A male Kamehameha butterfly with outstretched wings.

The population of the endemic Kamehameha butterfly is on the decline, and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers are asking the public’s help to find out why.

The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) was officially adopted as Hawai‘i State Insect in 2009, in response to a proposal by a group of elementary school students. The butterfly was named in honor of the House of Kamehameha, the royal family that unified the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, and reigned until the death of Kamehameha V in 1872. The butterfly was formally described in 1878.

February 24, 2010.  Puu Hapapa shelf.  Vanessa tameiameiae, Kamehameha butterfly.

A male Kamehameha butterfly perched on the trunk of a tree.

Although the butterfly is historically known to be found on all the Main Hawaiian Islands – Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lanaʻi, Maui, and the Big Island – it has disappeared in areas where it used to be common.

A team from UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is launching the Pulelehua Project, which, with the public’s assistance, will map current populations of the butterfly, according to a UH press release.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife is funding the effort, the release states.


Male and female Kamehameha butterflies are sexually dimorphic.

“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 CTAHR professor of entomology Dr. Daniel Rubinoff, a principal investigator on the project.

Researchers are asking for anyone who sees a Kamehameha butterfly, caterpillar, egg, or chrysalis to submit photos and observations to the Pulelehua Project website www.KamehamehaButterfly.com.

The data will be used to map the current distribution of the Kamehameha butterfly, also known as pulelehua, which will help to determine exactly what is happening to the species and why, and will help to develop a strategy to preserve and possibly grow the population.


A Kamehameha butterfly egg close up. Eggs are only about 1 millimeter in diameter.

“We need help from hikers and the conservation community, anybody that’s out there, in these areas where the butterflies are found,” said CTAHR researcher Dr. William Haines, also a principal investigator on the project.

The Pulelehua Project website shows how to find and identify the different life stages of the Kamehameha butterfly, with pictures of the eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, and mature adults.

“They’re basically a kind of deep orange, sometimes almost a rosy, pinkish hue, and they have white spots,” said Haines. “They’re really quite beautiful.”


Newly hatched caterpillars have black heads and are green or gray.

The website also includes pictures of common lookalikes and the host plants where adults lay their eggs and the caterpillars live and eat. Kamehameha butterfly caterpillars are found only on the Hawaiian species of the nettle family (Urticaceae), located in shady areas or gulches with native vegetation and moderate to heavy rainfall. The most common host plant is mamaki (Pipturus albidus), though the larvae will also feed on olona (Touchardia latifolia) and opuhe (Urera glabra).

February 24, 2010.  Puu Hapapa shelf.  Vanessa tameiameiae, Kamehameha butterfly caterpillar on Urera.

Older caterpillars are very distinctive. This green individual (2 inches long) is a final-instar caterpillar, the last stage before forming a chrysalis. Sometimes this caterpillar is brown.

The Pulelehua Project is an example of collaboration between researchers and the public known as “citizen science.” It is a technique that has been used increasingly in the past few years for large-scale collection of information.

The project’s website features a map of all of the sightings, which are automatically updated as new observations are submitted and confirmed. Like all native wildlife in Hawai‘i, the Kamehameha butterfly is protected by law and collecting the species is not allowed without a state permit. For that reason, the website will show sightings by region but not specific locations.