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What is the little white butterfly?

What is the little white butterfly?

The little white butterfly, often referred to as the cabbage white butterfly, is a common species that can be found in many parts of the world. With their distinctive white wings and small size, these delicate-looking insects are a familiar sight in backyards and gardens during the spring and summer months. But what exactly are these little white butterflies? Where do they come from and why are they called cabbage whites? This article takes a closer look at the biology and behavior of these widespread butterflies.

Scientific Classification

The little white butterfly belongs to the following scientific classification:

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Arthropoda
Class Insecta
Order Lepidoptera
Family Pieridae
Genus Pieris
Species P. rapae

There are two main species of white butterflies that are referred to as cabbage whites: the small cabbage white (Pieris rapae) and the large cabbage white (Pieris brassicae). The small cabbage white is the more common of the two across most regions.

Physical Appearance

The small cabbage white butterfly has a wingspan of about 1.5 to 2.5 inches (4 to 6 cm). As their name suggests, these butterflies have predominantly white-colored wings, with black speckles along the wing margins. The underside of the wings tends to be a pale greenish-yellow. Females have two black spots on each forewing, while males only have one. Both sexes have one black spot on each hindwing. Their bodies are grayish-white.

In contrast, the large cabbage white is slightly bigger with a wingspan reaching 2.75 inches (7 cm). It lacks the black speckles of the small cabbage white but has the same pattern of black spots on the wings. The underside of the wings is marked with yellowish veins.

Life Cycle and Metamorphosis

The cabbage white butterfly has a complete metamorphosis with four life stages:

Caterpillar (larva)
Pupa (chrysalis)
Adult butterfly

It starts when a female lays clusters of yellow, bullet-shaped eggs on the underside of leaves of host plants. The eggs hatch within a few days into green caterpillars with a velvety texture and faint yellow stripe down the back. The caterpillars grow quickly and shed their exoskeleton a few times. Within 2-3 weeks, the caterpillar reaches full size (up to 1.2 inches or 30 mm long) and attaches itself to a stem or leaf before shedding its final skin to reveal a chrysalis underneath. 10-14 days later, the adult butterfly emerges from this pupal case and its wings expand and dry before it takes flight.

From egg to adult butterfly takes around 4-5 weeks during the summer breeding season. Adult cabbage whites live for about 2-3 weeks.

Habitat and Distribution

The small cabbage white is native to Europe and parts of Asia but has spread widely around the world. It is now found across North America, South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand after accidental introductions.

These butterflies thrive in open and disturbed habitats with plenty of nectar sources, such as fields, meadows, roadsides, gardens and urban parks. They prefer temperate climates and lower elevations. The large cabbage white has a more limited distribution centered in Europe and parts of Asia.

Host Plants

Cabbage white butterflies use plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) as host plants. This includes not just cabbages, but also other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts. Wild mustards, nasturtiums and sweet alyssum are other common host plants. The green caterpillars feed on the leaves of these plants, sometimes causing extensive damage in gardens and agriculture.

Adult Feeding

As adults, cabbage whites feed on the nectar from a variety of flowering plants. Favorite nectar sources include lilacs, sweet alyssum, red clover, dandelions and asters. Adults also occasionally sip moisture from dirt or visit sap flows on trees. Males will congregate around damp ground or mud puddles. This mud-puddling behavior provides them with salts and amino acids.


Cabbage whites are not migratory in the traditional sense. However, they exhibit seasonal movements in response to climate that cause occasional mass dispersals. In warmer regions, populations persist year-round. But in temperate climates, the butterflies do not survive winter.

Each spring, new generations recolonize more northerly latitudes from southern refuges. In fall, cabbage whites fly south or move to milder coastal locations. Wind patterns influence the direction of these seasonal movements. During dispersal events, mass migrations of hundreds or thousands of cabbage whites may occur.


While cabbage whites are widespread and abundant overall, they do face some threats. Pesticide use can impact populations in agricultural areas. Loss of native plants due to development, grazing or urbanization degrades their habitat. Parasitic wasps and flies attack eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises. Generalist predators like birds, spiders and dragonflies prey on the adults. Viral, fungal and bacterial diseases take their toll as well.

Despite these threats, their high reproductive rate and dispersal ability enables cabbage whites to thrive. They bounce back quickly from environmental pressures. This resilience, coupled with their association with human agriculture, helps explain their global success.

Interactions with Humans

The relationship between cabbage whites and humans is a complex one. These butterflies are considered agricultural pests that can cause major damage to cruciferous vegetable crops if populations spike. Caterpillars may completely defoliate plants in a phenomenon called “cabbage worm.” Farmers often use insecticides and parasitic wasps for control.

In home gardens, cabbage worms give the harmless butterflies a bad name. The green caterpillars are adept at evading predators by hiding on the underside of leaves. They can quickly ravage vegetable plants down to stubs. Physical removal, row covers or Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spray are lower-impact options for control in gardens.

Yet many people enjoy seeing cabbage whites flitting through their yards and gardens. The butterflies pollinate flowers as they feed on nectar. Their pupae provide food for birds. Caterpillars feed songbirds during breeding season. The overall ecological benefits of cabbage whites likely outweigh the negatives. These adaptable little butterflies fill an important niche in many parts of the world.

Symbolic Meanings

Butterflies have long been used symbolically around the world. In many cultures, butterflies represent hope, change, life and beauty. The cabbage white’s association with spring renewal and emergence fits these symbolic meanings well. Their amazing metamorphosis also inspires symbolic links to transformation, rebirth and new beginnings.

Some believe white butterflies forecast the weather. A cabbage white butterfly flying towards you may indicate an approaching storm, while one flying away signals good weather ahead. This folklore could have roots in the small cabbage white’s seasonal dispersal patterns.

In Latin American culture, white butterflies like cabbage whites symbolize the spirits of deceased loved ones returning for a visit. Seeing a white butterfly offers a comforting message from beyond. Many see the butterflies as messengers from heaven bringing hope and peace.


While most people see cabbage whites simply as common backyard butterflies, these interesting insects have a complex natural history and cultural significance. Their wide distribution, seasonal migration habits, important role as pollinators and crop pests, and resilience in the face of threats offers insights into the natural world. The cabbage white’s associations with change, hope and spirits reflect their beauty and key place in ecosystems that sustain life. The fluttering white wings of the cabbage butterfly have inspired and impacted humans across continents for centuries. Paying closer attention to these small wonders of nature can open our eyes to their hidden depths.