Butterflies in the Pieridae family (whites) and tips for creating a butterfly garden

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Gonepteryx rhaemni, the brimstone butterfly

Pieridae family

These are commonly know as the Whites, Sulphurs and Orange tips. The family has a world wide distribution, and the adults are generally found in open, sunny areas. There are 11 British species in the family. The wingspan ranges from 22 - 70 mm. A typical Pierid flight pattern is a low, looping zig-zag.

Brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhaemni.

The brimstone butterfly on the left, I have drawn the male colouring on the left wing and the paler female colouring on the right. The males are the only bright yellow butterfly in the British Isles. The female is much paler and is sometimes mistaken for a cabbage white butterfly (see below). The brimstone is fairly common in central and southern England.

Eggs are laid in May and June.

The caterpillars grow up to 50 mm long, and feed on buckthorn and alder buckthorn.

The chrysalis is attached to a twig of the foodplant at the end of its abdomen, and has a thread around the middle of the body holding it in a sling to the twig.

Adults fly from March to October and hibernate over winter, and have a fast and powerful flight. Wingspan is about 5.6 cm. They have green undersides to their wings, so at rest they resemble a leaf.

Pieris brassicae egg, cabbage white egg, large white egg

Cabbage white, or large white butterfly, Pieris brassicae

The eggs (see left and right) are yellow and laid on the under surface of cabbage and nasturtium leaves in batches of 60 - 100 in May - August and are ridged and ribbed.

The female tests the plant for suitability as an egg-laying site using chemoreceptors on her feet. If she detects mustard oils (present in the brassicas - cabbage family) she will lay her eggs.

Initially the caterpillars (see right and below) stay together to feed, but soon separate to feed alone. They break down the mustard oils in the leaves they eat and sequester them in their body as a chemical defence making themselves taste horrible, so predators avoid them. The yellow/green and black colouration is also a warning to predators that they do not taste nice.

The caterpillar can eat twice its weight per day in leaves. Once it has reached full size the caterpillar stops feeding and starts to climb to find somewhere to pupate. It is at this stage that we can see the caterpillar climbing the walls of houses to pupate under gutters, around windows and in crevices.

Pieris brassicae eggs Cabbage white caterpillar head

Pieris brassica caterpillar, cabbage white caterpillar

On the right is a chrysalis with the skin for its final larval moult hanging just below it.

Below left is the male, and on the right is the female. They are probably the commonest butterflies in the U. K. Adult females have more black than males, and have 2 black spots on the forewing. Although the male seems white to our eyes, he has ultra violet patterns that are visible to the female.

Flight speed has been recorded as 2.5 metres per second with a wing beat of 12 per second. Compare this with other insects. They fly from the early spring until autumn.

Main Lepidoptera page

Pieris brassicae chrysalis

Pieris brassicae, Cabbage white butterfly, male, female

Tips for creating a butterfly garden

On the right is a table of plants giving the common name and latin name. All of these plants are beneficial to butterflies at some stage in their life. Even if you have a windowbox you can help by planting it with one or more of these.

Your butterfly garden can be any size at all - these days every little bit helps. So think of the space down the side of you garage, or the back of your compost bins. In these little used spaces you can allow the less attractive (to humans) but vital (to wildlife) wildflowers to grow. And in your garden itself you can plant up some of the more attractive species of wildflowers.

Do remember that the beautiful butterfly which delicately sucks nectar though its coiled tongue was previously a chrysalis needing an undisturbed habitat to metamorphose in, and before that a caterpillar (a bag joined at one end by a mouth, and the other by an anus), whose sole aim and desire was to eat as much of its desired plant as possible, and before that an egg that, like the chrysalis, required an undisturbed location.

Most of these plants will benefit other beneficial insects such as bumblebees, as well as butterflies.

If you are concerned about the invasiveness of any of these plants then you can do what I do with my mint (a thug if ever a plant could be called one). I plant it up in a large plastic pot and put that in the ground with just a centimetre of pot rising above the surface. This is enough to stop the mint spreading and taking over the entire bed. I do have to dig up any seedlings though, but I am rewarded by the wonderful smell of crushed mint as I do so!

Common name Latin name
Agrimony Agrimonia eupatoria
Basil Ocimium basilicum
Bee balm Monarda didyma
Bergamot Monarda didyma
Birdsfoot trefoil Lotus corniculatus
Borage Boragio officinalis
Butterfly bush Buddleia spp.
Cabbages Brassica spp.
Catmint Nepeta cataria
Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile
Chives Allium schoenoprassum
Chrysanthemum Chrysanthemum spp.
Clover Trifolium spp.
Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara
Columbine Aquilegia spp.
Comfrey Symphytum officinale
Dandelion Taraxicum spp.
Docks Rumex >spp.
Elder Sambucus nigra
Evening primrose Oenothera biennis
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare
Foxglove Digtalis purpurea
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Knapweed Centaurea spp.
Lavender Lavandula sp.
Lemon balm Melissa officinalis
Mallow Malva spp.
Marjoram Origanum vulgare
Marshmallow Althea officinalis
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria
Michaelmass daisy Aster spp.
Mint Mentha spp.
Nettle Urtica spp.
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Penstemon Penstemon spp.
Pinks Dianthus sp.
Privet Ligustrum spp<.
Rosemary Rosemarinus officinalis
Sage Salvia officinalis
Scaboius Scabiosa spp.
Self-heal Prunella vulgaris
Thistle Cirsium spp.
Thyme Thymus vulgaris
Vetch Vicia spp.
Violet Viola spp.
Wild carrot Daucus carota
Woundwort Stachys spp.
Yarrow Achillea spp.
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