During one such moment, my attention was drawn to a dainty butterfly darting across the garden. It was wafting lazily over the grass. The morning sunlight reflected off its wings and it seemed to disappear and reappear under its shadows. When it perched itself on top of the broccoli plant, I had a long look at it. I was charmed by its fluffy white body and powdery white wings with the smoky black-tinged edges.
When I checked the net, I discovered that this delicate winged beauty is known as the Cabbage White Butterfly.
The cabbage white butterfly is often the first butterfly to appear at the beginning of summer. It is affectionately called the “summer snowflake” and there is an interesting history tucked into its gossamer wings.
The cabbage white was introduced to the eastern United States and southern Canada along with European cabbage imports in the 1860s. It’s less clear how this species arrived in California. There are no documented appearances in San Francisco before the 1880s, though the butterflies were flourishing in the city by the time of the 1906 earthquake. One Gold Rush-era specimen from Yreka suggests they might have arrived with the Spanish explorers in the Mission period.
When food shortages gripped the United States during World War II, the country launched a “Dig for Victory” campaign that resulted in more than 20 million “victory gardens” in backyards and public parks and the harvest of more than 8 million tons of fruits and vegetables. The most popular produce in these gardens were cabbage, kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, turnips, and Brussels sprouts—all plants from the cabbage family. And among those who ate most heartily from the victory gardens was the caterpillar of the small white butterfly - Pieris rapae or the cabbage white. Cabbage whites ate so many victory crops in the United States and in England that one British newspaper called for exterminating these butterflies on sight, calling them “Hitler’s ally”!
People still refer to the cabbage white as “rat butterfly,” and a “weedy” species—but their extermination never happened. An incredibly rapid spreader, it has survived all efforts at its annihilation!
How did this diminutive butterfly succeed in surviving in different environments across time? Surely it must have worked out ways of working through climate change. It has been suggested that it adapts to climate change by producing less dark pigment so that it absorbs less heat from the sun to avoid overheating in warm climates. One of the researchers involved in this enquiry is Art Shapiro who is a distinguished professor at University of California-Davis. For decades, he has been offering a pitcher of beer to the person who brings him the first cabbage white of the year in the Davis-Sacramento area!
But there’s more to the cabbage white than meets the eye.
A butterfly relies on the sun’s warmth to heat up its flight muscles before it can flutter off. But it has been observed that even on cloudy days the cabbage white butterfly takes flight before other butterflies. This got the attention of scientists at the University of Exeter, England.
They noticed that the cabbage white butterfly is distinctly different from the other butterflies in that it poses in a V-shape. This posture concentrates solar energy directly onto its flight muscles in the thorax, warming them up for takeoff.
Inspired by this, they further examined whether the solar panels could be made more effective by replicating the butterfly’s V-shaped pose. Not surprisingly, they found that the amount of power produced increased by almost 50 percent! They also noticed that the surface of the butterfly’s wing is highly reflective. By imitating the V-shaped pose and the reflective wing structure, the researchers produced lighter and more efficient solar panels. These results suggest that the ordinary cabbage white butterfly is an amazing expert at harvesting solar energy!
The cabbage white’s white wings also reflect ultraviolet light, which we can’t see but the butterflies can. To our eyes the butterflies seem plain and drab, but to each other, females are a gentle lavender and males shine with a deep royal purple. I marvel at this humble creature, imagining the rainbow it sees that I am unable to.
Nature is valuable not just because it is beautiful. It possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure which we to strive to unravel.
Let us continue to be awe-struck and feel inspired by the intricate mysteries of the environment that we are enveloped in.
Each wing an albino leaf
Smudged with charcoal
At the tip
Flitting here and there
Basking in the sun
What tales you can share
About your seventeen degrees?
LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS . . .