Cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae)
This week’s crawly is a pretty flitter who loves their greens. Meet the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae).
Cabbage whites were introduced to North America from Europe in the late 1800s and have really settled in. They can now be found in every state except Alaska.
What’s in a name? Their species name “rapae” is from the Latin “rapa” which means “turnip.” But, wait, they’re called “cabbage white” not “turnip white.”
Fun fact: There are a lot of veggies in the cabbage family (Brassica): Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, horseradish, kale, mustard, radish and turnip.
Cabbage white caterpillars will dine on any of these plants; they must be very healthy little ‘pillars!
If you have a backyard garden with any of these greens, you probably don’t want cabbage whites around.
Adult cabbage white will drink nectar from a wide variety of flowers such as mustards, dandelion, red clover, asters, lavender and mints so you will likely see them flitting around your yard whether you are growing greens or not.
Part of the cabbage whites’ success in the United States comes from their comfort in any habitat. You can find cabbage whites in bogs, meadows, woods, and backyard gardens. They prefer open spaces but may also be found in forested areas.
Adult cabbage whites can live for up to three weeks, so you will have a chance anytime from May through October.
Cabbage white’s cousin the margined white (Pieris marginalis) will also be out and about; they have telltale dark gray lines on their underwings.
Both male and female cabbage whites are small to medium-sized butterflies, with a wingspan of 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Males have one black spot on their upper wing; females have two.
Our pictured cabbage white is a female; you can just see the shadow of her second upper wing spot through her lower wing.
Cabbage whites’ upper wings are truer to their “white” moniker. It’s just their underwings that have the warm yellow-green or yellow dusting of scales.
While male cabbage whites do need to pause for nectar sometimes, they spend most of their time in flight patrolling for females. Most you see flitting around and pausing only briefly are males.
As you’d imagine, these small butterflies come from small caterpillars. The cabbage white ‘pillars are bright green or blue green with a yellow stripe running down the center of their bodies. They are camouflage experts and become almost invisible when hiding on the underside of their host plant leaves.
It takes between four and seven weeks for a cabbage white to go from egg to butterfly. In our area they will have one or two or even three generations per season, depending on location and weather. The last generation of the season will overwinter in chrysalis form and hatch out the following spring.