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Bug of the Month: Cabbage white (butterfly)

male cabbage white on yellow flowerCommon name: Cabbage white (butterfly)

Latin name: Pieris rapae

Kingdom Animalia
   Phylum Arthropoda
      Class Insecta
         Order Lepidoptera
            Family Pieridae

Pierid butterflies in general

orange sulphur and clouded sulphur, relatives of the cabbage whiteButterflies in the family Pieridae are commonly known as the Whites and Yellows. As you might guess, most of the species within the family are predominantly white or yellow in color. There are more than 50 species of Pierid butterflies in North America, and while many specialize on particular host plants and are found in small geographical areas, a few species, such as the cabbage white and the orange sulphur, are common across the continent and are seen throughout the growing season. In fact, it is thought that the yellow color of a very common European species gave “butterflies” their name.

How to identify the cabbage white

top (dorsal) and bottom (ventral) views of a male cabbage whiteTypically, cabbage whites have white wings with either one (male) or two (female) black spots on the upper side of the forewing. Both sexes also have a dark patch on the tip of the forewing, and one black spot on the front edge of the hindwing. The black markings may be very faint (or not visible at all, see picture below) on some individuals, especially in early spring. On the underside of the wings, the tip of the forewing and the entire hind wing are a distinctly yellow color. In flight, cabbage whites are often up high, and dart quickly this way and that. Similar-looking species that you’re likely to see on the islands include clouded sulphurs and orange sulphurs. Both of these species are more yellow in color than cabbage whites, and they generally fly lower to the ground with less swerving back and forth.

Where to find cabbage whites on the Boston Harbor Islands

male cabbage white on a leaf, with no visible spotsCabbage whites are everywhere! They are the most commonly-seen butterfly on the Islands and the adults occur just about anywhere there are flowering plants. Look for them in open meadows and in shrubby and lightly wooded areas. Adult cabbage whites are one of the first butterflies you’ll see in the spring, and one of the last species you’ll see in the fall.

How cabbage whites make a livinG

female cabbage white on leaf, at World's End. Photo by F.S. ModelThe caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies feed on plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) such as cabbage and broccoli. The small green caterpillars (often called cabbageworms) can be serious pests in gardens and commercial farms. Adults feed on nectar from a wide variety of plants including dandelion, asters, and mints. Adult female cabbage whites lay single eggs on the underside of leaves of host plants. The developing caterpillars go through several hungry stages before pupation and adulthood. In New England, cabbage whites produce an average of three generations during the growing season; adults live just a few weeks. The last generation of the season over-winters as a pupa (or chrysalis) and the adult form emerges in early spring.

Where in the world cabbage whites occur

Cabbage whites are native to Eurasia and North Africa. They were accidentally introduced to Montreal, Canada, in 1860. They spread rapidly across much of North America (from central Canada to northwest Mexico), and often occur in disturbed environments (e.g., backyards, roadsides). 

To learn more about cabbage whites (and butterflies in general)

On the web:

In print:

    Glassberg, J. 1993. Butterflies through binoculars: a field guide to butterflies in the Boston, New York, Washington region. Oxford University Press. New York, NY.

    Kavanaugh, J. 2008. Massachusetts Butterflies & Moths: An introduction to 72 familiar species. A Pocket Naturalist Guide. Waterford Press.

    Weber, L. 2002. Butterflies of New England. North Woods Naturalist Guides. Kollath-Stensaas Publishing.