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Pieris brassicae

Pieris brassicae
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Pieridae
Tribe: Pierini
Genus: Pieris
Species: P. brassicae
Binomial name
Pieris brassicae
(Linnaeus, 1758)
  • Papilio brassicae Linnaeus, 1758

The large white, Pieris brassicae, also called cabbage butterfly, cabbage white, cabbage moth (erroneously), or in India the large cabbage white, is a butterfly in the family Pieridae. It is a close relative to the small white, Pieris rapae.

The large white is common throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia even through the Himalayas.


  • Distribution 1
  • Morphology 2
    • Eggs 2.1
    • Larvae 2.2
    • Adult 2.3
      • Male 2.3.1
      • Female 2.3.2
  • Habitat 3
  • Reproduction and development 4
    • Mating system 4.1
    • Life cycle 4.2
      • Oviposition 4.2.1
        • Choosing locations for oviposition
      • Hatching 4.2.2
  • Behavior 5
    • Migration 5.1
    • Hibernation 5.2
    • Territorial behavior 5.3
  • Ecology 6
    • Diet and food selection 6.1
    • Predators 6.2
    • Aposematism 6.3
  • Relationship to people 7
    • Role as pests 7.1
  • See also 8
  • References 9


P. brassicae Habitat. Dojran, Macedonia.

The large white is common throughout Europe, north Africa, and Asia to the Himalayas often in agricultural areas, meadows and parkland. It has managed to establish a population in South Africa and in 1995 it was predicted to spread to Australia and New Zealand.[1][2]

The large white is a strong flier and the British population is reinforced in most years by migrations from the continent. Scattered reports of the large white from the northeastern United States (New York, Rhode Island and Maine) over the past century are of a dubious nature and indicate either accidental transport or intentional release. Such introductions threaten to establish this agricultural pest in North America.

In 2010 the butterfly was found in Nelson, New Zealand where it is known as the great white butterfly.[3] It is classed as an unwanted pest due to the potential effect on crops.[4] For a limited period in October 2013 the Department of Conservation offered a monetary reward for the capture of the butterfly.[5] After two weeks, the public had captured 134 butterflies, netting $10 for each one handed in.[6]



The large white eggs appear as a pale yellow color. They turn into a darker yellow within twenty-four hours of being oviposited. A few hours prior to hatching, they will become black in color, and the shell will become more transparent, and the larvae will appear visible.[7]

Large white Eggs on underside of cauliflower leaf


Large white larvae experience four moltings and five instars.[8] The first instar follows hatching of the egg into large white larvae. The larvae are a light yellow in color with distinctive brown heads and have soft bodies. The larvae appear as if they are very hairy. Following a molting, the larvae enter the second instar. They have tubercles covered with black hair. In the third instar, large white larvae display more activity. This instar is when the larvae are observed to eat voraciously, and cause significant amounts of damage to their host plant. At this point, they are observed to be more yellow in color, studded with black dots. Following the third instar, the larvae go through the fourth instar, with similar appearances as the larvae of the third instar, but with more aggrandized size and feeding behavior. The large white larvae are observed to be cylindrical, robust, and elongated by the fifth instar, yellow in color[7] and with bright coloration on their abdomen and thorax.[8] They are also observed to have a gray and black head. This instar requires maximum food quality and quantity in order to aid in full development, otherwise the larvae dies before becoming an adult butterfly.[7][9]

Large white larvae are continuously growing in size with each molting and instar.[8]

Large white caterpillars on nasturtium leaves
Large white chrysalis, under house eaves


For both males and females, the wings are white with black tips on the forewings. The female also has two black spots on each forewing. The underside of each wing is a pale greenish and serves as excellent camouflage when at rest. The black markings are generally darker in the summer brood. Large white butterfly wingspan reaches 5 to 6.5 cm on average.[7]


From Himachal Pradesh, India

See Glossary of Lepidopteran terms for additional information

The upper side of the male is creamy white. The forewing is irrorated with black scales at the base and along costa for a short distance. The apex and termen above vein 2 is more or less broadly black with the inner margin of the black area containing a regular even curve. In one or two specimens a small longitudinally narrow black spot was found in interspace 3. Hind wing: uniform, irrorated with black scales at base, a large black subcostal spot before the apex, and in a few specimens indications of black scaling on the termen anteriorly. The underside of the forewing is white, slightly irrorated with black scales at the base of cell and along costa. The apex is light ochraceous brown with a large black spot in outer half of interspace 1 and another quadrate black spot at base of interspace 3. The hind wing is light ochraceous brown, closely irrorated with minute black scales. The subcostal black spot before the apex shows through from the upper side. The antennae are black and white at apex. The head, thorax, and abdomen are black, with some white hairs, where underneath is whitish.[10]


The upper side of the female is similar to that of the male, but the irroration of black scales at the bases of the wings is more extended. The black area on apex and termen of forewing is broader, its inner margin less evenly curved. A conspicuous large, black spot also exists in the outer half of interspace 1 near the base of interspace 3. On the hind wing the subcostal black spot before the apex is much larger and more prominent. The underside is similar to that of the cf but the apex of the forewing and the whole surface of the hind wing is a light ochraceous yellow, not ochraceous brown. The black discal spots on fore wing are much larger. The antennae, head, thorax, and abdomen of the females are the same as for the male.[10]


The large white butterfly’s habitat consists of large, open spaces, as well as farms and vegetable gardens, because of the availability of its food source. Some favored locations include walls, fences, tree trunks, and often their food plant, which is important for large white survival since they need to have access to their food source for survival. They primarily hover around these locations, which should contain both wild and cultivated crucifer, as well as oil-seed rape, cabbages, and brussel sprouts.[11][12][13]

Pieris brassicae and Pyronia tithonus.

Reproduction and development

Mating system

The approach of the male and the female in the standby position

These butterflies can be polyandrous, but it is not the predominant mating system.This means that, though some female butterflies can have more than one mate, most of the large white females only have one male mate at a time through a monogamous mating system.[14][15]

Two generations of butterflies are produced each year. The first brood consists of adults with a spring hatching around April. The second brood is made up of adults that hatch around July. Sometimes, a third brood can be observed farther along in the summer if the weather is warm enough.[16]

Life cycle


These female butterflies oviposit eggs in bunches on the undersides of leaves because the larvae prefer the morphology of leaf undersides over the upper surface of leaves. To oviposit, the female butterflies use the tip of the abdomen and arrange the eggs in specific batches.[17]

The pre-oviposition period, which lasts three to eight days, provides ample time for these butterflies to mate.[18] Females tend to use their fore legs to drum on the surfaces of their intended leaves as a test of the plant’s sustainability for breeding. If they find a suitable surface, female large whites oviposit two to three days following copulation. They oviposit approximately six to seven times in eight days. The females can pair up to mate again approximately five or more days after the previous mating.[17]

Choosing locations for oviposition

Females rely on visual cues, such as the colors of plants, to decide where to lay their eggs. They favor green surfaces in particular to display oviposition behavior. This color preference could be due to the fact that the large white's food source also acts as a host plant for oviposition.[17]

Most females choose nectar plants like buddleia or thistles,[19][20] which are green and ideal plants for the larvae. These plants, used as oviposition sites, typically contain mustard oil glucosides, whose primary function is to help the larvae survive as their essential food source.[17][21] For instance, previous studies have shown that the large white larvae do not survive if the adult butterflies oviposit on a different host plant such as broad bean (Vicia faba) because this bean does not contain the proper nutrients to aid in larval development.[17]


The large white eggs hatch approximately one week after being laid and live as a group for some time.[11][12][13] The hatching period constitutes around two to seven hours. Upon hatching, they cause a lot of damage to the host plant by eating away at and destroying the host plant.[11][12][13]




The large whites are found throughout most of Eurasia, though there are some seasonal fluctuations present due to migration. The northern populations tend to be augmented during the summer migration season from butterflies from southern areas. The large whites fly starting early spring, and keep migrating until seasons shift to autumn and the resultant cold weather. This means the large whites typically take two to three flights per butterfly reproductive season.[16][19][20]

Large white butterfly migration patterns are typically observed only when there is a disturbance. In general, the large white butterfly’s migratory patterns are atypical; normally, butterflies fly towards the poles in the spring, and towards the more temperate Equator during the fall. However, they fly in random directions, excluding North, in the spring, and there is little return migration observed.[22] However, it has been hard to track entire migratory paths, since these butterflies can migrate more than 800 kilometers; thus, individual butterflies may not migrate the 800 kilometers, but rather that other butterflies start their migrations from where the other butterflies ended.[22]


Large white broods in the north have not been seen to overwinter, or hibernate over the winter, successfully. However, they have been observed to hibernate in the south.[9][22][23]

Territorial behavior

Males do not display considerable amounts of territorial behavior. It has been suggested that this could be a reason why there is no observed significant sexual dimorphism between the male and female large white butterflies.[15]


Diet and food selection

Large white butterflies have a preference for what types of food plant they usually eat. Studies have shown that the preference for certain plants is reliant upon the butterflies’ previous experiences. The large white butterflies, then, are shown to rely on the species of food plants, the time of experience, and the choice-situation. Thus, the large white butterflies learn what types of foods they prefer, rather than relying on their sense organs or physiological changes.[21] In contrast, this preference for adult foodplant differs from the preference of female large whites using visual cues such as plant color to determine the best host plants for oviposition.[17]

Plants with mustard-oil glucosides are important for this butterfly because it dictates their eating behaviors,[21] and resultant survival rates, as specified in the section regarding oviposition. This is so beneficial for large whites because their large consumption of plants containing mustard oils is the specific reason they are so distasteful to predators, such as birds. Thus, caterpillars are protected from attack, despite them being brightly colored; in fact, the bright coloration is to signal to predators that they taste bad.[11][12][13]

However, there is more benefit to this species’ use of mustard oil glucosides. In addition to predator protection, these glucosides belong to a class of stimuli that produce the biting responses associated with eating. Some plants contain alkaloids and steroids; these reduce and inhibit the butterflies’ responsiveness to mustard oil glucosides. Thus, this utilization of mustard oil glucosides dramatically affects the behavior of the butterfly, and the resulting food selection for survival.[21]


Large white butterflies do not have a specific group of predators. Instead, they are preyed upon by a wide range of animals, and even the occasional plant. This butterfly’s main predators include certain species of birds; however, large whites can also be preyed upon by species in orders such as hymenoptera, hemiptera, coleopteran, diptera, arachnids; some species of mammals, one of reptilia, one species of insectivorous plant, and species in amphibian orders, as well as other miscellaneous insect species. The butterflies are typically preyed upon as eggs, larvae, and imagines.[22]


Large white butterflies emit an unpleasant smell which deters predators. In addition, large whites are an aposematic species, meaning that they display warning colors, which benefits the large whites against predation. This aposematic coloration occurs in the larval, pupal, and imago stages, where toxic mustard oil glycosides from food plants are stored in the individuals’ bodies.[22][24] Aposematism is not entirely related to Müllerian mimicry; however, large white larvae often benefit from multiple other aposematic larvae from other species, such as the larvae of Papilio machaon.[25]

Relationship to people

Role as pests

The most susceptible crops to P. brassicae damage in areas in Europe include Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Kohlrabi, rape, swede, and turnip. The attacks to crops are rather localized and can lead to 100% crop loss in a certain area. In addition, because of its strong inclination to migrate, adults may infest new areas that were previously free from attack. Because many of the host plants of P. brassicae are sold for consumption, damage by these butterflies can cause a great reduction of crop value. Larvae may also bore into the vegetable heads of cabbage and cauliflower and cause damage. High populations of these larvae may also skeletonize their host plants. In present-day areas such as Great Britain, P. brassicae are now less threatening as pests because of natural and chemical control reasons. However, it is still considered a pest in other European countries, in China, India, Nepal, and Russia. In fact, it is estimated to cause over 40% yield loss annually on different crop vegetables in India and Turkey.[26]

See also


  1. ^ "Pieris brassicae". Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  2. ^ , extends its range to South Africa"Pieris brassicae"The Large Cabbage White, . The Entomologist's record and journal of variation (pdf) 107: 174. 1995.  
  3. ^ Moore, Bill (17 June 2010). "Great white butterfly found in Nelson". Nelson Mail. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  4. ^ "Great white cabbage butterfly" (PDF). Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Wanted: Great white butterfly, preferably dead. 3 News NZ. 25 September 2013.
  6. ^ Holiday butterfly bounty season over. 3 News NZ. 14 October 2013.
  7. ^ a b c d Molet, T. 2011. CPHST Pest Datasheet for Pieris brassicae. USDA-APHIS-PPQ-CPHST.
  8. ^ a b c Bhubaneshwari; A. Kananbala; L. Joymati; L. Ronikumar; A. Binarani (December 2012). "Morphometric Measurement of Cabbage Butterfly Pieris Brassicae Linn (Lepidoptera: Pieridae) in the Agro-Ecosystem of Manipur" (PDF). International Journal of Basic and Applied Medical Sciences 2 (3): 31–33. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  9. ^ a b Metspalu, L., K. Hiiesaar, J. Joudu, and A. Kuusik. "Influence of Food on Growth, Development and Hibernation of Large White Butterfly." Agronomy Research 1 (2003): 85-92. Print.
  10. ^ a b Bingham, C. T. 1907. Fauna of British India. Butterflies. Vol. 2
  11. ^ a b c d Carter, D. (1992) Butterflies and moths. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  12. ^ a b c d Asher, J., Warren, M., Fox, R., Harding, P., Jeffcoate, G. & Jeffcoate, S. (2001) The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  13. ^ a b c d Carter, D. & Hargreaves, B. (1986) A field guide to caterpillars of butterflies and moths in Britain and Europe. William Collins & Sons Ltd, London.
  14. ^ Karlsson, B. "Male Reproductive Reserves in Relation to Mating System in Butterflies: A Comparative Study." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 263.1367 (1996): 187-92. Print.
  15. ^ a b Sexual Size Dimorphism in Relation to Female Polygamy and Protandry in Butterflies: A Comparative Study of Swedish Pieridae and Satyridae Christer Wiklund and Johan Forsberg Oikos , Vol. 60, Fasc. 3 (Apr., 1991), pp. 373-381
  16. ^ a b "Pieris Brassicae — Overview." Encyclopedia of Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
  17. ^ a b c d e f W. A. L. David and B. O. C. Gardiner (1962). Oviposition and the hatching of the eggs of Pieris brassicae (L.) in a laboratory culture. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 53, pp 91-109. doi:10.1017/S0007485300047982.
  18. ^ Scott, James A. "Mate-Locating Behavior of Butterflies." American Midland Naturalist 91.1 (1974): 103-17. Print.
  19. ^ a b Rowlings, Matt. "Large White." Pieris Brassicae - Field Notes. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
  20. ^ a b "Attributes of Pieris Brassicae." Butterflies and Moths of North America | Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera. National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) Program and the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
  21. ^ a b c d Chun, Ma Wei. Dynamics of Feeding Responses in Pieris Brassicae Linn as a Function of Chemosensory Input: A Behavioural, Ultrastructural and Electrophysiological Study. Wageningen: H. Veenman, 1972. Print.
  22. ^ a b c d e Feltwell, John. Large White Butterfly: The Biology, Biochemistry, and Physiology of Pieris Brassicae (Linnaeus). The Hague: W. Junk, 1982. Print.
  23. ^ Pullin, A. S., J. S. Bale, and X. L. R. Fontaine. "Physiological Aspects of Diapause and Cold Tolerance during Overwintering in Pieris Brassicae." Physiological Entomology 16.4 (1991): 447-56. Print.
  24. ^ Lyytinen, Anne; Alatalo, Rauno V.; Lindström, Leena; Mappes, Johanna (November 1999). "Are European White Butterflies Aposematic?" (PDF). Evolutionary Ecology 13 (7/8): 709–719.  
  25. ^ Evans, edited by David L.; Schmidt, Justin O. (1990). Insect defenses : adaptive mechanisms and strategies of prey and predators. Albany: State University of New York Press. pp. 182–183.  
  26. ^ "Pieris brassicae". Retrieved 21 November 2013. 
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