It is one of the most widespread of all butterflies, found on every continent except Antarctica and South America. In Australia, V. cardui has a limited range around Bunbury, Fremantle and Rottnest Island. However, its close relative, the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi, sometimes considered a subspecies) ranges over half the continent. Other closely related species are the American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis), and the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella).
The Painted Lady occurs in any temperate zone, including mountains in the tropics. The species is resident only in warmer areas, but migrates in spring, and sometimes again in autumn. For example, it migrates from North Africa and the Mediterranean to Britain in May and June, but having produced offspring they then die in the Autumn.
The egg takes 3 to 5 days to hatch. The caterpillar takes 7–11 days to turn into a chrysalis. It takes 7–11 days for the chrysalis to turn into a butterfly. It doesn't stay in one area so long. The painted lady butterfly travels around 1000 miles in its life. Its wing span is 2 in. The painted lady caterpillar is black with spiked skin.
The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of host plants of the families Asteraceae, especially Carduus crispus (as implied by the species name cardui – Latin for "of the thistles"). Also, Boraginaceae, Malvaceae (especially hollyhocks and dwarf mallow Malva neglecta), and a number of Fabaceae are eaten. The adults drink nectar from a variety of wildflowers and cultivars, more commonly the favored thistle, butterfly bush (Buddleja), asters, Tickseed sunflowers (Bidens) and zinnias.