For the past several months I have been hiking to the koa forests of Oʻahu and Hawaiʻi Island to look for Kamehameha Butterflies.
Kamehameha Butterflies (Vanessa tameamea) are one of only two butterfly species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Known as “Lepelepe O Hina” in Hawaiian, the Kamehameha butterfly is the official insect of the State of Hawaiʻi. “Pulelehua” is the generic term for butterflies.
Although Kamehameha butterflies are not on the federal list of endangered species they are not easy to find. They are rarely ever seen in areas where humans live. You need to hike deep into the mountains to find them. And if you are lucky enough to see them, they are often reluctant to open their wings to show the striking orange, black, and white pattern on the topside of their wings. They often tease you by flapping their wings giving you a momentary glimpse of the spectacular sight.
Kamehameha butterflies have a wing span of about 3 inches and have thick hairy bodies. You can tell the gender of Kamehameha butterflies by the white dots on the margins of the upper wings. If all the dots surrounded by black at the tip of the upper wing are white, the butterfly is female. If several are light orange, the butterfly is male. The one with its wings wide open above is male.
This Kamehameha butterfly with partially open upright wings above is female.
The life cycle of Kamehameha butterflies are tied to mamaki (Pipturus albidus) and other native Urticaceae (Touchardia, Urera, etc.). Females lay eggs on these plants and caterpillars feed on their leaves before pupating and transforming into butterflies.
Like all butterflies, Kamehameha Butterflies have four wings — two upper and two lower. One of the cool things about Kamehameha butterflies is that they easily camouflage themselves by covering their colorful upper wings with the drab backside of their lower wings.
Only when they want to be conspicuous and attract attention do they open their wings to reveal the bright orange and black pattern on the topside of their wings.
Kamehameha Butterflies feed on the nectar of a wide range of flowers and on the sap of koa trees (Acacia koa). While searching the koa forests we had the good fortune to find a sap flux — a wound or injury to the tree that causes sap to ooze out. We observed Kamehameha butterflies return to the same spot time after time. When we looked closely, we could see they were feeding.
The sap flux was created by wood boring insects that drilled a series of holes into a branch of a koa tree. The sap that oozed from the holes were irresistible to Kamehameha butterflies. William Haines gave me an interesting article about how way more male Kamehameha butterflies congregate at koa fluxes than female. It is speculated that females are preoccupied looking for suitable egg-laying sites and have less time to spend at the sap flux.
We saw a dozen Kamehameha butterflies — almost all of them male — uncurl their proboscis, stick them into the holes, sip on the sweet sap, and flap their wings. Flies, beetles, and other insects were drawn to the spot to feed on sap as well.
Some of the feeding holes were filled with maggots — fly larvae — but the butterflies were undeterred and stuck their proboscis in the same hole anyway.
Multiple butterflies appeared at the sap flux and chased each other around the tree tops. Sam Gon III said that when the bacteria in the sap ferments, an intoxicating bubbly ooze is sometimes produced. Kamehameha Butterflies get drunk from the brew and males get aggressive with each other. Take a look at the video at the end this post to see males taunting and chasing each other.
From time to time, the butterflies came down from the treetops and posed for us on lower branches.
Kamehameha butterflies are so fast and their flight path so unpredictable that it is only by pure luck that I was able to catch one in mid-flight.
Kamehameha butterflies are fascinating to watch. Take a look at this video of Kamehameha butterflies as they go about their daily routine feeding on koa sap, interacting with other insects, and chasing each other in the tree tops. What a life!
Personal communication with Sam Gon III
Personal communication with William Haines
Population Ecology of the Kamehameha Butterfly, Tabashnik, Bruce E.; Perreira, William D.; Strazanac, John S.; Montgomery, Stephen L.
Photo of The Day: Hawaii’s State Insect Floats from Flower to Flower, Hawaii Big Island Travel Guru