Want to help a bug in the “extinction capital of the world”? Make it the state insect. That’s surprisingly easy when the only competition is a) a spider and b) therefore not an insect.

Named after the royal family who united the Hawai’ian Islands, the Kamehameha butterfly, or pulelehua, looks familiar if you live somewhere that’s too hot, too cold, or forever damp with drizzle. But although it resembles a red admiral or painted lady, it’s only found in Hawai’i and is one of only two native species, the other being Blackburn’s blue butterfly. It doesn’t have a colour in its name like its cohort, but that’s probably because it couldn’t choose a favourite.

I also couldn’t pick a silly hat. Luckily, I’m prettier than the other bugs on this list so don’t need one.

Wings and wardrobes

As a caterpillar it changes colour with each moult, through brown to green and even purple hues, and its cocoon ranges from white to red. As adults, the males have a mixture of white and pale orange speckles on the edges of their wings, whereas the females have white. For the captive-bred ladies in the swinging 60s, they were even less sure of what to wear. While wild butterflies have orange-red on the upper side of their wings, they went for pinkish, and for their underwings, a deep green instead of grey. We’re not sure why, but we do know this flitter-bug has a fleeting lifespan, and a potentially fleeting existence!

Special promotion, for a limited time only…?

The Kamehameha butterfly was once a common sight around the Tantalus area, but by 2009 it hadn’t been seen for about 20 years. A school teacher at Pearl Ridge Elementary School therefore hatched a plan: if her students could help introduce a bill to make it the state insect, it would grab more attention. And it worked – winning a class vote over the Hawai’ian happy-face spider, it was put forward and officially protected, and almost immediately people remembered they hadn’t seen one for ages. The prime suspects are thought to be ants and habitat destruction, especially as the Kamehameha butterfly prefers the state cuisine. And “beer”, in the males’ case.

Home-made food or food-made home?

Invasive species and habitat loss are nothing new to Hawai’i – just ask the Hawai’i creeper – but they threaten the caterpillar’s menu of native māmaki plants and other nettles, as well as its preferred digs. By chewing crescent-shaped holes in the leaves, folding them over and securing them with silk, the caterpillar can make its own protective tent!

The adults don’t exactly camp, but they do feed on the sap of koa trees, whose “fluxes” can look bubbly, smell like beer, and attract the chaps more than the ladies for some reason. Deforestation therefore puts a damper on any edible pop-up housing or buggy-boozing, and what monster would deny them that?

Seeds of the future

But it’s not all doom and gloom, because to help its population recover, māmaki plants were seeded in the Manoa Cliff areas around Tantalus, and Honolulu Zoo’s captive breeding programme released both caterpillars and adults into the area in 2017.

At least there’s one good thing about breeding a bug with a 45-day life cycle – if you’re doing it wrong, you’ll find out pretty quickly.


Latin: Vanessa tameamea

What? Small butterfly native to Hawai’i, related to “painted ladies” and “admirals”

Where? Um, Hawai’i. Found on most of the large islands, and usually near streams where its host plants hang around.

How big? About 6.4 cm / 2.5 inches wide

Endangered? Not listed, but anecdotally its numbers have dropped, and it’s very picky about its host plants, making it vulnerable to habitat destruction.

Probable motto: I may be famous with a royal name, but I love my home comforts.

They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?

It hasn’t been assessed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but habitat destruction and ants are thought to have driven it away from certain areas. It also only lays eggs and feeds on certain native plants, which are again at risk of extinction.

Honolulu Festival has a Koa Tree Planting Project you can either take part in, or donate to if you’ live in less exotic surroundings!

The Hawai’i Forest Institute also helps keep an eye on native flora and fauna.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Kamehameha I“. Britannica.com.

Gorelick, Glenn A., and Wielcus, Ronald S. 1968. “Notes and observations on the biology and host preferences of Vanessa tameamea (Nymphalidae)Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 22:11-114.

Ige, David Y., and Case, Suzanne D. 2017. “Kamehameha butterflies return to O’ahu forests this Earth Day: A 5th grade class’s ‘butterfly effect’“. Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Pulelehua Project“. No date. University of Hawai’i at Manoa

Scott, Susan.  1997. Plants and Animals of Hawaii. Bess Pr Inc.

Successful breeding and release of Kamehameha butterflies“. 2018. Honolulu Zoo.

Featured image credit: “Kamehameha butterfly on mamaki plant”, by Will Haynes / Hawaii DLNR-DOFAW