Wednesday, June 12, 2024
University of Hawaii at Manoa
University of Hawaii System
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
The Kamehameha butterfly is related to the painted ladies and admirals, a group of butterflies that is found all over the world. However, the Kamehameha butterfly is endemic to Hawaii, and evolved here after a butterfly somehow dispersed across the ocean and colonized the islands. Over millions of years of isolation, it diverged from its ancestors enough to be considered a different species. It is one of only two native species of butterflies in Hawaii (the other is Blackburn's blue butterfly, Udara blackburni).

Order: Lepidoptera (Moths and butterflies)
Family: Nymphalidae (Brush-footed butterflies)
Genus: Vanessa (painted ladies and admirals)
Species: tameamea
(the Kamehameha butterfly)

The Kamehameha butterfly is NOT found outside of Hawaiʻi, so if you see something similar on the mainland, it is likely a different species in the genus Vanessawhich includes about 20 species worldwide. In Hawaiʻi, we have several species of orange and black butterflies that might be mistaken for the Kamehameha butterfly. Before submitting your photos, please visit our "common lookalikes" page to confirm that your observation is really the Kamehameha butterfly.

Please note that the Kamehameha butterfly, like all native wildlife, is protected, and it is illegal to collect specimens without a permit, even on private land. Therefore, we are asking that participants use photographs to document observations of the butterfly and its immature stages (egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis).

Adult butterflies
Adult butterflies are the most conspicuous life stage to the casual observer, but they are fast flyers, and notoriously difficult to photograph. Look for them in places where their host plants are common. 
 A male Kamehameha butterfly perched on the trunk of a tree. Photo by Karl Magnacca. A male Kamehameha butterfly with outstretched wings. Photo by Nathan Yuen.
Male and female Kamehameha butterflies are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females have slightly different wing patterns. In females, the pale patches toward the tip of the forewing are pure white. In males, some or all of these patches are light orange. Female Kamehameha butterflies are often seen flying around māmaki or other host plants. Photo by Nathan Yuen. 
Adult butterflies feed on koa sap, so are often seen on tree trunks near wounds where sap is flowing. Males appear to be more attracted to these "sap fluxes" than females. Photo by Nathan Yuen. A male butterfly sipping from a sap flux on koa. These sap fluxes are often fermented and bubbling, giving off a "beery" aroma that may be attractive to the butterflies. Photo by Nathan Yuen.
 Immature stages
For the purposes of documenting Kamehameha butterfly populations, the immature stages are extremely helpful. The first reason is that they are potentially easier to find and photograph than adult butterflies, since they cannot move quickly or very far. The second reason is that when we find the immature stages at a site, we know that the butterflies are actually using that site to breed and reproduce, whereas adult butterflies can actively disperse far from their breeding sites, or get blown off course. Therefore, immature stages give us more precise information about Kamehameha butterfly habitat. 

Eggs are tiny, about the size of a pin head, and are laid only on caterpillar host plants on the upper or lower surface of leaves. For a list of host plants and how to recognize them, please visit the host plants page. Photo by Will Haines. A Kamehameha butterfly egg close up. Eggs are only about 1 millimeter in diameter. Photo by Will Haines.
 Caterpillars (Larval stage)

Caterpillars start out tiny and go through several developmental stages (called "instars"), shedding their skin between each stage. Color varies a lot among individuals. Newly hatched caterpillars have black heads and are green or gray. After the first molt (one or two days after hatching), caterpillars begin to grow small spines, like the one pictured above, and can be various combinations of black, light green, or yellow. Photo by Will Haines. Young caterpillars create shelters to protect themselves from predators and parasites. First they slice a crescent into a leaf (above), then fold the flap over themselves like a tent and fasten it with silk. Photo by Will Haines.

A caterpillar's shelter. The feeding damage caused by young Kamehameha butterfly caterpillars is very distinctive. Look for these characteristic leaf folds when you search on host plants. If you find this kind of damage, please photograph and submit it to the Pulelehua Project. Photo by Will Haines.  A Kamehameha butterfly caterpillar in its "tent". Photo by Will Haines. 

 As caterpillars grow and molt, they change color, and the head of the caterpillar lightens to brown or green. The body usually becomes light green, but can vary anywhere between bright green and brown. The caterpillar above has some purple coloration. Photo by Will Haines Older caterpillars are very distinctive, covered with spines and bumps, and are unlikely to be confused with any other species. This green individual (about 2 inches long) is a final-instar caterpillar, the last stage before forming a chrysalis. Photo by Karl Magnacca.

 Although the green color morph seems to be the most common variety, they can also be brown, like the caterpillar above (about 1.5 inches). Photo by Will Haines. Even the "eggshells" of the Kamehameha butterfly can provide valuable evidence that they are present in the area. After caterpillars hatch, they often eat most of their eggshell, but sometimes they leave it intact. Even when they've eaten most of the eggshell, a small (~1 mm), whitish "ring" remains where it was attached to the leaf. If you have a macro function on your camera, it is worth submitting photos of hatched eggs if you see them on caterpillar host plants.
As they grow, caterpillars become voracious, and can cause obvious feeding damage on leaves. If you see heavy chewing damage on māmaki or other host plants, search nearby for a caterpillar. They sometimes hide in rolled up dead leaves when not actively feeding.
 Chrysalis (Pupal stage)
A chrysalis of the Kamehameha butterfly. These are typically found hanging on stems or twigs on or very close to caterpillar host plants. Pupae vary in color. This is a light variant. Photo by Daniel Rubinoff. A darker, red variant of the Kamehameha butterfly pupa. Photo by Daniel Rubinoff. 

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