Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family


Orange Sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) Whites and Sulphurs (Pierids) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Whites and Sulphurs are the most numerous and most often seen butterflies in the Philadelphia area where I live. They pass through my garden from late morning into late afternoon. I think the Cabbage White was the first butterfly I learned to identify. Cabbage Whites can be seen in the most cement and tree-less parts of a city including vacant lots. The Cabbage White isn’t indigenous to the Americas but arrived in Quebec in the 1860s. By 1900 it had spread across North America.

The Whites and Sulphurs are good butterfly families and species to start with if you are just learning how to identify butterflies. You are bound to see one just about everyday and in most places during the northern summers.


The Whites and Sulphurs (Pieridae) Butterfly Family

Population of Whites and Sulphur Butterflies

There are 1100 species of White and Sulphur butterfly species in the world today. Most Whites and Sulphurs live in the tropics with a few occurring in the Arctic. The United States and Canada have 60 species. Twenty-two species live in in the East Coast region with 5 more species straying into the region occasionally for a total of 27 species in the East.

Adult Life Cycle Stage

Most Whites and Skippers are small to medium sized butterflies. Like their names, the butterflies’ wings are white, yellow or orange with small amounts of black or red. The white, yellow and orange colors come from pigments called pterines. These butteflies don’t have tails like Swallowtail butterflies but some species have a short projection on their rear hind wing (back wing). All adults of these species eat nectar sipped from flowers. Adults butterflies use all three pairs of legs to walk unlike Brushfoots which use just four of six legs.  Species in temperate areas can be darker and smaller in the spring and fall, and larger and lighter in color in the summer.


Mating Habits of Adults

There are animals that have colorations that we humans cannot see with the naked eye. Whites and Sulphur butterflies have ultraviolet patterns that apparently are useful in courtship. So these butterflies can see ultraviolet light, how cool is that?

In the eastern region of North America, the males of the species patrol for mates instead of perching and waiting for a passing female.


Flight Style of Adults

The Whites and Sulphurs are strong fliers that move in a straight and steady path. Sulphur butterflies will bask (sit in the sun) with wings closed and held over their backs. Whites bask in sunlight with their wings closed or partly open.


Egg Life Cycle Stage

The eggs are often orange, pink, or red. The eggs are shaped like vases or spindles and rest upright on one end.

Eggs are deposited one egg to a leaf, bud, or stem of hostplants. The female will not chose a plant where other butterfly eggs are laid. This is a smart move since most of the caterpillars in this butterfly family are cannibalistic.



The Sulphur species caterpillars feed on legumes and the White butterflies feed on crucifers.

To understand the importance of hostplants see Why native plants?


Caterpillar Life Cycle Stage

The caterpillars of the Whites and Sulphurs are smooth and covered with short, fine hairs on the body and head. The caterpillars are not showy but inconspicuous and don’t draw attention to themselves and look like the caterpillars of moths more than other butterflies.

Caterpillars (larva) are cylinder-shaped. Creases mark their bodies from one side to the other, giving the appearance of the body divided by many small segments.

The early instars (growth stages) of many species have hairs that reply ants and other insect and invertebrate predators.


Chrysalis of Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Whites and Sulphur butterfly family. Photo by Marshal Hedin on Wikimedia Commons.

Chrysalis Life Cycle Stage

Chrysalises are attached to a support by a silken mat and hang in a silk girdle slung around its middle.


Whites and Sulphurs in Winter – Overwintering (Diapause)

In the temperate regions these butterflies overwinter in the pupae or larval stage. In warm areas the tropical species overwinter as adults. The tropical species migrate northward in spring and early summer. The caterpillars can tolerate some cold and mild freezes.


A Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterfly visiting my garden.

The Whites Butterfly Subfamily (Pierinae)

The East Coast region White butterflies belong to this group. They are generalists who can be found in open-area such as meadows, gardens, and vacant lots. These butterflies produce many broods and can be numerous all summer long.

These medium-sized butterflies are mostly white colored with black wing borders and various dark marks on their wings. The ventral (underside) wing has greenish “marbling” or a pale yellowish was in some species. White butterflies will bask or sun themselves by positioning their wings so the warmth of the sun warms their bodies.

Many females in this group reflect ultraviolet light on their dorsal (back) wings as a signal they are female. The White butterfly males do not reflect ultraviolet.


Hostplants for the White butterfly caterpillars

Crucifers, which are plants in the mustard family, including turnips, cabbages, bok choy, radishes, cresses and others are the hostplants for the White butterfly caterpillars. The Crucifers all contain a substance called glucosinslates or “mustard oils” which may make the caterpillars and the later adult butterfly, taste bad.


White butterflies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the East Coast region

  • Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) – originally a European species
  • Checkered White (Pontia protodice)


The Marbles and Orangetips (tribe Euchoini)

This tribe includes only 2 species in the East Coast region and is found in barren habitats. These butterflies produce only one brood of offspring a year.

  • Falcate Orangetip (Anthochans midea)
  • Olympia Marble (Euchloe Olympia)


Orange Sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) Whites and Sulphurs (Pierids) Family. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Sulphurs Butterflies Subfamily (Coliadinae)

There are 300 species worldwide; 37 in the United States and Canada; 19 in the East Coast region (Maine to Florida) including 5 rare strays from the tropics. The Sulphurs include the most numerous and conspicuous  butterflies. They are medium-sized mostly yellow, orange or cream with black wing edges and other dark markings.


Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) butterfly. Whites and Sulphur butterfly family. Photo by By Clinton & Charles Robertson Wikimedia Commons – 8/4/15

Hostplants for the Sulphur butterfly caterpillars

The Sulphur butterflies differ from White butterflies by their wing coloring and their diet. Sulphurs caterpillars eat legumes instead of the crucifers of the Whites. The legumes include beans, peas, clover, locust, and acacia trees. The nutritious legumes promote rapid growth, which comes in handy for maturing quickly, mating and producing many broods during the warm seasons. Sulphur foodplants do not contain the foul-tasting chemicals of the White butterflies’ legume family hostplants.

 Sulphurs have distinct wing-vein patterns and shorter antennae than Whites. This group was once called “red horns” for the color of their antennae, which is pinkish. But, you would have to have a butterfly (dead or alive), under a microscope or in your hand to see this trait. In Sulphurs it is the wings of the males that reflect ultraviolet light instead of the females as in White butterflies. Sulphurs that live in the northern part of their ranges have dark scales on their basal (hind) wings as extra heat-absorbing properties to allow the butterfly to fly during the cooler periods of the day or season. The Sulphur butterflies bask with wings folded closed and held above its body. The folded wings allow the dark spots on the hind (back) wings to absorb solar heat.


The Sulphurs have several subgroups: Common, Giant, Small and Dainty.

Sulphurs in the Philadelphia Area  Along with Subgroups

Common Sulphurs (Colias/Zerene)

  • Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
  • Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice)

Clouded and Orange Sulphurs often mate and produce hybridized offspring.


Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) Butterfly. White and Sulphur butterfly family. [photo by Paul B. Toman. on Wikimedia]
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) Butterfly. White and Sulphur butterfly family. [photo by Paul B. Toman. on Wikimedia]
Giant Sulphurs (Aphrissa/Phoebis)

  • Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)

Small Sulphurs (Eurema/etc.)

  • Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe)
  • Little Yellow (Eurema lisa)

Dainty Sulphurs (Nathalis)

  • None in Philadelphia area

Please feel free to comment, share a resource or ask and question in the comments below.
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More Information

Facts about Butterflies and Moths

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

The Butterfly Egg and Where to Find It

The Caterpillar

Chrysalis Into Butterfly

The Adult Butterfly

Migrating Monarch at Cape May State Park

Butterflies of Philadelphia: A Checklist


North American Butterfly Association http://www.naba.org/

Butterflies and Moths of North America: Collecting and Sharing Data about Lepidoptera – link to photos http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/taxonomy

Regional Checklist’s – for around the North and South America and the Caribbean http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/checklists

Hosts: The Hostplant Database https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/hostplants/search/index.dsml


Butterflies of the East Coast  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook by William B. Folsom

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America – covers western caterpillars

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner

Caterpillars of Western North America – I couldn’t  find  book that covered caterpillars of the western part of North America


p id=”title” class=”a-size-large a-spacing-none”>Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America by Amy Barlett Wright (suitable for use with kids)
Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul

Peterson’s Guide to Western Butterflies

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler (suitable for use with kids)


  1. Hi Donna! Love your blog! I was wondering if it was alright to pin some of your images to Pinterest? My husband is a Dr. of Entomology in the US Army and I enjoy finding exciting and interesting articles on the insecta of the world, to share with others. Our American species are of course, of particular interest, so running across your blog was a wonderful treat. Thank you for considering this request. Most sincere,
    Tami Schuster, San Antonio, Texas, US ARMY, spouse. 😀

    • Hi, Tami
      Sorry for the late reply but, my email for this blog is wonky. Sure, feel free to pin some of my images to Pinterest. And thanks for asking.

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