Vanessa itea — “Yellow admiral”

Vanessa itea, the Yellow admiral, is a species of butterfly that can be found in Australia, in New Zealand but also on Loyality island and Norfolk Island.  Here they lay eggs exclusively on plants that belong to the nettle (Urticaceae) family including stinging nettles (Urtica sp.), shade pellitory (Parietaria debilis),  Australian mulberry (Pipturus argenteus), Baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) and potentially more Urticaceae.  They are widespread and while they prefer open country, the butterflies can be found in nearly any kind of habitat where their host plants grow and where there are plenty of flowers or food sources available. Adults feed on sugary liquids including sap runs from bleeding trees, fermenting fallen fruits but most commonly flower nectar.

Vanessa itea, top view

The caterpillars have a habit of rolling up the leaves of their host plant with silk, and hiding inside the cavity it creates. Here they can hide during the day. At night or on cloudy, less sunny days the caterpillars come out of their leaf shelters to feed. Vanessa itea can overwinter in several ways depending on the geographical location. It is mostly found in the temperate regions of Australia and in New Zealand. Here they can survive cold and frosty winters.  The caterpillars of Vanessa itea are able to survive mellow winters and can cling to life until next spring in some geographical locations where it is not too cold. However, in geographical locations with truly colder withers, this species mainly overwinters as adult butterfly. The imagoes of Vanessa itea are able to hibernate by becoming inactive for a prolonged time; usually they do this in sheltered spots such as in caves, deep in the foliage or also in basements or garden sheds. Vanessa itea is an excellent migrant and may be found all year around in warmer locations, while it overwinters in colder locations. Adults also migrate from warmer to more temperate regions if spring arrives and the habitat becomes more suitable. It seems that Vanessa itea is a very versatile species that can survive in a broad range of temperate to warmer habitats, that may survive prolonged periods of colder temperatures as adults, larvae or pupae, and that is a strong flier that can easily migrate to more suitable areas. It is however not able to survive well in fully tropical climates, although they can end up here by accident due to their strong migratory abilities; one example are a few records of this butterfly in Papua New Guinea where it is not known to be able to reproduce. When blown by the wind, these excellent migrants can end up in very remote or unusual places. Males often lurk on the ground or low in the vegetation, waiting for females that pass by above them in order to intercept them and pair with them. Mating occurs early in the evening and females deposit eggs on their respective host plants.

Vanessa itea, side view

  • Difficulty rating: Average – quite easy for a butterfly if provided host plant, food and sunlight
  • Rearing difficulty: 4/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 4/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants:  Urticaceae family including but not limited to stinging nettles (Urtica sp.), shade pellitory (Parietaria debilis),  Australian mulberry (Pipturus argenteus), Baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
  • Natural range: New Zealand, Australia, Loyality island, Norfolk island
  • Polyphagous: A little, but only likes certain Urticaceae
  • Generations:  Multivoltine  – is capable of continuous brood
  • Family: Nymphalidae (brushfoot butterflies)
  • Pupation: Chrysalis
  • Prefered climate: Temperate to sub-tropical
  • Special notes:   
  • Estimated wingspan: 50mm-65mm
  • Binomial name: Vanessa itea (Fabricius, 1775)

The eggs are green and translucent, and hatch in 5 to 14 days depending on the temperature – warmth speeds up their development significantly. The caterpillars are black to greyish, sometimes brown to yellow/greenish, with a lighter green zig-zag pattern that runs along their sides. They have spiky spine-like setae.  The caterpillars of Vanessa itea  have a habit of rolling up the leaves of their host plant with silk, and hiding inside the cavity this  creates – this protects them from predators but also from full sunlight. They usually hide during the day but they come out to feed on cloudy, less sunny days or at night.

Young caterpillars are very hard to spot to the naked eye – hatchlings are barely a millimeter in size. However, if provided food plant and some warmth they will quickly grow. In captivity they can be raised in rearing sleeves, plastic boxes with leaves of the host plant, potted plant inside a netted cage or a greenhouse; they seem very tolerant of humidity and lack of ventilation and are generally an easy to breed and robust species.

Young caterpillars of Vanessa itea on Urtica sp.

Depending on the temperatures, the caterpillars can grow from hatchlings to fully grown larvae in 1 to 2 months time; the warmer they are kept, the faster they grow. When shedding skins or resting they may hide inside the folded up leaves of their host plants.

Vanessa itea caterpillar, fully grown

When they are fully grown, the caterpillars suspend themselves by attaching themselves to a patch of silk with their anal prolegs. Here they will hang curled up as prepupae for a few days before shedding their skins and thus pupating.

Pupating Vanessa itea

The pupa of Vanessa itea is variable, but are generally brown. They can also be dark greyish to light greenish, and in some cases, have golden  or silvery metallic spots. The abdominal segments  and thoracical segments have spikes.

Vanessa itea pupa

The pupae of Vanessa itea can hatch in about 14 days time – quite rapidly – if kept warm. However, if they are confronted with lower temperatures their development can be significantly delayed until warmer times arrive – these adults are able to hatch after a month or longer. Pupae turn dark before hatching and the colours of the adults become visible.

Vanessa itea, adult

Vanessa itea, adults

The adults of Vanessa itea pair very easily and rapidly if placed in small enclosures. Important is that they are provided a little bit of flight space, sunlight, a food source (flowers, fruit, honeywater) and host plant to lay eggs on. They fly and reproduce very well in greenhouses and net cages/aerariums. Vanessa itea is a variable looking butterfly, and while most of their colour patterns are homogenous the size and shapes of their orange, yellow and white patches varies greatly. If you would compare a series of invididuals, you would be able to find a high degree of individual variation. If given warmth and host plant this species can continuously breed in captivity all year! However they are also able to hibernate. While in the wild it is a rather nomadic butterfly they also easily seem to adapt to smaller enclosures.

Vanessa itea

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2019); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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