The Kamehameha butterfly is the state insect of Hawaiʻi and one of two butterflies native to the 50th state. It’s a little smaller than a monarch butterfly.
“They’re basically an orange, a kind of deep orange, sometimes almost a rosy, a pinkish hue and they have these white spots on them,” said Will Haines, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researcher from the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences in College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). “They’re really quite beautiful butterflies.”
Haines says the Kamehameha is a pleasure to see at every stage of its life.
“The older caterpillars are bright green,” he says. “They have these spines all over them. Their heads have these, almost like horns. Even the eggs, they are almost like these little jewels on the leaf.”
But unfortunately, the Kamehameha butterfly may be in serious trouble.
“We found that this is a butterfly that used to be much more widespread than it seems to be now,” said Professor Dan Rubinoff, a Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences entomology professor from CTAHR. “And rather than wait till it is almost gone, or in fact gone, we wanted to address this issue head on and try and figure out what the status of the butterfly is while we can still find it in some places.”
Researchers from UH Mānoa are asking the public to help the state insect and take part in the Pulelehua Project. Pulelehua is Hawaiian for butterfly.
“There are just a few of us who are trying to cover the entire state and that’s impossible, so we really need the public to get an accurate assessment of the Kamehameha butterfly,” said Rubinoff.
“We are basically asking the public to go out there and if they do see, either caterpillars or eggs or butterflies, just snap a picture with your smart phone and submit it to our website,” said Haines.
The best place to find the Kamehameha is on or near the māmaki plant, or Hawaiian nettle—its caterpillars can be found feasting on the leaves. Māmaki is common where native plants still flourish in remote areas like high elevation forests or the very back of deep valleys. The butterflies and caterpillars should not be collected, since they are protected as native wildlife. A photo is all that’s needed to document them.
“We need help from hikers and the conservation community, anybody that’s out there, in these areas, where the butterflies are found,” said Haines.
“So just snap a shot and we will tell you what you found. Everybody, on every island, can contribute to this preservation effort,” agreed Rubinoff.
The information will help researchers develop a strategy to protect and increase the Kamehameha butterfly population.
The Pulelehua Project is funded by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife and spearheaded by researchers from the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, which is fitting when you consider that a large ceramic mural of the Kamehameha butterfly is featured on the front of the college’s home on UH Mānoa campus, Gilmore Hall.
The photos and locations of the Kamehameha butterfly can be submitted to www.KamehamehaButterfly.com.