The Zuni believe that white butterflies are a harbinger of spring. Cabbage whites, the variety common here, are usually among the first butterflies we see when the weather warms. While most butterfly species have only a limited number of new adult “flights” each year, cabbage whites keep reproducing until the weather gets too cold, so they’ll also be among the last we see this fall.
Although they were a little late in appearing this year, cabbage whites are plentiful now. They can show up anywhere green grows in an open environment, turning roadside weed rows into minor art and adding moving accents to flower gardens.
Originally from Eurasia, cabbage whites have spread not only to North America but to such far-flung places as Australia and Iceland. They are one of the most successful and prolific butterfly species in the world.
There is a dark side. In its caterpillar form, when they look like little green worms, cabbage whites are an agricultural pest for cabbage, kale, and other vegetables in the mustard family. To a farmer the cabbage white may be a threat to crops and an insect to be eradicated.
On the other hand, butterflies have been revered in many cultures. In ancient Greece, the name for butterfly was psyche, a Greek word for soul–something to think about when seeing these creatures up close.
Cabbage whites are so common it’s easy to assume any white butterfly we see is a cabbage white. However, sometimes white females appear in two other related species that are normally yellow. They’re all so small and fast-moving that they’re pretty much indistinguishable in the air.
But flight patterns can help distinguish cabbage whites from white moths. While most moths are night fliers, some will take wing during the day. Ronda Spink, the coordinator for the Michigan Butterfly Network at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, says you can identify moths because they “fly like they really need some practice” and land “like a crashing airplane on the underside of a leaf.”
Cabbage whites fly in such rapid zig-zagging fashion that Matthew Douglas, a butterfly expert who teaches at Grand Rapids Community College and MSU, thinks this is a predator avoidance strategy. He believes it almost impossible for a bird to nab a cabbage white in flight.
Douglas explains another curious cabbage white flight pattern: two males will occasionally spiral up and down opposite each other. The acrobatics are likely an aerial combat over territory.
If a cabbage white pauses long enough to give you a close look, you can tell its gender by its forewings: males have one spot there, females two. Mating flights do not involve any up-and-down activity. If a female is not interested in mating, she will just land, spread her wings, and elevate her abdomen to render it inaccessible.
Cabbage whites overwinter in chrysalises. Barring predation or other bad luck, they will emerge next spring as adult butterflies–new flying eye candy for next year.