Butterfly Dreams for Pulelehua

Kamehameha Butterfly

Kamehameha butterfly. (Photo by the Pulelehua Project:  https://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/pulelehua/)


Three things you need to know:


1. Amy Greenwell named her home in the heart of the Garden, “Pulelehua.”

2. The Hawaiian word pulelehua means butterfly, particularly the Kamehameha Butterfly.

3. The Friends want to plant a Butterfly Garden around Amy’s house to attract and sustain butterflies, common and unusual, especially pulelehua.


Long before our Garden closed in 2016, Peter Van Dyke and nurseryman Brian Kiyabu experimented with propagating butterflies in a special netted house built to protect a few large and luxurious nettle plants. They were not just any butterflies, but the one and only Vanessa tameamea (Eschscholtz, 1821), one of only two species of butterfly endemic to Hawai`i. The Kamehameha Butterfly is special in every way and deserves to be fluttering gaily all over our beautiful islands, but it is not. Most island residents have never seen a Kamehameha Butterfly. If an orange-red-and-black insect flitted by, we might think it was a Monarch or a Painted Lady, introduced butterfly species that now call Hawai`i home. Why is this?


First of all, Kamehameha butterflies are not common anymore. They have special requirements. They only lay their eggs on endemic nettle plants (which makes them a perfect fit for our Hawaiian garden). Only two species of Hawaiian nettle exist: māmaki (Pipturus albida) and olonā (Touchardia latifolia). These once common plants are no longer widely found – except in undisturbed native forests or in plantations of māmaki grown for a locally popular herbal tea made of dried māmaki leaves! Although our endemic nettles have no stinging hairs, they also have no sweet scented or showy blossoms, making them undesirable additions to backyard flower gardens. One could say there is a definite lack of nettles in our landscape.


So, if the lucky female butterfly finds a nettle plant, she lays tiny spherical eggs on leaf surfaces, up to one hundred of them. Baby caterpillars hatch and instinctively creep for cover, rolling up edges of māmaki leaves to make a kind of tent in which to hide because they have many enemies – hungry birds, ghastly parasitic wasps, evil introduced ants, and careless humans. The odds are stacked against a defenseless caterpillar ever growing up to make its unique chrysalis, cleverly camouflaged as a dried māmaki leaf. But, because Mother Nature is a miracle worker, pulelehua do sometimes emerge successfully. They spread their stunning little two to three-inch wings and rapidly take to the sky, searching for koa sap to feed on and, more importantly – that elusive target – a Kamehameha butterfly of the opposite sex! None of this is easy.


Many people confuse this non-native Passion Vine Butterfly, sipping nectar from a native ‘ilie’e, with the Kamehameha Butterfly. Identification takes practice! (Photo by Maile Melrose)
Many people confuse this non-native Passion Vine Butterfly, sipping nectar from a native ‘ilie’e, with the Kamehameha Butterfly. Identification takes practice! (Photo by Maile Melrose)


Years ago, Peter and Brian mastered collecting eggs from the wild and getting little caterpillars to grow up on māmaki plants, safely hidden away in their netted sanctuary. Where they ran into difficulties was convincing butterflies to mate and procreate.  As we all know, matters of the heart are inexplicable and complicated. Female Kamehameha butterflies are picky and prepared to hang on to their single status despite romantic lighting, māmaki plants galore, and available suitors. Peter and Brian ended up running a nunnery!


Fortunately, the plight of Hawai`i’s official state butterfly has gained scientific attention. The State of Hawai`i and University of Hawai`i at Manoa set up a program to propagate Kamehameha butterflies in earnest, recognizing a glaring fact.  Without help, our beautiful endemic butterfly will not only end up on the Endangered Species list, but it could also go extinct! Dr. William Haines, entomologist and butterfly expert, has raised thousands of Vanessa tameamea caterpillars on O`ahu in a special butterfly lab. He is extremely knowledgeable and concerned about the plight of this attractive butterfly. He has asked residents to look out for pulelehua and send him pictures and videos. Although Will’s years of effort, and the effort of his many staff members, have resulted in many success stories, including mastering the art of butterfly romance, released pulelehua are not thriving in the wilds of the Southern Ko`olau mountain range. Something is killing them off as fast as the lab can produce them, a depressing situation that Will intends to investigate.


As you read this story, know that cameras have been installed to find out what is happening to released pulelehua. Know that Honolulu Zoo has established a colony of Kamehameha butterflies at the foot of Diamond Head. Realize that Oahu’s pulelelua are genetically different from those that live on Hawai`i, so we cannot “borrow” eggs from any source on a different island and fly them to Kona. If our island’s population of pulelehua is threatened, we are going to be in trouble. How can we help?


Peter and Brian had a great idea when they began their experiments with pulelehua propagation so many years ago. Peter knew how much children love bugs and butterflies, far more entrancing to a child (and even to some adults!) than a tree or bush could ever be. If we want to attract visitors to our beautiful ethnobotanical garden, we need something jazzy and fun. Why not some butterflies? Why not pulelehua?


Our garden’s old netted māmaki house next to the nursery complex has fallen into disrepair. We need to build a new environment to protect baby caterpillars from predation and death. We will build it next to Amy’s house to honor her commitment to native Hawaiian species. Dr. Haines has found Kamehameha butterflies do not like to be caged, so we will set them free. The story of the Kamehameha Butterfly is one more example of why Hawai`i is an extraordinary place to explore the intricate web of life. This story needs to be told at Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden at Pulelehua! 


Stay tuned for what comes next……



Words by Maile Melrose


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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Candee Laine Ellsworth (Friday, 22 January 2021 22:22)

    So excited about this project! And, excited to partner to lend my experience and expertise to hopefully make this a reality! ���