Butterflies in the Pieridae family (whites)

Pieridae family

The Pieridae family 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, and over 1000 world wide, though they are not found in New Zealand and some of the Pacific islands. The wingspan ranges from 22 - 70mm in British species, and forewing length from 11 - 48mm world wide. A typical Pierid flight pattern is a low, looping zigzag. Some species engage in mass migration. The caterpillars are often green, and some are serious pests, e. g. the Cabbage white.

Brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhaemni.

Gonepteryx rhaemni, the brimstone butterfly

The Brimstone butterfly above, 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. Its range is from North Africa, Western Europe through Russia to Japan. It is found in light woodland and open spaces from sea level to 1800m.

Eggs are laid in May and June.

The caterpillars grow up to 50mm 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 56 - 74mm, forewing 26 - 30mm. They have green undersides to their wings, so at rest they resemble a leaf.

Cabbage white, or Large white butterfly, Pieris brassicae

Cabbage white, or Large white butterfly, Pieris brassicae has a range that stretches from North Africa across Europe to the Himalayas.

The eggs (below) 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.

Pieris brassicae eggsPieris brassicae egg, cabbage white egg, large white egg

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 (below) stay together to feed, but soon separate to feed alone. They break down the mustard oils in the leaves they eat and sequester these oils 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.

Pieris brassica caterpillar, cabbage white caterpillar

Below is a drawing of a Cabbage white caterpillar's head.

Cabbage white caterpillar head

The caterpillar can eat twice its weight per day in leaves. Once it has reached full size it 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 chrysalis

Above is a chrysalis with the skin of its final larval moult hanging just below it. And below is the butterfly just emerged. She cannot fly yet until her wings are fully pumped up, so this is a very precarious time for her. This one is in my greenhouse, so not only is she safe and sheltered, but she is also warm and near nectar.

Cabbage white butterfly just emerged from chrysalis

Large white butterfly adult

Large white, Pieris brassicae

Cabbage whites are probably the commonest butterflies in the U. K. Adult females have more black than males (see above), 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. Fore wing length is from 28 - 33mm and wingspan 58 - 63mm. In the U. K. it flies from April to August, and can have two or three broods in a year. It is found in gardens, and anywhere there are flowers from sea level up to 1800m. It is extraordinarily fond of my cabbages and lettuces, and although it is delightful to watch its flight across the garden, I would be quite content if it missed me out and delighted someone else.

Pieris brassicae, Cabbage white butterfly, male, 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.

Pieris rapae, Small white

Pieris rapae, the Small white, seen below in all its life stages is widespread throughout Europe, and common in Britain except for the very north of Scotland. It is found in gardens and open countryside. The food plants include brassicas, nasturtiums, and mignonette. There can be two generations a year in the U. K. It can be a serious pest on brassica crops. And has been accidentally introduced to North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The eggs are laid singly on the underside of the foodplant leaf. The photograph below is not very good, but they are just like the eggs of the large white you can see above, except they are not in batches, so can be more difficult to spot. Eggs are laid in April, and again in July, and hatch after around a week.

Pieris rapae, Small white egg

The caterpillar grows up to 25 mm long. It is green with short hairs. There can be a narrow yellow line along its back, but not in all individuals. Sometimes there is yellow surrounding the spiracles. The head is green. The caterpillars feed for about a month.

Pieris rapae, Small white caterpillar

The chrysalis or pupa (below) is attached to the foodplant, fences, walls etc.

Pieris rapae, Small white chrysalis

The first generation produce adults after about three weeks pupation. The second generation overwinters as a chrysalis and hatch as adults the following spring. More recently there have been three generations a year in the south.

Adult sexes are similar. Wingspan is 46 - 55mm. Adults fly from March to August.

Pieris rapae, Small white, adult

Orange tip, Anthocharis cardamine

Orange tip, Anthocharis cardamine, female

Above and below is an adult female Orange tip, Anthocharis cardamine (the male has the orange tip to his forewings, the female does not) lower down is the adult male. They are found throughout Europe east to Asia and as far as Japan on hedgerows woodlands and damp meadows from sea level up to 1500m, and right up as far as the Arctic Circle in Europe. Wingspan is 40 - 52mm.

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines

In the U. K. the adults fly from April to June. The greenish white eggs are laid singly on the flowerheads of the foodplant, then turn orange and finally dark violet. The caterpillars feed from June to August, and can grow up to 30 mm long, then overwinter as a pupa attached to the foodplant. Like the Cabbage white above its foodplants are in the Cruciferae family, but unlike the Cabbage white it tends to prefer weeds such as the cuckoo flower, hedge mustard, etc. I rarely see one in the garden.

Orange tip male

Orange tip male

Main Lepidoptera page

Phoebis trite, Straight-lined sulphur

Phoebis trite, Straight-lined sulphur

Above is Phoebis trite, the Straight-lined sulphur, also known as the Buttercup butterfly. It can be found in Central and South America.

Phoebis argante, Apricot sulphur

Apricot sulphur, Phoebis argante

Above is the adult Apricot sulphur, Phoebis argante. It has a wingspan of 54 - 67mm. The hind wings are slightly paler than the brilliant yellow of the fore wings. Females vary from almost white to yellow. It is native to Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and the Caribbean, and is found from sea level up to 1600m in tropical forests, pastures and road edges.

The Apricot sulphur flies throughout the year in most areas. Adult males sometimes gather in large numbers to drink water that is rich in minerals. Both sexes drink nectar from red flowers.

The eggs are yellow and laid singly on the foodplant.