Meet the Pieridae family: Whites and Sulphurs

The family Pieridae is divided into 4 subfamilies, which are DismorphiinaePierinaeColiadinae, and PseudopontiinaeCalifornia dogfacesPine whitesClouded sulphursLittle yellows, and Queen Alexandra's sulphures are popular pierids commonly found in the US.

Pieridae butterfly family: the basics

The Pieridae family is a butterfly family in the superfamily Papilionoidea. It’s comprised of about 1,000 small to medium-sized butterfly species found mostly in tropical areas worldwide.

Most pierids are white, orange, or yellow and have dark edges or tips on their wings and the radial vein with 3, 4, and sometimes 5 branches on their forewings. Due to their bright, recognizable colors, they’re also known by their common name – Whites and Sulphurs. Sexual dimorphism is present in some species.

Like other butterflies, the Pieridae family has a four-stage life cycle:

  • Egg
  • Larva (caterpillar)
  • Pupa
  • Adult butterfly

Pierids are known for mass migration. Adult butterflies live for about a year.

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classification and subfamilies

The scientific classification of the Pieridae family is:


There are 4 subfamilies of the Pieridae family. They are listed along with some common butterfly species below.

  • Dismorphiinae (Dismorphia, Dismorphia amphione, Dismorphia arcadia)
  • Pierinae (Anthocharis belia, Anthocharis lanceolata, Anthocharis sara)
  • Coliadinae (Aphrissa fluminensis, Colias, Phoebis agarithe)
  • Pseudopontiinae (Pseudopontia paradoxa, Pseudopontia mabira, Pseudopontia zambezi)

Top 5 popular Pieridae species in the US

The most common Pieridae species in the US include:

  • California dogface (Zerene eurydice)
  • Pine white (Neophasia menapia)
  • Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)
  • Little yellows (Pyrisitia lisa)
  • Queen Alexandra’s sulphur (Colias alexandra)

California dogface (Zerene eurydice)

California dogface (Zerene eurydice)
California dogface (Zerene eurydice)

California dogface (Zerene eurydice) inhabits Central California, Baja California, and areas west of the central mountains and deserts. Its typical habitats include foothills, chaparral, coniferous woodlands, and oaks. The most common host plant for this butterfly is false indigo.

The wingspan of California dogfaces ranges from two to 2.5 inches (5 to 6.35 cm). This butterfly is sexually dimorphic. Males are more colorful than females. Half of their forewings is black, and the other half is in orange, yellowish, and light purple shades with black veins. Each forewing has a black spot. Females are yellow with a black spot on each forewing.

Pine white (Neophasia menapia)

Pine white (Neophasia menapia)
Pine white (Neophasia menapia)

Pine white (Neophasia menapia) can be found in:

  • Alberta
  • British Columbia
  • California
  • Mexico
  • Nebraska
  • South Dakota
  • Rocky Mountains

This butterfly’s habitats are pine and fir forests. Its host plants are needles of conifers like:

  • Douglas-firs
  • Pines
  • True firs (genus Abies)

Pine whites have a wingspread of about 1.77 to 2.25 inches (four and a half to 5.7 cm). They’re almost entirely white, with a black pattern on the tips of their forewings. Females are usually a paler shade of white and can have red edges on the forewings.

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)
Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice) lives in most US territories. It inhabits open areas like fields, lawns, meadows, and road edges. Its host plants are in the pea family.

This butterfly has a wingspan of 1.5 to 2.75 inches (3.8 to 6.9 cm). Males are bright yellow with black borders and a dark spot on each forewing. Females can be either yellow with yellow spots on the black edges or white with one black spot on each forewing.

Little yellows (Pyrisitia lisa)

Little yellows (Pyrisitia lisa)
Little yellows (Pyrisitia lisa)

Little yellow (Pyrisitia lisa) can be found in the following territories:

  • Costa Rica
  • Central Nebraska
  • Eastern US
  • New Mexico
  • South Dakota
  • South Texas

This butterfly lives in dry open areas and open woods, so it can be seen near fields, roadsides, and railroad tracks. Its host plants are partridge peas and wild sensitive plants.

Little yellows have a wingspan ranging from 1.25 to 1.75 inches (3.17 to 4.4 cm). They are sexually dimorphic. Males are yellow with black forewing tips, while females have a thicker black border around their yellow wings.

Queen Alexandra’s sulphur (Colias alexandra)

Queen Alexandra's sulphur (Colias alexandra)
Queen Alexandra’s sulphur (Colias alexandra)

Queen Alexandra’s sulphur (Colias alexandra) inhabits Arizona, British Columbia, eastern California, and New Mexico. It can be found in fields, meadows, sagebrush flats, and near road edges. Host plants of this butterfly are clover, milk vetches, and lupines.

Queen Alexandra’s sulphur has a wingspread of about 1.65 to 2.25 inches (4.19 to 5.7 cm). Males are yellow with narrow black borders and yellow veins on all wings. They have a small dark spot on each of their forewings. Females are a paler shade of yellow or white and have lighter edges on their wings.

Where Do Pieridae live?

Global regions where these butterflies are most often found are:

  • Asia
  • Africa
  • Europe
  • North America

Do Pieridae migrate?

The Pieridae family has the highest proportion of migratory species at 13% and 133 butterfly species. Some of these are:

  • Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
  • Tailed orange (Pyrisitia proterpia)
  • Barred yellow (Eurema daira)
  • Pacific orangetip (Anthocharis sara)

While many pierids migrate during the fall, some are known for all-year migrations (Mexican dartwhite or Catasticta nimbice). The following species are examples of multiple flight migrations:

  • Sleepy orange (Abaeis nicippe)
  • Checkered white (Pontia protodice)
  • Desert Marble (Euchloe lotta)

What do Pieridae butterflies eat?

Pieridae caterpillars mostly eat legumes and plants in the brassicaceae family. Adult butterflies consume nectar from various flowering plants, such as:

  • Asters
  • Cordias
  • Cardinal flowers
  • Goldenrods
  • Lantanas
  • Wild morning glories

Are Pieridae considered pests?

Certain pierids are pests due to their eating habits. For instance, Orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme) caterpillars damage alfalfa crops, peas, and beans.

The Large white (Pieris brassicae) is often called the Cabbage white since it feeds on cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, and Brussels sprouts.

The Small white (Pieris rapae) is also called the Cabbage white or the Cabbage butterflyCabbage butterflies can be found worldwide.

Common issues and habitat destruction for Pieridae butterflies

Habitat destruction impacts have been recorded for certain pierids, such as the Madrone butterfly (Eucheira socialis). These butterflies used to inhabit mountainous regions of Mexico abundantly. However, their host plants, the arbutus trees, have been mostly cut, leading to the significant reduction of Eucheira socialis caterpillar nests.

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