Little White Butterflies,
Yellows and Sulphurs -

Butterfly on Buddleia davidii
Photo: Jvbeilen

The Pieridae Family

We have all seen those little white butterflies that are often overlooked. They don't say 'notice me' the way other butterfly species do. Have you ever started to watch these butterflies and noticed that they really are quite beautiful in a simple way?  Colors of adult butterfly wings are predominately white, yellow, orange and black.  Depending on the species, wings can be colorfully dramatic or plain to dull.  

There are about 1000 species of the Pieridae family in the world and 75 are in North America. Other than Whites, other names included in this family are Yellows, Sulphurs, Marbles and Brimstones. 

These are probably the most abundant and familiar butterfly species to us. Their wings are small to medium size. It is thought that many of these Pierids have ultraviolet-reflecting wings that we cannot see but butterflies can with their eyes.

Pierids have similar DNA that the Nymphalidae butterfly family has to create spots. The Pieridae's spots, however, are a single color, which is unique to them.  Colors are a result of uric acid waste produced from metabolizing protein. The more elaborate spots found with the Nymphalidae, or Brushfooted butterflies, are triggered by a protein called Morphogens.  

As a result of how the uric acid it helps these conspicuous yellow and little white butterflies taste bad where predators will leave them alone. 

Common little white butterflies include:

  • Cabbage White Butterfly - Widespread in Europe, Africa and Asia this butterfly was accidentally introduced to North America, Australia and New Zealand. Throughout the world it is agreed that they are pests for cultivated cabbages and mustard family crops.
  • Green Veined White Butterfly - Widespread in Europe but present around the world.
  • Palaeno Sulphur - Common in North America, including Alaska.
  • Painted Jezebel - Can be found in Malaysia and Taiwan
  • Spring White Butterflies - Fittingly called, these are the first little white butterflies we all see when winter breaks.  Depending on the location, they may have a different name.

Butterflies in the Pieridae Family include:

Butterflies in this family are very common throughout the world, many are destructive to gardens and cultivated areas.  Many little white
butterfly caterpillars and sulpher caterpillars are green with
either yellow or white stripes along their sides. 

Black Veined White

Black Veined White (Aporia crataegi)

Preferring trees and shrubs from the Prunus genus like plum, cherry and peach, butterflies are known to be harmful to vegetation. 

Butterflies are found throughout North America, Europe and Asia to Japan.

Photo: Ivan Pheoktistov

Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae)

Cabbage butterfly is widespread throughout the world and is known for it's severe destruction to cultivated crops in the cabbage and mustard families.  Introduced accidentally, now the most common butterfly in North America.

Photo: Steve Byland

When we think of little white butterflies, the Cabbage Butterfly is high on the list of what we think of.  Known as the Small White in Europe, females lays about 700 eggs, making them nearly impossible to eradicate. Caterpillars are voracious eaters and when feeding together can devour an entire host plant.

Orange Tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines)

The orange tip is a male, whereas the female tips are a small black.  When wings are up for both sexes they have a mottled green pattern. 

Larvae are frequently cannibalistic.  It is believed the cannibalism occurs for competition of the limited host plants.

Photo: Whiskybottle

Great Orange Tip Butterfly (Hebomoia glaucippe)

With wings more dramatic than the above orange-tip, both male and female are similar.  Her wings have a bit more green to the tip area.  The underside of both are dusted throughout with brown over the white wings. 

Orange colors on wings indicates to predators that they are poisonous and distasteful if eaten.  This is the case for both of these Orange tip, as well the Monarch butterfly.

Photo: Angela Ostafichuk

Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)

Found in southeastern states but rarely seen as far north as North Carolina.  Especially seen flying the coastlines from Texas to Florida.  This is a large butterfly and can be up to 3 3/8 inches  (8.6 cm).  Females live up to ten days, where males live about five. 

Photo: Kphotos6411

Red-breast Jezebel (Delias acalis)

Red-breast is actually the name given by the English.  English see butterfly wings as part of the body while Chinese see wings as arms.  Chinese call this Red-armpit.  Who knew?

Photo: Thawats

Jezebel Butterfly
(Delias ssp.)

There are about 225 genus of Jezebel species found throughout India, China and Asian regions. As with Orange-tips, Jezebels are brightly colored with orange/red and yellow, which indicates to predators they can be distasteful.

Photo: Nike Sh

Common Jezebel
(Delias eucharis)

Nomadic in nature, the Common Jezebel can be found in a variety of habitats and altitudes.  The Common is often mistaken for the Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete).  The Painted, however, has a larger black line on the outside of an orange blotch. 

Photo: Nike Sh

Green Veined White (Pieris napi)

This medium sized butterfly is found throughout the world with varied markings depending on region.  The underside of the wings have green veins with black outlines.  On the topside of forewings the male is distinguished by one black dot while the female will have two spots with streaks flowing away from them.

Photo: Susan Robinson

Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme)

This butterfly is found mostly throughout the United States, Southern Canada and Mexico, with exception.  It has a variety of host plants but prefers alfalfa giving it another name, the Alfalfa Butterfly.

Photo: Jason P. Ross

Pink-edged Sulphur Butterfly
(Colias interior)

It's named because of the pink edges around their wings.  When wings are open males will have black edging on the forewing tip while the female is likely to have little to none.

The Pink-edged Sulpher is more likely to be found in wooded areas of the boreal zone, or cold climate zones, of North America.  This, unlike other clouded yellow butterflies, which prefer open areas. 

Host plant butterfly larva feed on is the blueberry shrub.

Photo: Paul Lemke

Common Sulphur Butterfly (Colias philodice)

Usually the little white butterflies we see flying around are Cabbage Whites.  This Yellow Butterfly is the equivalent to the Cabbage.  Yellows around close to the ground in our lawns, often landing on clover, which is one of their preferred host plants.

Photo: Zhanghaobeibei

Large Orange Sulphur
(Phoebis agarithe)

Where the above Pink-edged Sulphur is found in cold zones, the Large Orange Sulpher is a tropical butterfly and can be found as far north as the southern states.

This is a large butterfly along with it's cousin the Orange-barred Sulpher measuring up to four inches.  Both are strong flyers and have on the very rare occasion flown to northern border states.  They, and many Phoebis species, caterpillar food that is preferred is Cassia and Senna species.

Photo: Anthony Aneese Totah Jr.

FYI:  Two flowering plants that are very popular hosts to the little white
        butterflies include:

  • Nasturtiums
  • Cleome

If these are favorites for you, consider carefully where
to plant them when designing your butterfly garden.

Related Articles:

Lycaenidae -
    Discover this butterfly family, also called Gossamer-Winged.

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