangs up from the tail, attached by the cremaster alone to a pad of silk.
The butterflies are very quick in flight. They become engrossed while feeding but are surprisingly alert if approached too closely. If frightened away they will often return and they appear to be territorial at times, especially the first arrivals in spring. They are much less attracted to fruit and other liquid food than the Red Admiral and Comma. Painted Ladies are normally seen singly or in very small numbers; some years it is quite common, in others almost absent. It is usually less common than the Red Admiral, except when a mass migration occurs. Enormous numbers are occasionally seen abroad, but the numbers thin out before they reach the British Isles.