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White Butterfly Identification (With Photos)

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White and Light-Colored Butterflies: A Quick and Easy Guide

This guide to white and light-colored butterflies is meant for gardeners, naturalists, and anyone else who notices and enjoys nature. Butterflies are all around us, even in cities, and some of the most common and frequently seen butterflies are the white butterflies that are featured in this guide.

A few white butterflies can be pest species, especially when it comes to cabbage and other cruciferous plants in your garden; their caterpillars love to eat holes in the leaves and then hide where you can't find them, creating a destructive little mystery for anyone trying to grow vegetables. But there are many other species of white butterflies that you may not be aware of. You may be surprised to learn how many of those simple white butterflies are actually different species!

I> hope you enjoy this guide to white butterflies, and I hope you learn something new about nature from this article.

Species In This Guide

  1. Cabbage White: Pieris rapae
  2. West Virginia White: Pieris virginiensis
  3. Mustard White: Pieris oleracea
  4. Sulphur butterflies: genus Colias
  5. Chiricahua pine white: Neophasia terlooii
  6. Western Pine White: Neophasia menapia
  7. Great Southern White: Ascia monuste
  8. Florida White: Appias Drusilla
  9. Checkered White: Pontia protodice
  10. Spring White: Pontia sisymbrii
  11. Becker's White: Pontia beckerii
  12. The Marbles: Genus Euchloe
  13. Orange Tips: Genus Anthocharis
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1. Cabbage White: Pieris rapae

The cabbage white butterfly is perhaps the most commonly seen butterfly, white or otherwise, in North America. There is hardly an area or an environment that this species has have not colonized, from city to farmland and everywhere in between. Gardeners will surely be familiar with them, as this larval food plants are often found in gardens.

While the fluttering white butterfly is a fixture of the North American landscape, the caterpillar is less often seen. This is by design, because the caterpillar of this species relies on blending in with its surroundings to avoid predators. Accordingly, cabbage white caterpillars are the exact same color as the leaves they feed on; they are also covered with a fine coat of "fur" that reduces shadows and further mimics the surface of the leaf.

Caterpillar of the cabbage white, Pieris rapae

Caterpillar of the cabbage white, Pieris rapae

If you have noticed holes appearing in the leaves of your broccoli, kale, cabbage, or lettuce plants, it is very possible that the cabbage white caterpillar is responsible. They feed on the underside of the leaf, and can often be found resting alongside the main stem. Their camouflage is so remarkable that you may be no more than a few inches away, and looking for a small green caterpillar, and still fail to spot one right under your nose. This talent for vanishing is certainly one of the reasons that the cabbage white butterfly has been so successful in colonizing much of the planet!

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout North America (and much of the world)

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many garden plants, from broccoli to kale

Status: Common

Notes: The cabbage white is an invasive species from Europe, arriving in Quebec in 1860.

The West Virginia white

The West Virginia white

2. West Virginia White: Pieris virginiensis

The West Virginia white is related to the cabbage white, although it is only found in a limited area of North America. As the name suggests, it flies in the Appalachian Mountains from New England to Alabama, including West Virginia. It can be found in open places, but is more often spotted in deciduous forests (the cabbage white, on the other hand, almost never flies in forests).

A widespread invasive plant species called garlic mustard has harmed the West Virginia white. The butterfly mistakes garlic mustard for its usual food plant, and lays eggs on it; the caterpillars have trouble digesting the garlic mustard leaves, and many of them die.

The Basics

Geographic Range: In the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern US

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering

Caterpillar Food Plants: Native mustards

Status: Uncommon

Notes: This butterfly is under threat from the spread of garlic mustard

The mustard white butterfly

The mustard white butterfly

3. Mustard White: Pieris oleracea

This butterfly is very similar to the West Virginia white (above), although it has a wider range and can be more common. It flies in both the forest and open fields, where it can be confused in flight with the cabbage white (although you will not typically find the cabbage white in a forest setting).

Like the West Virginia white, this species feeds on wild mustard plants, and like that species, it is under threat from the spread of garlic mustard, a destructive invasive species. The female will lay eggs on garlic mustard, but the caterpillars have not evolved to eat that plant, and often die. There is evidence, however, that the mustard white is adapting to using garlic mustard as a food plant.

This butterfly has two seasonal forms, with the later broods in the summer having wings that are almost completely white; the spring brood has olive markings along the veins on the underside.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout much of eastern North America

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering

Caterpillar Food Plants: Mustard plants

Status: Common in the right place and time

Notes: There is evidence that this species may be moving north in response to global warming

Colias philodice, white-form female

Colias philodice, white-form female

4. Sulphur Butterflies: Genus Colias

You may notice yellow butterflies flying alongside cabbage white butterflies. These are insects in a group sometimes called "sulphur butterflies," for their sulphur-yellow colors. They belong to the Colias genus, and in North America the most common species are C. eurytheme and C. philodice.

These two species apparently cross-breed, and may create hybrids with features common to both. But the reason they are included in this guide is that in both species a subset of the females are white, or albino. This means that when you see cabbage whites (Pieris rapae) and yellow butterflies in a field, it's likely that many of the white individuals are actually "yellow" ones. It can get confusing, but that may be the point; mimicry is often seen in butterflies as a way to confuse predators.

You will need to get very close, and perhaps catch a few to be sure if you are seeing cabbage whites, or albino sulphur butterflies.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout North America (and much of the world)

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering; typically faster and more wide-ranging than cabbage whites.

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many garden plants; also alfalfa and field plants

Status: Common

Notes: The complex relationships between these butterflies is still being worked out by entomologists.

5. Chiricahua Pine White: Neophasia terlooii

This unusual butterfly exhibits "sexual dimorphism," which means males and females look very different from one another. While the male Chiricahua pine white is bright white with black markings, the female is a deep orange, with beautiful orange-red markings on the underside. The two sexes of this butterfly look almost nothing alike, although in the caterpillar stage there is no real difference in appearance.

This butterfly lives in pine forests from New Mexico, through Arizona, and into Mexico. It is only found in mountainous regions. The adults fly twice during the year in two broods, in July and again in September.

The Basics

Geographic Range: In the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona

Flight Characteristics: These butterflies often fly high among pine branches

Caterpillar Food Plants: Ponderosa pine and some other conifers

Status: Common in the right time and place, but limited in range

Notes: This is one of the most striking examples of sexual dimorphism among North American butterflies

Western pine white

Western pine white

6. Western Pine White: Neophasia menapia

This butterfly is closely related to the Chiricahua pine white – they are in the same genus – and is very similar in appearance. It has a much wider distribution, however, and is found throughout the American West; the two butterflies overlap in New Mexico. Another difference is the much less pronounced sexual dimorphism. The two sexes of this species are somewhat different, but not as strikingly different as the Chiricahua pine white.

As the name suggests, the larva of this species feeds on pine trees, eating the needles in the same way other caterpillars eat leaves. There is one brood per year.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout most of the American West

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering, often high into trees

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many kinds of pine trees

Status: Common

Notes: This butterfly can be found flying in pine forests, an unusual habitat for most butterflies.

Ascia monuste, the great southern white butterfy

Ascia monuste, the great southern white butterfy

7. Great Southern White: Ascia monuste

This is typically a tropical insect, and occurs throughout Central and South America, as far south as Argentina, where it is known as "pirpinto." In the United States this butterfly can be found along the Gulf Coast. It is a large butterfly with nearly pure white wings, although the female does exhibit the sexual dimorphism that is sometimes found in the family Pieridae, with some individuals having smoky gray-black wings.

The great southern white flies year-round in Florida and southern Texas, although these are often migratory specimens that do not lay eggs and breed in the area. The caterpillar is known in Brazil as cabbage caterpillars, although they also feed on kale and other cruciferous plants.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout the tropics of Central and South America, migrating into the southern US

Flight Characteristics: Fast and wide-ranging

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many garden plants, including cabbage, kale, and nasturtiums

Status: Common

Notes: This butterfly has migratory habits that contribute to its wide range.

Florida white butterfly

Florida white butterfly

8. Florida White: Appias drusilla

Like the great southern white, the Florida white is a large, all-white butterfly that is found only in the far southern states. Like many other butterflies in the family Pieridae, the Florida white has a female form that has more shading and some orange on the wings.

This butterfly is found throughout Central and South America, into Florida, and sometimes as far north as Nebraska! The larvae feeds on several plants in the Brassicaceae family, which includes kale, cabbage, and mustards.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout the tropics of Central and South America, into the southern US

Flight Characteristics: Fast and wide-ranging

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many garden plants, including cabbage, kale, and nasturtiums

Status: Common

Notes: This butterfly exhibits sexual dimorphism

9. Checkered White: Pontia protodice

Next to the cabbage white (above), this may be the most widespread and common white butterfly in the United States. It's typically seen in the southern states, where it occurs in the same open fields as the cabbage white, but regularly occurs as far north as Canada. However, the populations in the eastern US have dramatically decreased; one theory for this is the rise of a parasitic wasp that attacks the caterpillars.

Checkered white caterpillar

Checkered white caterpillar

The caterpillar is often found on garden plants in the South, where it is called the "southern cabbage worm." The caterpillars will eat a wide range of plants, one reason for the insect's wide distribution.

The host plants of checkered white larvae are herbs in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). They also eat Virginia pepperweed and prairie pepperweed.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout much of North America

Flight Characteristics: Fast and wide-ranging

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many garden plants, from broccoli to kale; also Virginia pepperweed and exotics like shepherd's purse

Status: Common

Notes: This species may be becoming less common in the US

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Spring white butterfly

Spring white butterfly

10. Spring White: Pontia sisymbrii

This butterfly is related to the checkered white and may be seen as the "western version" of that species. Like many of the whites in the US, the caterpillar feeds on plants in the family, Brassicaceae (the mustard family)

The Basics

Geographic Range: Throughout the western US

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering

Caterpillar Food Plants: Mustards

Status: Common

Notes: As the name suggests, this butterfly appears early in the year.

Becker's white

Becker's white

11. Becker's White: Pontia beckerii

This butterfly is also known as the Great Basin white or sagebrush white. It is very similar to both the checkered white and Becker's white; some individuals can only be told apart by an expert.

The Basics

Geographic Range: Parts of western North America

Flight Characteristics: Quick and fluttering

Caterpillar Food Plants: Many different plants in the mustard family

Status: Common in some places

Notes: Very similar to other white butterflies in the genus Pontia

Olympia marble butterfly

Olympia marble butterfly

12. The Marbles: Genus Euchloe

This is a large group of partly or mostly white butterflies that occur throughout the American west. They can be common in some places, and can be identified by their small size, weak fluttering flight, and grey-green "marbling" markings on the underside of the wings.

Sara orange tip

Sara orange tip

13. Orange Tips: Genus Anthocharis

The last group in this guide is the orange tips, genus Anthocharis. Related to the marbles, the males of this group can be quickly identified by the striking orange tips on the front wings. The females are sometimes almost completely white. In the US, this group is comprised of mostly small butterflies that show up early in the spring, coming out to nectar on flowering rosemary, sage, and many other desert plants.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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