In April 2009 Hawaiians elected Vanessa tameamea as the state insect. Jeanne Cooper, the former San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor and author of SFGate’s Hawaii Insider (www.sfgate.com/blogs/hawaiiinsider), writes about the Kamehameha butterfly’s habits and where in the islands to get acquainted with it:
State insect: Pulelehua (Kamehameha butterfly)
Back story: The newest of Hawaii’s state symbols, selected by legislators in April 2009, didn’t have a lot of competition when it came to good looks: Of the thousands of insect species in Hawaii, only two butterflies are native. Similar to the introduced monarch butterfly, the red-orange and black Vanessa tameamea is larger than the native koa butterfly (also called Blackburn’s blue).
Going native: In Hawaiian, pulelehua is also a generic term for butterfly, meaning “blown in the air.” Both the Kamehameha and monarch butterflies also share the name lepelepe-o-Hina, the goddess Hina’s fringe, with a kind of coral and seaweed. While the pulelehua is not officially endangered, the decline in mamaki, a native thornless nettle on which the butterfly lays its eggs, and in koa forests, where it feeds on sap, are a cause for concern.
Closer look: On the Big Island, check out the Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, in Captain Cook (12 miles south of Kailua-Kona) or the Kīpukapua’ulu grove within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Ridge trails, such as the ‘Aiea Loop in Keaīwa Heiau State Park on Oahu or Waihe’e Ridge on West Maui, may also offer photo ops.