Kamehameha Butterfly

Vanessa tameamea

Last updated: May 27, 2024
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Virginia Momirovic/Shutterstock.com

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Kamehameha Butterfly Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Arthropoda
Class
Insecta
Order
Lepidoptera
Family
Nymphalidae
Genus
Vanessa
Scientific Name
Vanessa tameamea

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Kamehameha Butterfly Conservation Status

Kamehameha Butterfly Locations

Kamehameha Butterfly Locations

Kamehameha Butterfly Facts

Name Of Young
Caterpillar
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
State insect of Hawaii
Estimated Population Size
vulnerable
Biggest Threat
Invasive predators and habitat loss
Most Distinctive Feature
White or orange spots on the anterior forewings
Distinctive Feature
Reddish-orange color
Other Name(s)
Pulelehua
Wingspan
Up to 3 inches
Habitat
Damp, high-elevation forests
Predators
Birds and ants
Diet
Herbivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Favorite Food
Koa sap
Number Of Species
1
Location
Hawaii
Nesting Location
Nettle leaves

Kamehameha Butterfly Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Red
  • Orange

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The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) is the official state insect of Hawaii. Moreover, the Kamehameha butterfly ranks as one of the two butterfly species endemic to the state. It occurs across all four major islands, where it feeds on the sap of koa trees. Due to habitat loss, predation, and lack of host plants, Kamehameha butterfly populations are on the decline across the Hawaiian Islands. 

5 Kamehameha Butterfly Facts

  • A group of 5th graders from Pearl Ridge Elementary encouraged state legislators to name the Kamehameha butterfly the state butterfly of Hawaii. 
  • The Kamehameha butterfly gets its name from King Kamehameha V, the fifth monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. 
  • The caterpillars are picky eaters and only feed on the leaves of plants in the nettle family. 
  • In terms of appearance, Kamehameha butterflies somewhat resemble Monarch butterflies. 
  • NatureServe currently lists the Kamehameha butterfly as a Vulnerable species. 

Kamehameha Butterfly Species, Types, and Scientific Name

The Kamehameha butterfly belongs to the brush-footed family of butterflies Nymphalidae. Nymphalidae contains over 6,000 known species and contains the largest number of species of any butterfly family. 

The Kamehameha butterfly is a member of the genus Vanessa, which also includes painted ladies and red admirals. The origin of the name Vanessa remains up for debate. Some believe that the name comes from Jonathan Swift’s poem “Cadenus and Vanessa.” In the poem, the character Vanessa is frequently referred to as a “nymph.” That said, other historians contend that the name stems from Phanes, the Ancient Greek deity of new life and procreation. Meanwhile, the Kamehameha butterfly’s specific name, tameamea, is an old-fashioned and somewhat incorrect translation of the name “Kamehameha.” Kamehameha refers to Kamehameha V, the fifth monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. To many Hawaiians, Kamehameha V belongs to the group of great traditional Hawaiian monarchs. 

In the Hawaiian language, the Kamehameha butterfly goes by the name pulelehua. The word comes from the terms pulelo, meaning “to float,” and lehua, meaning “red” or “rainbow-colored.” However, this name can also refer to all butterflies on the islands. It also goes by the name lepelepe-o-Hina, which translates roughly to “Hina’s fringe wing.” Hina is a catchall term used to refer to multiple Polynesian deities, all of whom are powerful females with control over certain domains. 

Appearance: How to Identify Kamehameha Butterflies

Kamehameha Butterfly

These gorgeous butterflies feature dark markings on the edges of the wings and look primarily reddish orange.


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Kamehameha eggs measure around 1 millimeter in diameter, around the size of a pinhead. Upon hatching, Kamehameha butterfly caterpillars have black heads and appear either gray or green. As they grow, the head color changes to light brown or green, while the body varies from yellow to green to black to brown to purple. The caterpillars feature distinctive spines and measure around 2 inches long at full size. Once the caterpillars mature, they form a chrysalis and enter the pupae stage. Kamehameha pupae vary in color but frequently appear light brown or reddish-brown.

On average, adult Kamehameha butterflies sport a wingspan between 2.5 and 3 inches long. They feature dark markings on the edges of the wings and look primarily reddish orange. Unlike many Vanessa butterflies, adult Kamehamehas exhibit sexual dimorphism. Both males and females possess three small spots on the anterior forewing. In males, these spots appear orange, while females sport white spots. You can differentiate Kamehameha butterflies from Monarch butterflies due to their smaller size and faster flight speed. 

Habitat: Where to Find Kamehameha Butterflies

Historically, Kamehameha butterflies lived on all the major Hawaiian Islands, including O’ahu, Maui, Kaua’i, and Hawaii. They also occur on some of the smaller islands, including Lana’i. You will typically find Kamehameha eggs and caterpillars on the leaves of host plants. Meanwhile, adult Kamehameha butterflies tend to live near gulches and streams with plenty of koa trees. They frequently occur in damp, high-elevation forests with plenty of rainfall. Some of the places where they occur in large numbers include Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Waimea Canyon State Park, Manoa Cliffs, and Mokuleia Forest Reserve. Adult Kamehameha butterflies spend most of their time in the upper canopy, especially during the hottest parts of the day. They usually only descend to the lower canopy to feed or sunbathe. Occasionally, Kamehameha butterflies may hibernate. When they do, they often squeeze into bark crevices or hang under the limbs of koa trees.

Diet: What Do Kamehameha Butterflies Eat?

Like many butterflies, Kamehameha butterflies eat a highly specialized diet. The caterpillars only eat the leaves of plants belonging to the nettle family Urticaceae. Their preferred host plants belong to the Waimea pipturus plant, known as māmaki in the Hawaiian language. However, they will also feed on the leaves of ʻākōlea , olonā , ōpuhe , and ma’oloa plants. Meanwhile, adult Kamehameha butterflies feed solely on the sap of koa trees, also known as Acacia koa. They feed by unfurling their proboscis (a long feeding tube) into holes in the bark of the trees to reach the sticky sap inside. Usually, more males congregate at sap holes than females. Scientists believe this may be due to the fact that females stay busy searching for suitable sites to lay their eggs. 

Conservation: Status of Kamehameha Butterflies

Kamehameha butterflies have disappeared from much of their native range. Today, you can no longer find them across many of the more developed parts of Hawaii. The greatest threats to Kamehameha butterflies include habitat loss and predation. In particular, predation from non-native predators likely poses the greatest risk to Kamehameha butterflies. Invasive birds and ants likely rank as the two predators most responsible for the decline in Kamehameha butterflies across the islands. Conservation groups have made efforts to list the Kamehameha butterfly as an Endangered species but to no avail. Currently, NatureServe lists the Kamehameha butterfly as a Vulnerable species. 

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Kamehameha Butterfly FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What do Kamehameha butterflies eat?

Kamehameha butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves of nettle plants. Meanwhile, the adults feed on the sap from koa trees. 

How large do Kamehameha butterflies grow?

At maximum size, Kamehameha butterflies sport a wingspan between 2.5 and 3 inches long. 

How can you differentiate between male and female Kamehameha butterflies?

Female Kamehameha butterflies feature white spots on the anterior forewings, while males feature orange spots. 

Where does the name Kamehameha come from?

The Kamehameha butterfly gets its common name from King Kamehameha V. Kamehameha ruled as the monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1863 to 1872. Many native Hawaiians consider him the last of the great traditional chiefs of Hawaii. 

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Sources

  1. staradvertiser.com / Accessed March 4, 2023
  2. Hawaiaanforest.com / Accessed March 4, 2023
  3. dlnr.hawaii.gov / Accessed March 4, 2023
  4. cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu / Accessed March 4, 2023
  5. cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu / Accessed March 4, 2023