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Insects on Cabbages: Identification Guide to the Bugs and Insects That Attack Cabbage Plants

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This guide will help you identify the kinds of caterpillars that like to eat cabbage leaves.

This guide will help you identify the kinds of caterpillars that like to eat cabbage leaves.

What's Eating Your Cabbages?

This is a quick and easy guide to the insect species that use cabbage as a food plant. Some of these cabbage pests just eat a few holes in the leaves, but some species can strip every leaf down to the ribs or kill the entire plant. No matter what your cabbage damage, the culprit is almost certainly in this guide.

For each cabbage-eating insect species, this guide begins with the basics:

  • Where does this species occur?
  • What is the scientific name?
  • What does it eat?
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees?
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides?

We also include photos, descriptions, and natural history details that help you understand your garden nemesis a little bit better, so you can decide whether to go all-in on control with pesticides, or to live and let live by recognizing the cabbage-eating critter's right to exist as part of Nature's plan.

Chart of Common Insects on Cabbage Plants

SpeciesAppearanceLeaf Damage

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)

Slender green caterpillars on bottom of leaves, well camouflaged

Holes eaten in middle of leaves

Cabbage Looper

Medium-sized caterpillars that move with a "looping" motion

Ragged damage on leaf margins

Cross-striped Cabbageworm

Small, brightly patterned caterpillars; feed in groups

Defoliation of entire plants

Aphids

Very small, soft-bodied, occur in groups

Suck plant juices; cause wilting

Zebra Caterpillar

Medium-sized, brightly marked; resembles the cross-striped cabbageworm

Holes in leaves and leaf margins

Diamondback moth

Very small green or brown caterpillars; adult moth is more noticeable

Very serious pest of cabbage crops

The caterpillar of the destructive cabbage white

The caterpillar of the destructive cabbage white

Cabbage White Butterfly Caterpillars

  • Where does this species occur? Virtually world-wide in temperate regions
  • What is the scientific name? Artogeia (Pieris) rapae
  • What does it eat? Many garden plants, but especially crucifers
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? The damage is noticeable, but usually limited to a few leaves
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides? Difficult, although diatomaceous earth may be effective.

The imported European cabbage white is not only far and away the most common of the cabbage-eating butterfly and moth species, it's also quite possibly the most common and widespread insect in world. Since its introduction into North America over a century ago, this plain white butterfly can be found literally everywhere, and usually in good numbers.

The caterpillar is a marvel of low-key camouflage brilliance. It's the precise color of a cabbage leaf, and it's covered with short, subtle "fur" that deflects shadow and increases its invisibility. You may see the holes that these green marvels eat in your leaves, but good luck finding one on the leaf. They are nearly impossible to locate.

The chrysalis is sublimely beautiful in design. Very few people notice this stage in the cabbage white's development.

Cabbage white butterfly

Cabbage white butterfly

Cabbage looper caterpillar

Cabbage looper caterpillar

Cabbage Looper Caterpillar

  • Where does this species occur? Throughout North America, with similar species virtually world-wide
  • What is the scientific name? Trichoplusia ni
  • What does it eat? Many garden plants, but especially crucifers
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? The damage is noticeable, but usually limited to a few leaves
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides? This species is large enough to be picked off by hand

The cabbage looper is a moth species with many close relatives, most of whom look very much alike. The caterpillar gets its name from its distinctive method of locomotion: it stretches forwards, grabs on with its front legs, and brings its back end up, making a "loop" out of its long, flexible body. This may be familiar to you as the same movement used by "inchworms," which are similar but in a completely different family, or group.

The moths are every shade of gray, highlighted by a silvery white mark in the middle of the forewing. They have a cool buffalo-like hump on the back ("thorax"), which is made completely of long, tufted fur. The overall effect is very cryptic, making the cabbage looper moth hard to find among leaves or branches.

Cross-striped cabbageworm

Cross-striped cabbageworm

Cross-Striped Cabbageworm

  • Where does this species occur? Throughout North America
  • What is the scientific name? Evergestis rimosalis
  • What does it eat? Cabbages
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? These caterpillars can strip the leaves from cabbage plants
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides? Very difficult without pesticides

These are small caterpillars, about a half-inch in length, but they always occur in groups and together can eat cabbage leaves down to the ribs. It's not unusual for there to be several broods at one time on your plants, so you might think that there are different kinds of caterpillars on your plants when actually there is only this one species.

It might be possible to cover your plants if you see the small moth fluttering around, laying eggs. It's more likely that you'll need to pick the larvae off your cabbage plants (very difficult) or apply diatomaceous earth or another non-chemical spray or dust.

caterpillars-on-cabbage

Aphids on Cabbages

  • Where does this species occur? Throughout North America
  • What is the scientific name? Order Hemiptera
  • What does it eat? Nearly every plant can be attacked by aphids
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides? Very difficult without pesticides

Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects that are almost always found in large colonies, with both adults and immature forms living and feeding together. They use their sharp mouthparts to pierce the plant and suck up juices. Even though one aphid is tiny and won't do much damage on its own, an entire colony can do serious damage to cabbage plants.

Aphids are often protected by ants, and you will find them together on your plants. They "pay" the ants with drops of a sweet fluid called honeydew extruded from the tip of the abdomen.

There are several commercial aphid control measures, but a good strong wash with soap and water is a good place to start; they are very fragile and will have trouble returning to the plant.

Zebra caterpillar

Zebra caterpillar

Zebra Caterpillar

  • Where does this species occur? Throughout North America
  • What is the scientific name? Melanchra picta
  • What does it eat? Cabbages and other plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually very serious pest, but can damage plants
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides? Yes – these caterpillars are large enough to be found and picked off by hand.

This caterpillar somewhat resembles the cross-striped cabbageworm, but is much larger and more boldly marked. As its name suggests, the zebra caterpillar bears horizontal stripes. It's a less-common pest of cabbage and related plants than the previous species, but it does occur at times in large enough numbers to damage garden plants.

The adult moth is a pretty brown number that you will likely not even notice when it comes to your lights at night.

Diamondback moth caterpillars and pupal shell

Diamondback moth caterpillars and pupal shell

Diamondback Moth

  • Where does this species occur? Anywhere cabbage is grown
  • What is the scientific name? Plutella xylostella
  • What does it eat? Cabbages and other plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes – since these caterpillars feed in colonies, an attack can be devastating
  • Can it be controlled without pesticides? Yes, depending on the level of infestation.

This pest of cabbage plants begins life as an egg laid on leaves by the female, a small slender moth with a cream-colored diamond pattern. The newly hatched caterpillars burrow into the leaves and live as "miners" between the layers for a while, then eat their way out and start living on the underside of the leaves. These are small caterpillars, but there are usually many of them, and they can destroy a crop of cabbages.

Over the years, they have become resistant to many pesticides. It's recommended that gardeners let nature take its course, if possible – there are several species of wasps that will eventually find, parasitize, and kill diamondback moth larvae.

Diamondback moth

Diamondback moth

Other Cabbage-Eating Caterpillars

There are many species of butterfly and moth, and insects in general, that will sometimes be found eating cabbage leaves. If the worm on your cabbages doesn't resemble any of the culprits described here, you can often find what your looking for with a quick online image search.

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.