The Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) is true wildlife success story, but many home gardeners and farmers wish it wasn’t.
The Cabbage White is not native to North Carolina or North America and yet has managed to become the most widely distributed species of butterfly on the continent. It is so ubiquitous throughout North Carolina from early spring to late fall that I don’t recall ever taking a walk or hike without seeing at least a few of these butterflies swirling through the sky. Sometimes there are so many, it’s like walking through a sunlit snow flurry.
But not everyone is thrilled with this butterfly’s success. Cabbage White butterfly caterpillars feed on plants in the brassica family of plants, many of which farmers and home gardeners grow for food such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and, (you guessed it) cabbage. Cabbage White caterpillars can significantly lower both the quality and quantity of the food harvest.
That said, nothing in Mother Nature divides cleanly on lines of good and bad. Cabbage White caterpillars may be agricultural pests but the adult butterflies can still be appreciated both for their beauty and as one of the few species these days that is doing just fine.
|Family||Pieridae (“whites and sulphurs”) (subfamily Pierinae “whites”)|
|Genus species||Pieris rapae (formerly Artogeia rapae)|
Eggs: Female Cabbage White butterflies lay pale, yellowish, vase-shaped eggs (Pyle, 1981) singly on host plants (Daniels, 2003).
Caterpillars: Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) caterpillars grow to about 0.75 inches (19 mm). They are lime-green, have a faint yellow line lengthwise down their bodies, and broken yellow side stripes along their respiratory spiracles. Their bodies are covered in tiny bristles and also have tiny black spots visible only extremely close-up (Wagner, 2005).
Their chrysalises are longer than they are wide, and are about 0.75 inches (19mm) as well. They are bright lime-green, and have two ridges that run lengthwise from the bottom point to the thickest middle section. They generally lie against the surface of plant leaves, anchored with silk at both ends, rather than dangling like some species’ chrysalises.
Adults: Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterflies grow to about 2 inches (50 millimeters).
Dorsal wing surface: Both forewings and hind wings are white. Their forewings are tipped with faint charcoal in both sexes; males have 1 charcoal spot on the forewing, while females have two. Both sexes have a charcoal spot on each hind wing as well.
Ventral wing surface: The forewing tips on both sexes ranges from white to yellow, as do the hind wings. The underside of the forewings show the same number of dark spots as the dorsal surface (1 spot for males, 2 spots for females) but the hind wings are unmarked in both sexes.
The markings on early spring individuals may be paler than those seen on adults later in the flight season (Glassberg, 1999)
In North Carolina, Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterflies can be seen after the last hard frost in the spring and up to the first hard frost in the fall, and have three or more generations per season (Pyle, 1981)
Habitat and Distribution
Cabbage White butterflies can be found throughout North Carolina and in almost every habitat, including home gardens.
Food and Feeding Behavior
Larval Host Plants:
Cabbage White caterpillars feed primarily on plants in the Mustard family Brassicaceae, as well as nasturtiums in family (Tropaeolaceae). With over 350 genera and 3,000 species of mustards in the northern hemisphere, this butterfly species can find food easily.
Cultivated plants in the mustard family include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Farmers and home gardeners consider Cabbage Whites pests as this species is especially fond of eating these plants and can do a lot of damage to the harvest.
Adult Food Plants:
Adult Cabbage White butterflies drink nectar. They fly well but erratically and often swerve around. They tend to fly higher than many butterflies when traveling from flower to flower but are easy to observe when they land.
- The Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) is native to Eurasia but was accidentally introduced to North America via Quebec in 1860 (Pyle, 1981). It quickly spread all over the United States and became a serious agricultural pest, thanks to to its abundance, resilience, and liking for cultivated cruciferous vegetable plants.
- Scientists introduced a parasitic wasp species (Cotesia glomerata) in an attempt to control the spread of the Cabbage White butterfly species in the United States. It’s possible that this wasp has also caused the severe decline of a native, northern white species, the Mustard White (Pieris napi) (Wagner, 2005).
- Thanks to their adaptability, Cabbage White butterflies are the most successful of all butterflies as far as population density and distribution, and can even be seen in midtown Manhattan (Glassberg, 2002).
Daniels, Jaret C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.
Glassberg, Jeffrey. 2002. Butterflies of North America. New York, NY: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc.
Glassberg, Jeffrey. 1999. Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East; A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Eastern North America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies: North America. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wagner, David L. 2005. Princeton Field Guides: Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.