Pieris rapae (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cabbage White
(previously known as Artogeia rapae)
Don Herbison-Evans
Stella Crossley

The scientific name of this species is probably derived from the Greek word rapavi (rapavi) meaning 'radish', which is one of the food plants of the Caterpillar.

Pieris rapae
lateral view
(Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen, Goodna, Queensland)

This velvety looking plain green caterpillar is a similar colour to the leaves of many of its food plants. The caterpillar is an international pest on:

  • Cauliflower ( Brassica botrytis, BRASSICACEAE ),
  • Cabbage ( Brassica oleracea, BRASSICACEAE ), and
  • Tamarillo ( Cyphomandra betacea, SOLANACEAE ).

    It seems to need food plants that contain Mustard Oil, so it feeds on most species of the family BRASSICACEAE, including :

  • Nasturtiums ( Tropaeolum majus ),
  • Rock Cress ( Arabis ),
  • Winter Cress ( Barbarea ),
  • Turnips ( Brassica rapa ),
  • American Sea Rocket ( Cakile edentula ),
  • Bitter Cress ( Cardamine oligosperma ),
  • Western Wallflower ( Erysimum capitatum ),
  • Rocket ( Hesperis ),
  • Wild Radish ( Raphanus raphanistrum ),
  • Yellow Cress ( Rorippa palustris ),
  • London Rocket ( Sisymbrium irio ), and
  • Hedge Mustard ( Sisymbrium officinale ).

    It also will develop on a variety of plants from other families, including :

  • Capers ( Capparis spinosa, CAPPARACEAE ),
  • Tobacco ( Nicotiana tabacum, SOLANACEAE ).

    Pieris rapae
    dorsal view
    (Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen, Goodna, Queensland)

    The caterpillar, when mature, has a pale yellow line on the back, and a line formed of yellow spots on each side. It normally sits on the upper surfaces of leaves of its food plant in broad daylight. Its coloration is presumably an effective camouflage. It grows to a length of about 3 cms.

    Pieris rapae
    (Photo: copyright Lyn Finn,
    Hunter Region School of Photography in Newcastle,
    Macquarie Hills, New South Wales)

    When the caterpillar is fully grown, it creeps off: searching for a sheltered crevice in which to pupate. It usually crawls upwards in its search and if its search is unrewarded, may pupate on an exposed wall. It attaches itself at both ends of the body with silken pads, and also puts a loop of silk around its middle. It turns into an exquisitely sculptured angular form, like a broken but symmetrical piece of jade. The pupa may turn brown. Its final colour is influenced by the colour of its background. On light backgrounds, the pupa remains greener than on dark backgrounds.

    Pieris rapae
    (Specimen: courtesy of the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney)

    In summer, the butterfly emerges after about two weeks. The upper surfaces of the wings are white with black tips to the forewings, and a faint black spot on the front margin of the hindwings. In the middle of each forewing, males have a single black spot.

    Pieris rapae
    (Specimen: courtesy of the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney)

    Females have a pair of black spots on each forewing. The undersides of the forewings are similar to upper surfaces, except for the abscence of the black wing tips. The undersides of the hindwings are plain pale yellow. Butterflies from pupae which have been subjected cold temperatures in winter are much paler than summer forms from pupae that have stayed warm. Both sexes have a wingspan of about 4 cms.

    The eggs are pale yellow and bottle-shaped, with a height of about 1.5 mm. They are usually laid singly on the underside of a leaf of a foodplant.

    There is much confusion about the common names of this and other Caterpillars that feed on Cabbages, which in general is why scientific names were invented. Note that our Cabbage White Pieris rapae is quite different from the Cabbage Moth: Plutella xylostella, which is also a world-wide pest of Cabbages.

    Pieris rapae
    (Photo: courtesy of Ian McMillan, Imbil, Queensland)

    The Cabbage White is not originally a native to Australia. There are in fact no Australian native members of the genus Pieris. The species Pieris rapae appears to have originated in Europe, where it is called the Small White, to distinguish it from Pieris brassicae, the Large White, the Caterpillar of which also feeds on Cabbage. In Europe, the Large White is plentiful, and is also confusingly known as the Cabbage White. The Large White has appeared in south-east Asia, and Japan, and North America.

    Pieris rapae
    (Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen, Goodna, Queensland)

    The eggs are ridged and yellow, and shaped like tapered barrels with a height of about 1mm. The eggs are usually laid singly or in groups of up to 20 on the undersides of a foodplant leaf.

    Pieris rapae
    eggs, highly magnified
    (Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen, Goodna, Queensland)

    In North America, Pieris rapae is known as the European Cabbage Butterfly. The species has spread around the world in the wake of European colonisation, and cultivation of cabbages. It was first found outside Europe in Canada in 1860. It had spread to California by 1883, Hawaii by 1898, and it reached Melbourne in 1929. The species spread across the length and breadth of Australia reaching Perth in 1943. In 1980, it was featured on Japanese postage stamps :

    Pieris rapae
    Japan, 1966.

    The species now occurs all over Australia, including

  • Northern Territory,
  • Queensland,
  • New South Wales,
  • Victoria,
  • Tasmania,
  • South Australia, and
  • Western Australia.

    The pupa of Pieris rapae has been found to contain a carcinogenic chemical Pierisin.

    Pieris rapae
    (Photo: copyright Lyn Finn,
    Hunter Region School of Photography in Newcastle,
    Macquarie Hills, New South Wales)

    The damage caused by Pieris rapae to crops has provoked various government agencies to try and control the species. The control agents still being investigated include:

    Pieris rapae
    One healthy Caterpillar (left) and one attacked by a wasp (right)
    showing about two dozen wasp cocoons on the latter
    (Photo: courtesy of Anthea Flemming)

    Nevertheless, the Cabbage White is still probably the commonest butterfly in Sydney and Melbourne gardens.

    Further reading :

    Michael F. Braby,
    Butterflies of Australia, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne 2000, vol. 1, pp. 343-344.

    Kelvyn L. Dunn,
    Important New Distribution Records for the Cabbage White, Pieris rapae (Linneaeus) (Lepidoptera: Pieridae) in Australia,
    Metamorphosis Australia,
    Issue 70 (June 2013), pp. 27-31,
    Butterflies and Other Invertebrates Club.

    Carl Linnaeus,
    Insecta Lepidoptera,
    Systema Naturae,
    Volume 1, Edition 10 (1760), Class 5, Part 3, p. 468, No. 59.

    Australian Butterflies
    Australian Moths

    (updated 21 December 2009, 23 December 2017)