Cabbage White Butterfly Life Cycle: A Fascinating Journey Explored

The cabbage white butterfly is a common sight in gardens and farms, particularly around plants belonging to the cabbage family.

These butterflies are known for their white wings with black spots.

They are notorious for the role they play as a pest among gardeners and farmers during their larval stage when they are known as the imported cabbageworm.

The butterfly life cycle consists of four stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult.

Cabbage White Butterfly Life Cycle
Cabbage White Larvae

The cabbage white’s journey specifically begins when a female lays her eggs on the leaves of host plants, usually those from the cabbage family.

As the eggs hatch into caterpillars, they immediately start feeding on the leaves, eventually transforming into the adult butterflies we see fluttering around our gardens.

While the cabbage white butterfly itself is a delight to watch, it is essential to be aware of its association with the imported cabbageworm, a potential threat to the health of cabbage-family plants.

Understanding the life cycle of this butterfly can help in managing the impact of these pests in our gardens and farms.

Cabbage White Butterfly Life Cycle

Eggs

Cabbage White Butterflies lay single eggs on the leaves of host plants, typically plants in the cabbage family 1. The eggs are:

  • Small
  • Yellowish-white
  • Often found on the underside of leaves

Larval Stage

Once hatched, the larvae, also called caterpillars, are green with a faint yellow stripe on the side 2.

They have several stages of development called instars.

  • First instar: They are tiny with a length of about 2 mm
  • Later instars: Caterpillars grow up to 1 inch

Larvae feed on host plants, sometimes causing significant damage to the leaves and crop.

Cabbage White Larva

Pupal Stage

Following the larval stage, the caterpillars transition into the pupal stage, also known as the chrysalis. Some key facts about pupal stage:

  • Pupa can be green or brown to blend with the environment
  • Typically attached to the host plant by silk threads
  • Overwintering may occur in this stage for some individuals

Adult Stage

After the pupa fully develops, the adult cabbage white butterfly 3 emerges. Characteristics of adult stage:

  • Medium-sized (2″ wingspan) white butterflies
  • Black wingtips and spots on the wings
  • Strong fliers with an affinity for nectaring

Identification and Physical Characteristics

Wingspan

The cabbage white butterfly is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of around 2 inches 1. This makes it easy to spot in gardens and fields.

Male Vs Female

Cabbage white butterflies exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females can be distinguished from each other by their physical features:

  • Males: Have one black spot in the center of each forewing2.
  • Females: Have two black spots on each forewing2.

Coloration

These butterflies are primarily creamy white in color, with some variations between males and females. Additional features include:

  • Dark wingtips on both sexes2.
  • Underside is yellow-white2.

Habitat and Distribution

Geographical Range

The Cabbage White Butterfly, or Pieris rapae, belongs to the family Pieridae. It originated in Europe, but has now spread to other parts of the world, including:

  • North America
  • Asia
  • North Africa
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

As an invasive species, it’s found in many regions across the United States.

Cabbage Whites

Preferred Habitats

Cabbage White butterflies are adaptable. They can thrive in various environments. They are commonly found in:

  • Urban areas
  • Woodlands
  • Heath
  • Agricultural fields

These butterflies prefer habitats where they can lay their eggs on plants in the cabbage family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and other Brassica plants1.

Habitat preferences:

  • Wide range of plant hosts
  • Accessibility to nectar sources
  • Availability of suitable plants for egg-laying

Host Plants and Feeding Habits

Cabbage Family Plants

Cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) is well-known for its association with plants in the cabbage family (Brassicaceae).

The larvae, known as the imported cabbageworm, feed on various cabbage family plants like:

  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower

These host plants provide nourishment to the caterpillars, helping them grow and develop.

However, these butterflies are such voracious eaters and easy breeders that they are considered major pests for these crops.

Other Host Plants

Apart from cabbage family plants, the cabbage white butterfly can also feed on other host plants such as:

  • Horseradish
  • Radishes
  • Turnip
  • Swede
  • Nasturtiums

These plants attract cabbage white butterflies, providing them with essential nutrients for their existence.

By understanding the host plant preferences of the cabbage white butterfly, it becomes easier to manage and control their population, ensuring a healthy and thriving garden.

Green Lynx Spider eats Cabbage White

Economic Impact on Agriculture

Agricultural Pest

The cabbage white butterfly is a significant agricultural pest in its larval stage, affecting various crops, primarily those in the cabbage crop family.

The caterpillar feeds on the leaves and other parts of the host plant.

Their life cycle can take as little as 15 to 20 days in high temperatures, with the possibility of over 10 generations per year, making them a persistent threat.

The damage to crops can be substantial, rendering them unmarketable. Some examples of affected crops include:

  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts

The feeding damage by the caterpillars can lead to:

  • Holes in the leaves
  • Reduced crop yield
  • Contamination by their presence

Biological Control Methods

Various biological control methods can help manage the population of cabbage white butterflies, reducing their impact on agriculture:

  • Natural Enemies: Some wasp species, such as Cotesia glomerata, are parasitoids that lay their eggs in the cabbage white caterpillars, eventually killing them.
  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): This naturally occurring soil bacterium produces a toxin that is lethal to caterpillars when ingested. Bt is considered environmentally friendly and specific to caterpillars; it does not harm beneficial insects, humans, or other animals.
Control Method Pros Cons
Natural Enemies Target-specific, reduces pesticide reliance Can be affected by climate change
Bacillus thuringiensis Environmentally friendly, specific to caterpillars Effectiveness depends on proper application

By adopting these biological control methods, farmers can mitigate the economic loss caused by the cabbage white butterfly and maintain healthy crop yields while reducing the use of harmful chemical pesticides.

Conclusion

The Cabbage White Butterfly, a frequent visitor to gardens and farms, embarks on a captivating life journey from egg to fluttering adult.

While their elegant flight and distinct markings are a delight to observe, their larval stage, known as the imported cabbageworm, poses challenges for agriculturalists.

By understanding their life cycle, habitat preferences, and feeding habits, we can better appreciate their role in nature and implement effective strategies to manage their impact on our beloved cabbage-family plants.

Footnotes

  1. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/cabbage-white 2 3
  2. https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef300 2 3 4 5
  3. https://uwm.edu/field-station/cabbage-whites-sulphurs/

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Cabbage White Chrysalis

Subject: Found cocoon
Location: Livermore, California
July 19, 2015 7:16 pm
Found it attached inside my dish glove. I have it hanging inside a cup with a top with holes. Would like to know what it is, how long it will take to hatch, and what to do with it once it hatches. It will be fascinating to look after. Thanks so much!
Signature: Shawna Jarnagin

Cabbage White Chrysalis
Cabbage White Chrysalis

Dear Shawna,
We quickly identified your chrysalis because we recently misidentified a Cabbage White Chrysalis, being thrown off by the silken girdle that helps to support the pupa. 

We are speculating that you garden and that your garden includes plants in the cabbage family, the food source for the caterpillars of the Cabbage White, a European species that was naturalized in North America centuries ago.

Letter 2 – Cabbage White Butterflies Mating

bug love…
Hello!
just wanted to send you guys some pics for your site. thanks again.. and keep up the good work.
Adam

Hi Adam,
Thanks so much for sending us your mating insect images. We have choses to post a lovely image of mating Cabbage White Butterflies, Pieris rapae.

This species was accidentally introduced from Europe to the Montreal area in the 1860s and it has spread throughout North America.

Letter 3 – Cabbage White Caterpillars in Mount Washington

Subject: Cabbage White Caterpillars
Geographic location of the bug: Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
Date: 12/16/2018
Time: 04:59 PM EDT
In late December, Daniel noticed that the leaves on the wild mustard that was growing in the garden looked as though he had eaten them, but he knew he did not want to begin eating the leaves on such young plants. 

When Daniel eats the mustard greens, he generally only picks half the leaf, leaving being the central vein and half a leaf to help the plant gain strength. 

These Cabbage White Caterpillars seem to have adapted to eating only partial leaves to minimize the damage to the plant, though still rendering the organic leaves unappetizing to many picky eaters.  Here is a Cabbage White Caterpillar from BugGuide.

Cabbage White Larvae
Cabbage White Larva

Letter 4 – Cabbage White Chrysalis

Subject: Cocoon?
Location: Southern California (South Orange County)
July 23, 2015 11:16 am
We noticed this strange creature on our pro shop window. Any help identifying it would be wonderful.
Signature: TGC

Cabbage White Chrysalis
Cabbage White Chrysalis

Dear TGC,
This is the chrysalis of a Cabbage White.

Letter 5 – Mating Cabbage Whites

Subject:  Mating Cabbage Whites
Geographic location of the bug:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
Date: 06/18/2018
Time: 11:50 AM EDT
Out editorial staff returned from visiting family in Ohio, and Eric, who picked us up at the airport was kind enough to take this image of mating Cabbage Whites on the huajes tree at the end of the driveway.

Mating Cabbage Whites

 

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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