Hawaii’s State Kamehameha Butterfly

The Kamehameha butterfly (scientific name Vanessa tameamea) is one of two species of butterflies you can only find in Hawaii. It’s a member of the Vanessa genus, which also includes the more common Painted Ladies. It earned its title as the state insect in 2009 in efforts to boost the conservation efforts of this quickly disappearing butterfly.

Let’s look at this tropical butterfly and why it’s so important to the Hawaiian Islands.

Where do Kamehameha butterflies live?

If you want to catch a glimpse of Kamehameha butterflies, you have to pack your bags and head to Hawaii. These tropical butterflies are endemic to Hawaii, in places such as O’ahu, Maui, and Manoa.

Sadly, Kamehameha butterfly populations are shrinking. While they used to live all over the state, you can only find adult butterflies around native plants in undeveloped areas.

What does an adult Kamehameha butterfly look like?

These butterflies look very similar to the Red Admiral, with notable black and white spots on the tips of their forewings.

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Kamehameha butterfly
Kamehameha butterfly

How big is a Kamehameha butterfly?

A Kamehameha caterpillar measures 2 inches long, and after it emerges from this chrysalis has a wingspan of between 2-2.5 inches.

It’s a smaller species of butterfly that is slightly bigger than the petite Cabbage White butterfly.

What does a Kamehameha caterpillar look like?

There’s no mistaking a Kamehameha caterpillar! They are predominately green with dark brown spines all over their bodies.

While they look sharp and dangerous, they are perfectly harmless.

What does a Kamehameha butterfly eat?

The Kamehameha butterfly is one of the most important pollinators of host plants in Hawaii. Young caterpillars nibble on māmaki plants (Pipturus albidus), acacia koa, olonā, and ōpuhe.

These plants are native to Hawaii and grow near streams and gulches in lush forests. Adult butterflies are avid pollinators and drink the nectar from plants only found in the nettle family (Urticaceae).

Why is the Kamehameha butterfly endangered?

This butterfly species once thrived in Hawaii, but today sightings are rare. And the reasons why aren’t exactly clear. Some believe that newly introduced predators like ants and wasps whittled away once-thriving populations, and ebbed away at their natural resources.

The destruction of their habitats and native plants also plays a big role in their dwindling populations. The Division of Forestry and Wildlife, alongside the Pulelehua Project (out of the University of Hawaii), works to hopefully restore the population of the Kamehameha butterfly.

4 interesting facts about the Kamehameha butterfly

  1. The Kamehameha butterfly earned its place as the state insect of Hawaii thanks to some students at Pearl Ridge Elementary. Students asked state legislators to make the name the Kamehameha butterfly as Hawaii’s state insect. And in 2009, they were successful!
  2. Kamehamehas are picky eaters! These butterflies only drink the nectar from plants found in the nettle family, which include the Ramie, Urtica, Māmaki, and Ajlai.
  3. They are named after Hawaiian royalty. They earned their name from Hawaii’s fifth monarch, King Kamehameha V. King King Kamehameha V was the last king of Hawaii, and House Kamehameha helped unite the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s.
  4. They are not related to Monarch butterflies. While the color and patterns on their wings look very similar to Monachs, they are a different genus. They both belong to the Nymphalidae family, but the Kamehameha belong to the genus Vanessa, while the Monarch is a part of the Danaus.
Kamehameha butterfly
Kamehameha butterfly

Kamehameha butterfly spiritual meaning

The native Hawaiian name for the Kamehameha butterfly is the Pulelehua. The term Pulelehua translates to ‘to float’ and ‘rainbow-colored.’

Native people of Hawaii describe this butterfly as a symbol of change, comfort, hope, and positivity.

Hopefully, with the efforts of the Hawaiian Department of Land and the Pulelehua Project out of the University of Hawai, populations of this very rare butterfly will continue to rise over the years.

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