The Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae), sometimes referred to as the Small Cabbage White, or Small White butterfly, is a species native to Europe and North Africa. True to its name, the Cabbage White was introduced to North America (near Quebec City) by settlers who brought cabbages over in 1860. This event happened again in New York just eight years later. Within 20 years the Cabbage White had spread throughout the United States and, 160 years later, has a well-established population throughout North America.
Ranging from central Canada south throughout the United States, and in parts of Mexico, the Cabbage White has spread from the original introduction spots by utilizing open areas. Weedy or grassy fields, roadsides, and of course, our backyards, are all effective habitats for the Cabbage White, provided food is available.
Adult Cabbage Whites consume nectar from flowers, but will typically seek out plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) to lay their eggs. This makes sense of course, as cabbages are in this family as well, and are the main food source for the caterpillars. The eggs will hatch within a few days, and the caterpillars will spend the next couple of weeks eating and developing. At roughly 14 days old, caterpillars enter the pupa stage where they will undergo a transformation in just eight days. When they hatch they will be in their final stage of life: For three weeks they will live as butterflies, with their main purpose being reproduction. This whole cycle takes as little as 30-60 days, which means these butterflies can have two to three cycles in one summer.
Despite being a non-native species, Cabbage Whites contribute to the food web. Many predators might be deterred due to the mustard-tasting oil the caterpillars produce, but to many the Cabbage White has become an important food source. Parasitic wasps, House Sparrows, Goldfinches, and other insectivore birds will all consume these bugs.
What can you do for Cabbage Whites? Since most interactions with Cabbage Whites in the garden result in crop loss, let’s talk about a few different ways to manage your backyard populations and safely protect your crops.
- Don’t use pesticides or insecticides – a very real threat to birds and other organisms, toxic sprays will hurt more than just the caterpillars. Not to mention they may hurt you if you consume them.
- Insect netting is a great way to start. Have this netting on early in the growing year to deter any butterflies moving in.
- Regularly check the undersides of leaves (even if you use netting). It may be laborious to pick off the eggs, but it is effective and is a better option than losing your plants to this species.
- Attract birds. Having feeders or nesting boxes available will draw birds in to your property. Many species, such as the ones mentioned above, will supplement their seed diet with the protein of these caterpillars and adult butterflies. Note: insect netting and birds don’t always go well together. Do research to determine the best method or methods for you.
- Plant distraction plants – have a separate small garden which you don’t cover with a net. Allow the butterflies to lay eggs here, rather than in your crops. This is recommended if you already have Cabbage Whites aplenty. You don’t want to attract more if you don’t have them, but you certainly can draw them away from your garden in this way. If you choose, you can continue removing eggs and caterpillars from these plants to help manage the population.
Learning Tools from Mass Audubon
Looking for More Resources and Activities?
Learn more about life cycles and behaviors.
Read about the geographic range of Cabbage Whites.
Watch this time lapse of Cabbage White caterpillars hatching.
Watch this time lapse of a Cabbage White pupating (making a chrysalis).
Watch this time lapse of a Cabbage White Butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
Complete this insect checklist as you explore what species are around your home!
Print some activity pages to complete at home.
What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.
Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.
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