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Pieris rapae

What do they look like?

Cabbage worms, the caterpillar form of cabbage butterflies, are up to 35 mm long. These caterpillars have a green, velvety appearance. Caterpillars go through five stages of growth. The first four stages have yellow stripes running along the centers of their backs. Adult butterflies have a wingspan that ranges from 4.5 cm to 6.5 cm. Cabbage butterflies have white wings tipped in black. They have one black spot on the upper side of the back of their wings. Females have two black dots in the middle of their wings and thick, white hair on their bodies. Males have a single black dot in the middle of their wings and thick, yellowish hair on their bodies. (Barlett, 2004; Capinera, 2014)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range wingspan
    4.5 to 6.5 cm
    1.77 to 2.56 in

Where do they live?

Cabbage butterflies (Pieris rapae), known as cabbage worms in their caterpillar stage, are found all around the world in temperate climates. They were introduced to Montreal in the 1860s. Since then, they have spread across North America. (Barlett, 2004; Capinera, 2014)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Cabbage butterflies are found in a variety of habitats. They can be found in almost any type of open space, including meadows, bogs, forests, fields, and open spaces. (Barlett, 2004)

  • These animals are found in the following types of habitat
  • temperate

How do they grow?

Cabbage worms grow up for around 15 days before their metamorphosis to become cabbage butterflies. During this period of growth, the larvae molt and change. The caterpillars build their chrysalises on food plants or nearby debris. Grey, green, yellow, or brown in color, the chrysalises are 19-20 mm in length. Metamorphosis can last from 11 days up to a few weeks. Cabbage worms that start this cycle late in the year may spend the winter in their chrysalises. (Capinera, 2014; Richards, 1940)

How do they reproduce?

Female cabbage butterflies mate once as early adults. (Kingsolver, 2000)

Female cabbage butterflies lay between 300-400 eggs in their lifetimes. They lay one egg at a time on the undersides of leaves. The eggs are white and become more yellow as they age. A single plant can have up to 57 eggs and 48 larvae on it. (Capinera, 2014; Kingsolver, 2000)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Cabbage butterflies breed once in their lifetimes.
  • Breeding season
    Cabbage butterflies breed from early spring to early fall.
  • Range eggs per season
    300 to 400
  • Range time to independence
    0 (low) minutes
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    21 (low) days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    21 (low) days
  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

How long do they live?

Cabbage butterflies live from 3 to 6 weeks, depending on the weather. About 3 weeks of their lifespans are spent as adults. There are 2-3 generations per year in Colorado, 3 in New England, 3-5 in California, and 6-8 near the southernmost part of the range of cabbage butterflies. (Capinera, 2014)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    21 to 42 days
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    21 to 42 hours

How do they behave?

Cabbage butterflies are active during the day. They fly from spring until September, but they have shorter active seasons farther north and longer active seasons in the south. (Barlett, 2004; Capinera, 2014)

How do they communicate with each other?

Like other butterflies, cabbage butterflies have compound eyes. They are able to see ultraviolet light. (Berger, 2001)

  • Communication Channels
  • visual

What do they eat?

Adult cabbage butterflies drink nectar, while cabbage worms (the caterpillars) eat the leaves of plants. Cabbage butterflies prefer drinking nectar from plants that have mustard oil in them. They have been seen drinking nectar from the flowers of mustard plants, dandelions, broccolis, cabbages, Brussel sprouts, cauliflowers, collards, horseradish, kale, red clovers, asters, and mints. Caterpillars eat the leafy parts of these plants. Sometimes they eat so much of the plants that only the stems remain. Caterpillars and butterflies enjoy cabbage plants, that's where they get their common names. (Barlett, 2004; Capinera, 2014)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • nectar

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predators include shield bugs, ambush bugs, vespid wasps, European wasps, harvestmen, and hoverflies. The species known as white butterfly parasites attack cabbage worms. (Ashby, 1974; Capinera, 2014; Kingsolver, 2000)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Cabbage worms and cabbage butterflies are different life stages of the same creature, but they have very different environmental roles. Cabbage worms can hurt their ecosystems by wounding or killing plants through their eating habits. Cabbage butterflies drink the nectar of plants without hurting the leaves. Also, cabbage butterflies are important pollinators of crop plants, such as cabbage. (Barlett, 2004)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • white butterfly parasites (Apanteles glomeratus)
  • parasitic flies (Phryxe vulgaris)

Do they cause problems?

Cabbage worms, the caterpillar form of cabbage butterflies, are crop pests. They may eat crop plants down to the stems. (Capinera, 2014)

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • crop pest

How do they interact with us?

Cabbage butterflies are pollinators of crop plants. (Barlett, 2004)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • pollinates crops

Are they endangered?

Contributors

Deena Hauze (author), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

References

Ashby, J. 1974. A Study of Arthropod Predation of Pieris rapae L. Using Serological and Exclusion Techniques. Journal of Applied Ecology, 11(2): 419-425. Accessed June 19, 2020 at http://www.jstor.com/stable/2402195.

Barlett, T. 2004. "Species Pieris rapae - Cabbage White - Hodges#4197" (On-line). Bug Guide. Accessed June 19, 2020 at https://bugguide.net/node/view/3259.

Berger, C. 2001. "Seeing Colors in a New Light" (On-line). National Wildlife Federation. Accessed June 25, 2020 at https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2002/Seeing-Colors-in-a-New-Light.

Capinera, J. 2014. "Imported cabbageworm; Pieris rapae (Linnaeus) (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Pieridae)" (On-line). Featured Creatures Entomology & Nematology. Accessed June 19, 2020 at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/veg/leaf/imported_cabbageworm.htm.

Kingsolver, J. 2000. Feeding, Growth, and the Thermal Environment of Cabbage White Caterpillars, Pieris rapae L. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology: Ecological and Evolutionary Approaches, 73(5): 621-628. Accessed June 19, 2020 at https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/317758.

Richards, O. 1940. The Biology of the Small White Butterfly (Pieris rapae), with Special Reference to the Factors Controlling its Abundance. Journal of Animal Ecology, 9(2): 243-288. Accessed June 19, 2020 at http://www.jstor.com/stable/1459.

 
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Hauze, D. 2020. "Pieris rapae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 11, 2021 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Pieris_rapae/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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