Cabbage White Butterflies – How to Avoid a Brassica Massacre

, written by gb flag

Cabbage white butterfly

Like many gardeners, I've been unfortunate enough to experience some brassica damage in the past. A few tattered swedes, a holey kale plant – tell-tale signs that Small Cabbage White butterflies had laid their eggs on my plants. I considered the damage annoying, but it never reached really troublesome proportions in my garden.

Last year when I spotted large numbers of Cabbage Whites flying around, I didn't pay much attention to them at first, as I had (fortunately, as it turned out) decided not to grow any brassica crops. I do grow nasturtiums along the vegetable patch fence however, and within a matter of days I went from 'Oh look – that's an interesting caterpillar' to 'Eek! What are those caterpillars and what have they done to my nasturtiums?'

Large and Small Cabbage White Butterflies

It turns out that the Small Cabbage White butterfly, while undoubtedly a pest, is nothing compared to its big brother, the unimaginatively-named Large Cabbage White. The two are very similar, but the caterpillars are distinct – the Small Whites are an unassuming pale green colour, while the Large White larvae sport a hairy black and yellow jacket.

Small cabbage white caterpillars (cabbage worms)

Both butterflies are widespread throughout Britain and Europe, and the Small White has also been introduced to North America, Australia and New Zealand (sorry guys!), where it's often known as the 'imported cabbageworm'. If it's any consolation, the Small White is less of a voracious feeder than the Large White – as I discovered, when half a dozen robust nasturtiums were reduced to skeletons.

As the name suggests, cabbages and other brassicas are the favoured food plants of the Cabbage White larvae. The butterfly will lay eggs on the undersides of leaves (singly in the case of the Small White, in groups of 40-100 by the Large White) and after a week or two the larvae will emerge, like the Very Hungry Caterpillar in my favourite childrens' book, ready to eat whatever lies in its path. Small Whites will tunnel into the hearts of cabbages, so even if they're around in fewer numbers, a handful of larvae can still do serious damage to your crop.

Protecting Against Cabbage Whites

So how do we stop them from destroying our crops? Well, prevention is always better than cure, so the first step is to invest in some good, butterfly-proof netting. I've draped mine over hoops to make it easy to throw it back for weeding and harvesting.

Small cabbage white caterpillar damage

Make sure the barrier is firmly held down at the edges, with no gaps that butterflies could squeeze in through – I prefer to use bricks rather than pegs, which tend to tear netting and shorten its life. Alternatively, burying the edges into the soil will make absolutely sure that there are no gaps.

You can use the Netting icons in our Garden Planner to mark on your plan where you need it in your garden. If you're not sure which of your crops are likely to be affected, use the Custom Filter button to show only brassicas in the selection bar, and group these together under your netting.

Cabbage Whites produce two broods per year (three in a favourable summer), so make sure to install the netting in spring and don't remove it until autumn. Even under netting however, regular inspection of leaves is essential. Hand-picking eggs and larvae off the plants can be laborious, but it is effective. Small White larvae are well-camouflaged, so make sure to check the ribs of leaves where they often hide. Growing red-leaved varieties of cabbage and other brassicas can make it easier to spot them.

Large cabbage white caterpillars

Cabbage White Predators

As any organic gardener knows, encouraging natural predators is a great way to control pest populations (and saves you having to perform grisly executions personally). Cabbage white larvae have a trick up their sleeves though – they accumulate mustard oil in their bodies from the food plant, which makes them unpalatable to most predators. Some birds will still eat them however, so it's worth providing feeders and nest boxes to encourage insectivorous birds such as house sparrows, goldfinches and skylarks into your garden.

Large White caterpillars can fall prey to the larvae of Apanteles glomeratus, a parasitic wasp, which devours the caterpillar from the inside out, carefully avoiding the vital organs so the host continues to grow to full size. If you find any dead caterpillars with yellow cocoons next to them, it might be worth moving them among your brassicas so that the parasites will attack further generations.

Once fully grown, the larvae will move away from the food plants and make their way to somewhere sheltered such as a fence, shed wall, or tree trunk, and pupate for around two weeks in summer, or eight weeks for overwintering pupae, so it's a good idea to check these areas and remove any you find.

Surprisingly considering the devastation wreaked on my nasturtiums I didn't find a single pupa over the winter, but spiders seemed to have a feast on the larvae last year and I've seen butterflies caught in their webs this year too.

Despite the likelihood of total annihilation, I am growing nasturtiums again – hopefully their presence will distract the butterflies from trying to squeeze in under my netting and I'll enjoy a good crop of broccoli later this summer!

By Ann Marie Hendry.

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Show Comments


"my cabbage is attacked by very tiny flies...Black dots like. and also I saw someclusters of white dots like things and when I touched them they were like ashes :( what to do now....any home remedies?"
babra on Thursday 19 February 2015
"Hi Babra, I'm not sure what's affecting your cabbage I'm afraid (aphids perhaps?) but I'd recommend hand-picking all of them off (or use a jet from a hose to dislodge them) and then protect your plants with netting so insects can't get near them. I hope that helps!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 20 February 2015
"thx ann for ur suggestion... I will try that :)"
babra on Sunday 22 February 2015
"Hi babra my names dave what u have on your cabbage is blackfly and white fly they suck the sap from the plant and stops it growing my cure is a spray bottle with a little dish soap thos will not harm the plant's and you will need to do this every three days hope this helps"
david on Friday 27 February 2015
"Thanks for a very interesting article on cabbage white butterfly. I intend to cover my young cabbages with a net but I wanted to ask you what experiences you have about the butterflies flying low...? I note that you put your netting right down to the ground. If I left a 15 cm gap at the bottom, do you think they would get underneath? Thanks again for a really informative web site! "
Sally on Tuesday 17 November 2015
"Hi Sally, sorry for this extremely tardy reply! The netting really does need to be right to the ground, with the edges securely weighed down or buried in the soil."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 18 May 2016
"What ever happened to using Sevin or Eight?? I always plant my cabbages where I can see them from the door, then when I see the butterflies, I sprinkle it. "
C.J. on Thursday 2 June 2016
"There have been a couple studies done about using upland cress as a dead end trap crop for the cabbage white. They prefer to lay their eggs on the upland cress, but then the caterpillars can't eat it so they die. This is the first year I've used it, but I haven't seen a tenth of the caterpillars I have in years past."
Sara (Zone 5) on Tuesday 28 June 2016
"I saw many cabbage whites laying eggs on my brassicas this year, but no caterpillars - I think they must have all been taken by the wasps which were constantly patrolling the garden."
John on Friday 16 December 2016
"There's a very good chance you're right John. What many people don't realise is that wasps feed meaty morsels to their young, and in doing so make an extremely valuable contribution to garden pest control."
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 16 December 2016
"That's an interesting insight Sara. I believe upland cress is also known as land cress, and it's easily available from seed companies. I may have to try that - thanks for sharing!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 16 December 2016
"Hi do you post to Australia? thank you David"
david on Sunday 12 March 2017
"Hi David, we don't sell any physical products. Our garden planning apps (click the Planner link in the menu bar at the top of the page) will work in Australia however."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 15 March 2017
"I wouldn't advise laying the netting directly on the plants, as the cabbage whites will just lay their eggs through the net onto the leaves of your brassicas, even sticking their abdomens through to reach a leaf just below or inside the net. It should be kept at some distance from the leaves in all directions on a frame of some kind."
John on Tuesday 2 May 2017
"Indeed John - I cut down yellow gas pipe to make hoops to drape netting over, and many people use the blue water pipe, which is very similar. Alternatively, any metal or wooden structure can be used as long as there are no sharp corners. For the simplest solution, use bamboo canes with flowerpots or burst tennis balls over the ends to stop the canes poking through the netting."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 2 May 2017
"When do cabbage white butterflies appear"
Keith Boden on Friday 23 June 2017
"I'm in Cornwall near St Ives. The last few years although I haven't seen butterflies I've found caterpillars on my brassicas throughout the winter. They look like cabbage white but are very large only one or 2 at a time. Will be getting netting and will keep it up year round. It's surprising how much damage just one or two of them can make."
Carol Ann on Saturday 24 June 2017
"Will need oil or diatomaceous earth help with these cabbage white butterflies?"
Deborah Butcher on Sunday 25 June 2017
"What time of year do cabbage whites appear? my netting is fit to burst now and i'm wondering should i remove it as the plants are already well established? Thanks"
Dom on Monday 26 June 2017
"1st Cabbage White Butterfly seeen in garden in Shenstone, Sth Staffs. 3rd July and another today 5th. Too late. Picked me first cabbage yesterday. Untouched by the little bu**ers!"
Keith Boden on Wednesday 5 July 2017
"Yes I see them now, loads of them and they are inside my netting (my netting is bursting at the edges...note to self, bigger netting next year!), im using a shoot to kill policy all over the making room for red admirals and the like!"
Dom on Wednesday 5 July 2017
"Hi Keith, that's interesting - I haven't seen them here yet, but I'm a bit further north than you, in the south of Scotland. Please do report any sightings of pests (and beneficial insects too) at - we're working to create a pest prediction service which will use data provided by gardeners about when and where bugs are seen to advise when bugs are likely to appear in your area."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 5 July 2017
"Our nasturtiums are being eaten by a swarm of large cabbage catepillars We have courgettes in the same bed should we be worried about them ?"
Janet on Wednesday 26 July 2017
"The caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies will only feed on cabbage family plants Janet. This includes nasturtiums unfortunately. Your courgettes will be safe!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 26 July 2017
"I nhave used a net to try and keep the cabbage whites at bay. I put poles aruond the crop then placed plastic milk bottles over these then the net. This prevents holes etc,"
Graham on Sunday 13 August 2017
"Hallo, I just stranded growing vegetables on my small balcony so am very much the novice. I have two broccoli plants in two separate pots doing very well. This said I've noticed that a few of the lower leaves have what looks like ringworm. By this I mean white squiggly lines over the leaves. On closer inspection I found a few small white lumps at the end of these lines. The leaves are in no way eaten from the outside. Rather this worm is in the leaf itself. I've since removed the leaves and am keen to hear what this might be and how I might protect the plants against it using natural remedies. Many thanks. "
Scott Blick on Friday 8 June 2018
"Going on from my comment last year about cabbage white b/flies, this year is weird. Saw quite a few in mid May, hence I built a cabbage cover. However nothing since then. Have they been and gone or are we awaiting the July massacre? I'm in Sth Staffs. Don'y let your guard go down guys."
Keith Boden on Monday 11 June 2018
"Last year I planted 4 brussel sprout plants next to 8 curly kale plants. Having never grown brassicas before I had no knowledge of Cabbage White caterpillars and therefore did not cover any of them with netting. It wasn't long before I spotted loads of caterpillars munching their way through the brussel sprout leaves. However, there were absolutely none on the kale plants. So they obviously 100% preferred the brussels which ended up being sacrificial plants by accident! "
Simon O'Connor on Thursday 14 June 2018
"Scott, it sounds like it may be a species of leaf miner. Removing affected leaves as you have done should help keep it under control. You could also try covering the plants with fine netting to prevent the egg-laying adults from reaching the plants. Leaf miners don't always cause significant damage, but if there are a lot they may reduce the plant's yields."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 19 June 2018
"Keith, that's interesting - I've noticed far fewer cabbage whites this year too. It could be that there are more still to come though!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 19 June 2018
"I have just come to the top of the waiting list and taken over an allotment. The previous tenant scattered nasturtium seeds in what is now my potato plot. I don't care because the leaves cut out the light but I've noticed visits from cabbage whites, confirming what you said. I've also noticed that my pak choi has been stripped by slugs when a row of swiss chard alongside is untouched. "
Robin Wynn on Friday 22 June 2018
"Hi Robin. Keep any cabbage family plants covered with netting, and the butterflies should seek out the nasturtiums instead and not try too hard to get at your brassicas. Pak choi does seem to be a favourite with slugs! Growing it in containers can help."
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 23 June 2018
"Following on from above comment re Cabbage Whites. Yesterday I saw one and this is the first time since mid May. Beware, they are on the way presumably."
Keith Boden on Monday 25 June 2018
"reading through your comments and useful advice, I am in the east of Scotland. and it looks like we have all the missing cabbage whiles at least 6 today . Happily munching and laying in all my nasturtiums. H. Dempster "
H. Dempster on Saturday 14 July 2018
"No you haven't Mr D. Ever since 1st July there have been an increasing number here in Sth Staffs. About 5 at a time. Cabbages are covered OK, but now they are laying eggs on my Sprouts. Have been tearing them off the leaves."
Keith Boden on Saturday 14 July 2018
"Greeting! i am growing "all year round cauli" in my raised bed. My first attempt! These are phenomenally large and have caterpillars on them. i did not put the netting. I am resigned to loose this crop but very keen to learn what do in early autumn/winter so that they don't destroy the plant next year. I believe they reside in soil over the winter ? (i might have got it wrong!) . any advice in greatly appreciated. I live in Inverness, UK thanks SB "
Sudhir Borgaonkar on Friday 27 July 2018
"Greetings Sudhir! You won't necessarily lose the cauliflowers - just pick off any caterpillars you see. They don't overwinter in the soil, but in the autumn and winter you might see pupae on sheds, fences or other vertical surfaces. The best way to avoid them reaching your cauilflowers is to cover the plants with netting as soon as you put them in the ground."
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 27 July 2018
"Thank you, Ann Marie The pupae in autumn/winter -on sheds/fences/ vertical surfaces of the raised beds- will they not attack the cauliflowers in the next summer? ( not understood the life cycle of these caterpillars hence the problem....) that was a big mistake not to cover the plants as soon as i planted them! pl let me know about the life cycle or guide me to a info source about their life cycle. What i cant get from anywhere is - what happens after winter? do they fly away a butterflies or reside in the same soil to attack the crop next year and perpetually , ever after... thanks Sudhir"
Sudhir Borgaonkar on Friday 27 July 2018
"Hi Sudhir. The butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of brassica plants. The eggs hatch into caterpillars. After a few weeks they pupate, either remaining on the plant they've been feeding on, or in other sheltered locations. A few weeks later (or in spring, if it was a late starter), they will emerge as butterflies, fly around, mate, and lay eggs on brassica plants. It's important to pick off caterpillars (or pupae) as you see them to interrupt this life cycle, and to keep brassica plants netted to prevent the butterflies from laying eggs on the leaves. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 27 July 2018
"Thank you, Ann Marie Best wishes Sudhir"
Sudhir Borgaonkar on Friday 27 July 2018
"Common wasps are FANTASTIC at controlling these caterpillars. My neighbour's gardens are all paved over, so every pest in town comes to me. In 2017 every brassica in my garden was crusted in butterfly eggs and I just gave up on the whole crop. However, a few days later I noticed that most of the eggs had gone and saw a wasp scraping off a batch. Later I saw wasps carrying off the few remaining caterpillars. Last year I hardly had any wasps and consequently no kale, PSB or kohl rabi either!"
Helen on Sunday 3 March 2019
"That's very interesting Helen! Coincidentally I had loads of wasps last year and I saw very few caterpillars, although the butterflies had been flying around. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 5 March 2019
"I am madly searching for options as I was lazy and didn't put my row cover in place the same day I planted out my Brussels sprouts. Fast forward a couple days and there are already holes in the leaves. I checked all over the tiny starts (they were in four inch pots, with only 4-5 true leaves so far), but could not find any caterpillars or loopers. Could they be hiding in the soil? Lots of great information here, but just wondering if they could be hiding somewhere that I'm missing. Thanks in advance!"
Wendy on Friday 22 March 2019
"Hi Wendy. The caterpillars don't tend to lurk in the soil; they're always on the leaves, munching away! I'd guess that the holes are most likely made by slugs, who seem to be very fond of cabbage family plants too - particularly young, succulent ones!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 23 March 2019
"Thank you so much Ann Marie, and I think you are correct, it's the slugs!!! All sizes of them, big ones, tiny little ones, ugh! We are having an unseasonably wet winter and they have just exploded in population."
Wendy on Wednesday 27 March 2019
"Sounds like we have tracked down the culprits then. Glad to have been of assistance! Search 'slugs' in the search box at the top of this page for organic slug control tips."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 27 March 2019
"Interesting reading the comments here. I have placed hoops and netting over my Brussels, but they are now touching the net ( build bigger next year! ) so I'm religiously checking a couple of times a day because this past week my garden near Worcester has been inundated with Large CW's. Plenty of Peacocks and Painted Lady's as well, but those I can live with. I had a large crop of Brussels, Brocolli and Cabbages completely destroyed by the little monsters 3 years ago, and this is the first time I've tried growing them since that disappointment."
Mick Enright on Thursday 1 August 2019
"Tried growing green cauliflower for first time this year, but appear to have grown some caterpillar bushes instead. They all came out last night to celebrate Yorkshire Day. I’ve thrown in the towel for this year, but the big question is does it mean next year there will be even more or is it just a case that you have to use netting. And what did the used to do before plastic netting and modern chemicals?"
Helen on Friday 2 August 2019
"Hi Helen. I've found that populations explode and contract seasonally with no clear-cut reason why, but I think it's safe to say that if you get caterpillars, netting is essential. This year (for the first time in years) I've experimented with leaving my brassicas un-netted. The result is that I've been spending an inordinate amount of time rubbing off eggs and hand-picking caterpillars - which I guess would be the traditional method. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 2 August 2019
"Question ~ ??? ~ And I realise that an exact answer is impossible, but as I mentioned in an earlier post my Brussel's are now pushing up against the netting I have. Should I be building a larger netting frame now, or will I be able to remove the existing netting soon without fear of my beloved plants being chomped to bits by caterpillars?"
Mick Enright on Monday 5 August 2019
"If your Brussels sprouts are pressing against the netting then it will be possible for the butterflies to lay their eggs through it. It's worth keeping netting in place to keep birds off through the winter too, so efforts in adding a bigger frame this year wouldn't be wasted even if you don't see lots more cabbage whites this year. Or, you could keep the existing netting and simply check the plants regularly for eggs laid on those leaves that are pushing against the netting, and rub them off when you see them."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 6 August 2019
"What gardeners did in my youth, Helen, back in the 50s and 60s, was to puff on a substance. This was later found to be extremely toxic and subsequently banned and rightly so. Prevention and vigilances the only method as others have said."
Pamela Thurston on Sunday 8 September 2019
"Is it worth spraying cabbage plants with soapy water ? (washing up liquid) I've never seen a bug spray to kill these cabbage white butterflies, is there one ? I've put netting over my planters, so far so good, its been a bit cold for butterflies or bugs so far"
Derrick on Wednesday 1 July 2020
"In my sub tropical area of Australia, cabbage white butterflies flitter around the garden all year. I started covering the brassica patch with veggie net and some still got in but they didn't eat enough to kill the plants. So I dug out my pack of Dipel and solved the priblem. Now the caterpillars are flitting around the snow peas because the white flowers look like butterflies. Contrary to popular advice that this will discourage them, thinking the territory is occupied, it has the opposite effect. White things actually attract them as they are looking for mates. The nasturtums are just starting to grow but they don't fit into the main caterpillar attack times over here. The caterpillars also eat my radish and Japanese turnip tops. This can also be a nuisance because I use the tops as a green vegetable for stir fries. Dipel seems to be the best answer for us."
Linda Heenan on Wednesday 1 July 2020
"Derrick, poisoning cabbage white butterflies with pesticides will kill other butterflies too, and most likely other pollinators and pest predators. Spraying caterpillars with soapy water might well kill them, but it's just as easy if not easier to rub off eggs or pick off caterpillars when you see them (cheaper too). The simplest option of all however is to prevent the butterflies from laying their eggs on your crop using netting. Since you've done that you shouldn't need to worry much, though it's worth checking the undersides of leaves if you see holes appearing in them, and picking off any caterpillars you do find."
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 3 July 2020
"Saw a pretty butterfly this morning tearing around my garden which kept coming back, settled on nasturtium leaves then chose one to go under. Thought it might be laying egg(s) which is why I'm come onto your forum. Thanks for that! Was trying to identify it (was hoping it was something rare) but no, just the Cabbage but I think small. Will be investigating further once weather improves. It's now late July and I live in southeast London. Will have to deal with this and, mon Dieu, the slugs are back devouring my marigolds - it's like a cemetery out there! Happy gardening!"
Wendy on Monday 27 July 2020
"If it was a cabbage white you'll almost certainly find eggs on the undersides of the leaves Wendy. They can just be left alone if you don't mind some damage to your nasturtiums. Allowing them to hatch will also enable you get familiar with the caterpillars too - being able to recognise them by sight is a useful gardening skill!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 28 July 2020
"Miserable creatures. I enjoyed watching the little white acrobats dancing around my kholrabi. I've been crushing them for days now and the hundreds of little caterpillars destroying the leaves. They already had some animal crush a bunch of leaves, now this. Not sure they'll make it but at least I know to buy some netting for next year."
Bugged on Thursday 6 August 2020
"My red cabbages are now under netting, but I found that if I spray them with chilli water, it don’t kill them they just don’t eat the leaves (Two teaspoons of chilli powder, 1 pint of water, boil for 10 minutes, strain through a coffee filter, then add a teaspoon of wash liquid, it works), spray away) Seen plenty of other butter flies in the garden, painted lady, red admirals, I don’t know where they lay eggs though, haven't seen any eggs or caterpillars Seen quite a few lady birds this year, not complying there though"
Derrick on Thursday 6 August 2020
"One little swine got in my cage and has descimated 3 of my cabbages."
Keith Boden on Friday 7 August 2020
"Brassica Massacre. The expression made my day! Thank you."
Ant on Thursday 13 August 2020
"Brassica Massacre is a very apt expression. My cabbages are simply skeletons!!! My broad beans were coming along nicely but overnight several of them have been destroyed. Is this likely to be the caterpillars too. I haven't seen any telltale signs of slugs?"
Joy on Friday 14 August 2020
"Joy, if you get the large cabbage white caterpillar in your area they can easily skeletonise plants in no time. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 21 August 2020
"Garlic spray should help - the smell keeps them from being attracted to the brassica leaves. Replenish every time it rains. Thank you for an excellent article plus pictures that help with identification."
Rosanna Cavallo on Friday 28 August 2020
"I use BT (bacillus thuringienssis) for my cabbages, broccoli, and other brassicas. Does not affect bees, only caterpillars😁"
Lynn on Monday 4 January 2021
"I've had the caterpillars and eggs on my kale. Today I had a cabbage white butterfly on kale, beans and potatoes."
Wendy on Tuesday 13 July 2021
"Don't worry Wendy - they won't lay their eggs on the beans or potatoes. They're only interested in cabbage family plants like your kale. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 13 July 2021
"I am growing cabbage, sprouts and cauliflowers in a raised bed. They are well netted (gifted by the local builder so extremely fine holes). Issue is although approx 2 feet high the plants are now rammed against the top. Cannot make higher. Any suggestions? Thanks Lance. "
Lance on Thursday 15 July 2021
"Your cabbage and cauliflowers shouldn't grow too much taller Lance, but the Brussels sprouts need space to stretch up or they'll grow crooked and be more prone to falling, so you might need to tie them to stakes or canes (you might need to do that anyway depending on how windy your garden is). It would be worth checking the plants regularly for caterpillars just to make sure that butterflies haven't managed to lay their eggs through the holes. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 16 July 2021
"Thanks Ann Marie. Will do and taught me a lesson for next year!"
Lance on Saturday 17 July 2021
"For the first time this year I tried growing borage among my kale. So far, so good. Previously I covered with tenting, which always had a space for the cabbage moths to get through. I have high hopes that the borage will do the trick. I planted several borage, in a row on either side, so maybe I planted more than necessary, however the bees love it and it's beautiful, so why not?"
Barbara Arnoldini on Monday 17 June 2024
"Hopefully your the butterflies won't spot your kale among the borage. A garden experiment is always good fun either way, and the bees will be happy. Good luck!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 26 June 2024

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