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Hawaii State Insect: The Kamehameha Butterfly

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Hawaii's state insect is the beautiful Kamehameha butterfly (also sometimes called "Pulelehua"). It was chosen as Hawaii's state insect thanks to the work of a group of fifth-grade students from Pearl Ridge Elementary School. The butterfly was chosen, in part, because it is part of the islands' endemic insect population -- in fact, it is one of only two butterflies native to Hawaii! The Kamehameha butterfly is also a beautiful insect that is familiar to most Hawaiians. This article tells you what you need to know about this wonderful butterfly.

The Kamehameha Butterfly's Scientific Name

Hawaii's state insect belongs to a group of butterflies that are distributed around the world, primarily in nearctic zones, meaning temperate regions well north of the equator. This group is known as the Nymphalidae, a family of butterflies that includes some of the most familiar species around the world.

Within the huge Nymphalidae group, the Kamehameha belongs to the genus Vanessa. There are many kinds of butterflies in this group, and they are all closely related. Many of them look very much alike. A genus name is something like your last name -- it shows you belong to a closely related group, but within that group are individual species. The Kamehameha butterfly's species name is tameamea. Therefore the insect's scientific name is Vanessa atalanta.

As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!


The Kamehameha Butterfly's Markings

Hawaii's state insect has bright red-and-black upper wings. Throughout the animal kingdom, red and black are universal warning colors. Stinging insects use red and black (also yellow or orange and black) to announce to predators that they should not be messed with. Insects that are poisonous often use these warning colors as well; this is called "aposomatic coloring."

One famous example of aposomatic coloring is the familiar monarch butterfly. The caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, which are protected by poisonous sap (the white "milk" that you see when you break off the leaf of a milkweed plant). The poisonous alkaloids in the milkweed latex sap become incorporated in the tissues of the monarch caterpillar, and later, in the body of the adult monarch butterfly. The monarch's bright red and black colors warn birds and other predators not to attack.

The Kamehameha butterfly bears a resemblance to the monarch's red and black colors; relatives of the Kamehameha that live in North America, like the painted lady and especially the red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, show this resemblance even more clearly.


The Kamehameha Butterfly's Camouflaged Underside

While the upperside of the wings are bright red and warn away predators by suggesting the butterfly is poisonous, the underside is a muted mix of olive and brown, with a little white and red for variety. When the butterfly lands, this is all a predator sees -- or doesn't see, since it's designed to blend in to the background. This kind of camouflage is very common in the insect world, especially among butterflies who wish to evade sharp -eyed predators like birds.


Early Stages and Caterpillar

Like many members of the family Nymphalidae, the Kamehameha butterfly's early stages bear spines along its body. These spines may protect it from attacks of parasitic wasps and flies.

The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of plants in the family Urticaceae. Most people are familiar with this group by their common name, "stinging nettles." By feeding on these stinging plants, the caterpillars may gain a measure of protection. Other Vanessa species, such as the common red admiral of North America (V. atalanta), also feed on stinging nettles.

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Complete Metamorphosis

"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. For butterflies, this means egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. It helps to take the butterfly as the example, although dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.

The Kamehameha butterfly is typical of the insects that undergo complete metamorphosis. The egg is laid on a variety if leaves, and the caterpillar that hatches out eats the leaves of the plant. As it grows, it sheds its skin, also known as molting. The stages between molts are called instars, and after the last instar, the caterpillar sheds its skin one more time.


The last tine the caterpillar sheds its skin, it enters the cocoon/chrysalis phase, known by scientists as "diapause." It's also called a "pupa." Inside the pupa, the insect's cells are rearranging. They actually break down into a kind of goop, and then reassemble to form the body and wings of the adult butterfly or moth.

The final "instar" occurs when the insect hatches out of the pupal skin. It is now ready to mate and continue the cycle. The adult feeds just enough to promote the goal of mating and laying eggs; other than that, it has no purpose on this planet.

This butterfly rearing kit includes Vanessa cardui, a species closely related to the Kamehameha butterfly.

This butterfly rearing kit includes Vanessa cardui, a species closely related to the Kamehameha butterfly.

Butterfly Rearing Kits

One member of the family Nymphalidae is the "painted lady" butterfly, Vanessa cardui. This is the species of butterfly that is included in butterfly-rearing kits. When you order one of these kits, you get tiny immature caterpillars, a food supply, and a cage, and you get to watch them grow, pupate, and hatch out as adult painted lady butterflies. This species is closely related to the Kamehameha butterfly.

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The following sources were used for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.