If you are fortunate enough to see Hawaii’s state insect, the Pulelehua or Kamehameha butterfly, you will be treated to bright orange and black colors with uniquely spaced markings and a wingspan of about 2.5 inches.

You’re also probably situated in a wetland forest, near a patch of mamaki, the native Hawaiian nettle plant. The mamaki plant is endemic to Hawaii and one of the few hosts plants to the caterpillar of the Pulelehua.

The Monarch butterfly is probably most often mistaken for the Pulelehua. It has similar bright orange coloration on the wings but is more than twice the size and is usually found around the crown flower plant, where the caterpillars spend their cycle feeding off the milky leaves.

Another reason is the Monarch is much more common. Due to habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native predators like ants and wasps, the Kamehameha butterfly is actually a very rare sighting. The mamaki plant can only be found in the pristine wetland forests. Even there, ants and the Japanese white-eye (also known as Mejiro) can decimate a population of caterpillars.

Kamehameha caterpillars in Will Haines' lab at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Kamehameha caterpillars in Will Haines’ lab at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Burt Lum

Surprisingly it was only in 2009 that the Kamehameha butterfly was designated as the state insect. It took a group of 5th graders from Pearl Ridge Elementary School, upon the urging of their teacher Laura Brown, to see if they could introduce a bill to help establish a state insect.

How The Pulelehua Became The State Insect

Kristi Kimura, a recent graduate from Moanalua High School, was one of those students.

“Passing a bill was a lesson in civics,” Kimura said. “I never realized how government worked. I also learned a lot about the Kamehameha butterfly, how pretty it is but how rare it was.”

Those 5th grade students who helped pass House Bill 135 in 2009 never saw the Pulelehua in the wild. They could only go by what they read and what teachers told them. For all they knew, the Pulelehua could have been on a path to extinction.

Unbeknownst to the students, 5 years later, in 2014, the Department of Land and Natural Resources got a little funding to start a program called the Pulelehua Project. One of the objectives of the project was to determine where in the wild the Kamehameha butterfly lived.

William Haines and a Kamehameha butterfly on a mamaki plant.
University of Hawaii researcher William Haines and a Kamehameha butterfly on a mamaki plant. Courtesy of CTAHR, UH

“I decided to explore the ‘citizen science’ approach because of the limited time frame of the project and limited person-hours,“ Will Haines with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and one of the principal investigators on the Pulelehua Project told me,

“I only had funding to support me working half-time for one year, and the mapping part of the project was only one component,” he said. He also had to analyze genetics of populations across the Hawaiian Islands. “So there was no way I could survey all the areas where the butterflies were likely to occur.“

Getting The Help Of Citizen Scientists

The plan was to use traditional media and social media to help get the word out to mainly conservation biologists and avid hikers. The thought was that these were the people most likely to be in the native forests in an environment conducive to a butterfly sighting.

As it turned out, the general public’s interest skyrocketed and hundreds of sighting were reported.

“This was great, but it was hard for me to keep up with the inquiries and questions that flooded in,” Haines said. “Next time would try to devote more resources to managing the outreach component of the project.”

People were so enthusiastic that hundreds of photos started coming in through the “Submit a Sighting” page. Admittedly a fair amount of time was spent sorting through the misidentified sightings. Besides the Monarch butterfly, another common sighting was the Gulf fritillary, which is about the same size and color as the Kamehameha and frequents lilikoi vines.

Even with all the misidentified photos and inquires, it was still worth getting the community involved.

“People ended up finding butterflies in areas where I couldn’t survey myself, and also areas where I didn’t expect to see them, such as sea-level in someone’s backyard on the North Shore of Oahu, someone’s backyard in upper Kula and a farm at low elevation on Molokai,” Haines said.

“It was encouraging to learn that the butterflies are still getting into some of the lowland areas,” he said, “and it gives me hope that we can bring them back to more residential areas if we provide suitable habitat.”

Map of current Kamehameha butterfly habitat, generated from observation data combined with environmental data like precipitation and temperature.
Map of current Kamehameha butterfly habitat, generated from observation data combined with environmental data like precipitation and temperature. W. Haines

Since the Pulelehua Project started, the research team of Department of Land and Natural Resources and UH has learned a lot about the rearing and nurturing of the Kamehameha butterfly. I got a chance to visit Haines’ lab in Gilmore Hall on the UH Manoa campus and saw a multitude of caterpillars in varying stages of growth, from the speck of an egg to a mature chrysalis.

What’s Next For The Pulelehua Project?

From this location at Gilmore Hall, the next phase of the project will go to a facility at Kawainui Marsh specifically set up for the captive rearing of butterflies. After mating, a fertile female will lay about a 100 eggs. With predator-control techniques, Haines told me they can reach an 80 percent success rate going from egg to butterfly, at least in the lab. Those include a sticky skirt around trunk or branch of the mamaki plant to ward off ants or an exclosure to prevent wasps and Mejiro from entering into the breeding area.

One of the first areas for reintroduction is the Manoa Cliff Restoration Project.

“We would like to release butterflies (here) because it’s a place where the butterflies were once common, and volunteers have done a great job restoring the site,” said Haines. “The site now supports not only a lot of mamaki, but also olona , opuhe, and akolea, as well as food plants for the adult butterflies like koa, ohia and kookoolau (a flower in the daisy family). It’s also a very accessible site where volunteers are active every week, so they will be able to keep an eye out for caterpillars and butterflies at the site.”

I’d like to think we are witnessing the Butterfly Effect in full view. What started with a group of 5th graders helping establish the Kamehameha butterfly as the state insect led us to this point where the Pulelehua can potentially repopulate lands it once frequented. To save a species from extinction and to see the Kamehameha butterfly once again flying in gardens and forests across Hawaii would be truly special.

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