Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

The Butterfly Ranch

Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Elyse Butler.

The Kamehameha butterfly, once common in Hawai‘i but now scarce, could soon be returning to a backyard near you. For this you can thank the new state-run insectary at the edge of Kawainui marsh in Kailua, which is dedicated to propagating Hawai‘i’s endangered native insects.

Earlier this year, almost a thousand Kamehameha butterfly caterpillars were raised there in clear plastic cups stuffed with māmaki leaves, the caterpillars’ favorite food. Once they transformed into butterflies, they were released into the wild at sites around O‘ahu.

Also known as the pulelehua, the Kamehameha butterfly is both the state insect and a critical pollinator for many native plants. At one time its fluttering orange and black wings were widely seen on all the main Hawaiian Islands. But a decline in wild māmaki, combined with introduced species of birds and ants that feast on the caterpillars, have pushed the remaining pulelehua population into small patches of remaining habitat, mostly at higher elevations and in the backs of wet valleys.

To give the insectary-reared butterflies a fighting chance, many of the release sites were replanted with māmaki. In addition, sticky barriers were put on the trees to keep ants from getting at future generations of caterpillar. Still, reintroducing insects to the wild is a bit like throwing a fistful of seeds into the wind and seeing what takes root. “It’s a numbers game,” says Will Haines, the research entomologist who raised the caterpillars. “Some of them will get eaten by birds, some of them will fly away and get lost.”

Captive propagation is nothing new. Some of Hawai‘i’s native plants, birds and snails have been successfully raised in the lab and released into the wild. “But it’s never really been done with the native insects before,” says Haines. The Kamehameha butterfly isn’t the only native insect in trouble. “There are over five thousand native insects, many of them are threatened and few have been the focus of active management,” Haines says. The orangeblack Hawaiian damselfly and the yellow-faced bee are the next two creatures slated for the insectary’s attention. “This is our way of trying to actually establish new populations,” says Haines, “and decrease the chances of some of them going extinct.”