About Hana Hou!
Hawaiian Airlines
Contact Us
<b>Down South, Out West</b><br><i>Sir Bob Harvey’s son Fraser walks New Zealand’s Karekare<br>Photo by Dana Edmunds</i>
Vol. 17, no. 5
October/November 2014


The King’s Wings 

Story by Janice Crowl
Photos by Elyse Butler

The brilliant orange
butterflies you see on a hike in the Islands might be monarchs. But they might also be an insect named for a Hawaiian monarch, the Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tamehameha). One of Hawai‘i’s two native pulelehua (butterflies), the charismatic Kamehameha butterfly was once widespread on all main Hawaiian Islands — it’s even the state insect — but it seems to be in decline. “Seems” is the operative word here, because who really knows where these free-flitting insects go? Maybe you do, says University of Hawai‘i entomologist Will Haines, who’s working to map the butterfly’s distribution through his Pulelehua Project.

“With insects it’s really hard to count actual numbers of individuals,” says Haines. “They’re small, they move around a lot and they have short life cycles.” Instead, Haines hopes to chart broad geographical patterns by relying on citizen science. If you see a Kamehameha butterfly (or egg, caterpillar or chrysalis), Haines wants you to snap an image on your smartphone and upload it to the Pulelehua Project web site, along with the where and when. Not sure if it’s a Vanessa tamehameha or just a lookalike, like the introduced gulf fritillary? The web site teaches users to distinguish the real deal, as well as to identify the plants on which Kamehameha butterflies are likely to be found, such as mamaki and olona.

Haines and colleague Dan Rubinoff hope to protect wild populations, but they’re also breeding Kamehameha butterflies to reintroduce them where they were once prolific. Like other native insects, the butterflies play a role in Hawai‘i’s ecosystem as pollinators and as food for other insects and birds, though their impact isn’t fully understood. Apart from pragmatic concerns about extinction and ecosystem health, though, for Haines there are other reasons to protect these creatures. “To me each species is like a work of art,” he says. “It is uniquely beautiful. In the entomology subculture, people who study butterflies are sometimes teased because they study the pretty, popular insects; studying butterflies is like listening to Top Forty. But since I started working with this species, I have been completely won over.”