Checkered White

Pontia protodice

checkeredwhite_brunet_2012_2132.jpg

image of a Checkered White, Twigs
The checkered white is named for the charcoal-colored patterns on the white wings of adults.
Donna Brunet
Other Common Name
Southern Cabbageworm
Family

Pieridae (whites, sulphurs, yellows)

Description

Checkered white adult females have extensive black and white markings on the upper side of the wings. Males are whiter, with sparse markings resembling the female's pattern. Yellow-brown scales zigzag across the underside of the hindwing. Some summer males are virtually all white below, but the dark square near the leading edge of the forewing is visible both above and below. Males and females show slightly different color patterns at different times of the year — in early spring and late fall, adults tend to be darker and more heavily patterned.

Larvae have light yellow-green and darker grayish-green stripes running lengthwise down the body, small black tubercles, and numerous short dark hairs.

Size

Wingspan: 1¼–1¾ inches

checkeredwhitem_brunet_2012_3952.jpg

Photo of a male checkered white
Checkered White (Male)
Male checkered whites are whiter than females, with sparse markings resembling the female's pattern. Some summer males are virtually all white below, but the dark square near the leading edge of the forewing is visible both above and below.

checkeredwhitef_brunet_2012_9727.jpg

Photo of a checkered white female
Checkered White (Female)
Checkered white adult females have extensive black and white markings on the upper side of the wings.
Habitat and conservation

Adults fly March to November and are found in a variety of open habitats, including fields, empty lots, pastures, railroads, and roadsides. They are less commonly seen in city yards and gardens. There are usually two or three broods in our state. In many parts of their range, their distribution and abundance can vary greatly year to year.

Foods

Caterpillars eat the flowers and fruits, and secondarily the leaves, of plants in the mustard family. They prefer the large variety of wild mustard species, such as field cress (pepperweed) and shepherd’s purse, over those grown in gardens. When they do eat cabbage, checkered white larvae tend to eat just the outer leaves, while the larvae of the closely related cabbage white bore into the cabbage heads. Adults take nectar from a variety of flowers, including those in the mustard, daisy, and pea families.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Life cycle

The strategies of courtship and mating in checkered whites have been studied intensively. Males keep watch in flat, open areas, waiting for females to pass by. Males and females distinguish each other by varying amounts of ultraviolet light reflecting from the wings (not by differences in dark patterning). A male will land next to the female and flutter, brushing his wings and legs against her. Uninterested females spread their wings while raising the abdomen, the typical rejection posture of many butterfly species. After mating, the female deposits their orange eggs singly onto host plants. Before laying an egg, the female searches a flower cluster for any other eggs. One flower cluster provides food for only one caterpillar, and older caterpillars will kill and eat younger caterpillars. This species overwinters in the chrysalis stage, and adults emerge in spring.

Human connections

Biologists who study butterflies, skippers, and moths are called lepidopterists. They go far beyond just butterfly collecting. They seek to understand mating and reproductive strategies, dispersal mechanisms, plant-insect interactions, and more. Their research can shed light on new ways to increase crop yields from the food plants we and butterflies share.

Before the arrival of the European cabbage butterfly, the checkered white was an economically important pest on cabbage in Missouri. But today, the checkered white is less common in gardens, and it is only a minor pest of cabbage-family crops; it prefers food plants growing in waste areas and along roadsides.

Ecosystem connections

In places and during years when checkered white populations surge (for example, during a wet year favorable for their food plants) or crash (such as during drought years), populations of insectivorous birds and other insect-eating animals must increase or decline, too. These dynamic shifts in populations ripple throughout a whole ecosystem, showing that all life is interconnected.