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The Pieridae Family of Butterflies
November 22, 2013

Welcome to the Flying Butterfly!

While focusing on my butterfly garden I dabble in growing some vegetables along the way to. It is here that little white butterflies really make themselves at home. More about the Pieridae family.

There are about 75 species of whites,
yellows and sulphurs in America. Attention is always given
to the larger boldly colorful butterflies but considering the Pieridae
is the largest family, we are likely to see them over others in gardens.

  • There are three primary colors running throughout the Pieridae butterfly family - white, yellow and orange. Black outlines of veins
    or butterfly scales are also common.

  • These are medium sized butterflies and strong flyers with a wing-
    averaging 1-1/3”. Pieridae fly in sunny, open areas regardless of terrain. Flight patterns are flutters where they remain low to the ground using winds to assist them.

  • Some Pieridae species migrate but most have been accidentally introduced around the world, especially whites because there are more of them.

  • Host plants are primarily the Brassicaceae, or mustard family, including Cruciferae (meaning cross-bearing) which are the four-
    petaled flowers found within family. More information about host plants for Pieridae at pieridae caterpillar food.

  • When Pieridae sip nectar they tend to stay at flowers longer because memory capacity for these butterflies isn’t good. They become efficient with sipping at one flower. Should they fly to another flower they must learn how to effectively sip nectar all
    over again while memory diminishes to do the same from the previous flower. If a butterfly does move to another flower it is
    usually due to a declining nectar source or other insects around them disrupting process.

  • Pieridae prefer flowers that are blue, purple, and yellow in color for nectar and are often plants that many other butterflies seldom visit.

  • Both sexes are found
    at flowers but puddling tends to be exclusively males.

  • Chrysalises of whites have a silken thread around abdomen where they rest at 45 degree on host plant.

  • Whites are a species where males attempt to mate with females after she emerges from pupa. Should this happen it’s highly likely that the female’s wings may not expand properly where she has difficulty flying. The exception to this is the Cabbage White female where, upon emerging, is able to do the latter of the following ...

  • While different butterfly mating rituals can vary depending on the species, with whites the female is known to avoid advances from males by either flying away to new habitats leaving the males behind or shifting her abdomen upward while spreading her wings making mating impossible.

Of the Pieridae family, Whites are the most abundant. The good news for those of us in winter zones is that when we see that first little white butterfly fluttering come spring we know it’s time to garden.

  • Those that are first to appear in spring are fittingly called Spring White Butterflies (Pontia sisymbril). Depending on location they may have a different name.

  • Host plants you’re likely to see them on include Hyssops (Agastache ssp.), Lavenders (Lavandula sp.), Mints (menthe spp.), Oregano (Origanum vulgare), Seums (sedum sp.), Verbenas (Verbena sp.).

The bad news (which many vegetable gardeners already know) is that
this family of butterflies are garden and horticulture pests, regardless of location. This, especially for their butterfly egg, butterfly larva and butterfly pupa stages.

The most notorious of this family is the Cabbage White, or Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae). Known as the Small White in Europe, many eggs on cabbage plants can strip them bare.

Cabbage butterflies can be seen year round in Deep South and March through November in most of the rest of America. Interestingly there are a few things that separate this butterfly from most others
in this family.

  • The Cabbage Butterfly was also accidentally introduced around the world. Females lays about 700 eggs, making them nearly impossible to eradicate. Caterpillars are voracious eaters and when feeding together can devour an entire host plant.

  • Can overwinter as chrysalis. Pupa lay vertically or rest on leaves at a 45 degree angle.

  • Not found in dry habitats.

  • Outside of seeking flowers with abundant nectar sources, the female cabbage whites will especially seek out nectar containing amino acids. This is necessary to create proteins for egg production. It’s the mustard oil compounds in the mustard family that leads these butterflies to the plants for hosting.

  • Checkered White (Pontia protudice) Once had larger numbers but species has had competition from the introduced exotic butterfly cabbage white.

So what do we do?

Recognizing Cabbage Larva:

Large Cabbage White larva are hairy, pale yellow with black mottling and feed on the outside of leaves. Small White caterpillars are pale green, more velvety and bore themselves into cabbage heads.


  • Favorites host plants are
    Nasturtiums and Cleome.

    Try planting these off to the
    side where they can be used
    as host plants.

  • Regardless if plants are in your butterfly garden or vegetable garden, the best bet is to cover them. Try a mesh netting where female butterflies can't lay eggs and caterpillars can't get through.

  • Before using non-organic options, try removing caterpillars by hand if numbers aren't out of control as the first option.

  • If needing to use chemicals, try non-toxic Bt dust. This will kill many forms of insect larva. Follow directions and make sure it doesn't blow into the wanted host plant area.

  • Pyrethrum is a spray pesticide from the Chrysanthemum plant (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium). Having low-toxicity it kills insects by penetrating cuticles and reaching the nervous system.

Until next time -
Have a great holiday season
and Happy Indoor Gardening!

Elizabeth @ Easy Butterfly Garden

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