After a 21-year study, an international team of researchers has presented strong evidence to suggest the Painted Lady butterflies — previously suspected to cross the Sahara desert and oceans to reach Europe — can definitely make the migratory journey of many thousands of miles.

Researchers from Spain, China, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands found not only that Painted Lady butterflies make the trip, but that they do so in greater numbers when wetter conditions in the desert help grow the plants they lay eggs on. The findings increase our understanding of how insects, including pollinators and disease-carrying pests, could spread between continents in the future amid climate change.

“It demonstrates how the wildlife we see in the UK can transcend national boundaries, and protecting such species requires strong international cooperation,” said Tom Oliver, an ecologist at the University of Reading and co-author of a new study on the butterflies that appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Large clouds of painted lady butterflies are being spotted across the UK and Ireland – and experts believe we are seeing a mass emergence that happens every 10 years.

Weather conditions and food sources are providing ideal conditions for the species to thrive.

Sightings of painted ladies – otherwise known as Vanessa cardui – have prompted countless pictures and videos to be posted to social media.

About 11 million of the butterflies were seen in the UK during the last “painted lady year” in 2009.

Simon Milne, Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, describes the phenomenon as “an amazing wonder of nature”.

On a normal day, in a regular year, Simon said he would expect to see about 10 to 15 of the species at the botanic gardens.

But he has encountered thousands of painted ladies in the past few days, and predicts that this year could see bigger numbers than ever before.

We are currently seeing a wave of home-grown butterflies, which are the descendants of those carried on winds from sub-Saharan Africa, along with newer arrivals from continental Europe.

Despite their delicate appearance, the insects can cover up to 100 miles each day as they migrate.

Tom Prescott, senior conservation officer with Butterfly Conservation Scotland, says that favourable breeding conditions mean we could see another wave of butterflies at the end of the summer “come early autumn, we could be up to our knees in them,” he said.

Numbers depend on favourable conditions earlier in the year, where the butterflies spend winter, warmer temperatures and favourable wind conditions as they migrate north.

The species often lay eggs on thistles, giving them the name Thistle Butterfly. Adults tend to feed on flowering plants and are often attracted to buddleia plants.

The public is being asked to submit butterfly sightings online to help Butterfly Conservation monitor numbers of this and other breeds.

Many butterfly species have been in decline.

According to the Butterfly Conservation Society, there is “evidence of the serious, long-term and ongoing decline of UK butterflies”.

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