Hawaii is known far and wide for its idyllic and tropical island environments. The habitats here are ideal for all kinds of exotic-looking bugs and insects. So, you would probably expect Hawaii to be the land of butterflies. However, only two butterfly species are native to the state! Over the years, however, a few other non-native species have somehow found their way to the islands, so now there are some rather beautiful butterflies to see on your next trip to Hawaii. So, which butterfly species live in Hawaii, and why aren’t there more butterflies here? Let’s take a closer look as we discover 13 stunning butterflies that live in Hawaii!
Why There Aren’t a Lot of Butterflies in Hawaii
Hawaii is a tropical paradise and the perfect environment for all kinds of wildlife — yet, the land of butterflies is not. Although two native butterfly species and various alien ones have been recorded here, the conditions on the Hawaiian Islands are far from ideal for these exquisite creatures.
Getting to Hawaii is hard enough — the islands are surrounded by miles and miles of open water — but even if they make it here, butterflies must have the right plants to survive and thrive. Butterflies are delicate creatures that are host specific. Their caterpillars only eat a very select number of plants, and each species tends to have a different plant species that they rely on. If those specific plants do not live and grow in Hawaii, neither do the butterflies.
So, what types of butterflies can you see in Hawaii? Let’s take a look!
1. Kamehameha Butterfly (Vanessa tameamea)
The official state insect of Hawaii is the Kamehameha butterfly — one of the only two native butterfly species in the state. The Kamehameha butterfly is also called the “pulelehua,” which is the Hawaiian word for butterfly. These butterflies have striking patchwork patterns with rich orange and bold black colors. Delicate white spots adorn the tips of the female butterflies’ forewings. Conversely, males have small, pale orange spots on the edges of their forewings.
Caterpillars eat many plants from the nettle family, but they especially love the native māmaki plant. Although they once lived throughout both lower and higher elevations, today, they mainly stick to upland habitats with more of these host plants for caterpillars. While it is not yet an endangered species, the Kamehameha butterfly’s range continues to shrink due to habitat loss as more and more lowland areas become filled with invasive plants and invasive predatory insects like ants and yellowjacket wasps.
2. Hawaiian Blue Butterfly (Udara blackburni)
The only other native butterfly in Hawaii is the Hawaii blue (also known as “Blackburn’s butterfly” or the “Koa butterfly”). Although it isn’t in as much danger as the Kamehameha butterfly, populations of Hawaiian blue butterflies are declining quickly. These delicate and striking butterflies are small, with a wingspan of only an inch wide. However, their tiny wings are mesmerizing, with iridescent azure blue scales that shimmer in the sunlight and are framed with a fine wooly fuzz. In addition, you can see the light turquoise green undersides when they hold their wings upright.
Hawaiian blue butterfly caterpillars mainly eat koa and ‘a’ali’i. These plants grow in many different habitats, both dry and wet — which is why the Hawaiian blue is more widespread than the Kamehameha butterfly. Like the Kamehameha butterfly, however, the Hawaiian blue once lived in both high and low elevations but now mainly stays in upland areas.
3. Gulf Fritillary Butterfly (Agraulis vanilla)
Native to South and Central America, the gulf fritillary butterfly has spread across much of the southern United States, from California all the way to Florida. These medium-sized butterflies have bold, fiery orange wings with black veins and black markings along the edges. There are also three white dots with black outlines toward the outer edge of their elongated forewings. When their wings fold up, they expose the brown and cream-colored undersides, which are patterned with iridescent silver patches. Gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillars are just as striking as their adult butterfly form, with vibrant orange bodies covered in spiky black spines.
4. Lesser Grass Blue Butterfly (Zizina otis)
One of the smallest butterflies in Hawaii is the lesser grass blue butterfly. These stunning butterflies were first spotted in Oahu in 2008, and today they are quite common throughout the Hawaiian islands. They are especially common in lowland areas with touch-me-not plants (Mimosa pudica) — the caterpillar’s favorite food dish. Male lesser grass blue butterflies have pale violet-blue wings that shine like silver in the sun. The edges of their forewings are framed with a broad brown line followed by a more delicate white outline. While not quite as colorful, females are just as beautiful, with a light violet-blue tinge that spreads across the back of their light brown wings. If you look closely, they also have dark but delicate fine lines on their forewings and hindwings as well.
5. Xuthus Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio xuthus)
Although they are native to eastern Asia, Xuthus swallowtail butterflies were introduced to Hawaii during the 1970s. Today they are relatively common on the islands, particularly in more urban areas with citrus trees. These butterflies have yellow wings with striking black patterns. Their hindwings come to a point in the back like a swallowtail, with iridescent blue and orange scales just above them. Swallowtail caterpillars love munching on many types of plants, especially those from the Rutaceae family, like oranges and lemons. They can potentially eat all the leaves on a plant, but typically predators keep them under control. Xuthus swallowtail butterflies are also called “Chinese yellow swallowtails” and “Asian swallowtails.”
6. Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae)
These butterflies are widespread in Hawaii, especially in open spaces. Male cabbage white butterflies have creamy white wings decorated with a single black spot. Females are more of a pale yellowish color and have two black spots on their wings. Cabbage white butterfly caterpillars are bluish-green with a slight fuzz and have ravenous appetites. This can cause problems for gardeners, as these caterpillars commonly eat through cabbage leaves, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale very quickly.
7. Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
One of the most iconic butterflies in the world also happens to be common in Hawaii: the monarch butterfly. These butterflies are not native to the islands but began showing up in Hawaii around the 1950s. They migrate thousands of miles each year, crossing oceans and countries as they head to the mountains of central Mexico. Monarch butterflies have bright orange wings and black veins that look like stained-glass patterns. Their wings are also rimmed with a black border and several tiny white dots. This coloring tells predators that the butterflies are poisonous. While they are common throughout the islands of Hawaii, monarch butterflies are an endangered species. Their populations have tragically decreased by more than 80% over the past three decades!
8. Large Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Phoebis agarithe)
The first large orange sulphur butterfly in Hawaii was recorded in 2004 in Oahu. Although they live all over Central America and some of the southern U.S. states, these butterflies fly for hundreds of miles and sometimes stray, of course. In addition, the caterpillars feed on many types of ornamental plants, so they could have been accidentally imported to the islands as well. Male large orange sulphur butterflies have vibrant, solid orange wings. In addition, there are two color morphs of female butterflies: one is a delicate blend of pink and white, while the other is a stunning yellow-orange color.
9. Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly (Brephidium exilis)
The western pygmy-blue butterfly is one of the smallest butterflies in the entire world! These stunning butterflies in Hawaii have a tiny wingspan of just 0.47 to 0.78 inches. Although they are small, western pygmy-blue butterflies have rich, beautiful colors. Their wings are shimmering copper brown with metallic blue coloring toward the center of each wing. When they fold their wings together, the underside has a similar coppery brown coloring but with white near the base and wispy white fringes. If you look very closely, you may even see three or four shiny black spots close to the butterfly’s body and another row of larger black spots near the outer edges of its wings. Although females resemble male butterflies, they are usually slightly bigger and have more brown coloring.
10. Sleepy Orange Butterfly (Eurema nicippe)
The first time anyone had seen a sleepy orange butterfly in Hawaii was in 2013. However, it was apparent that these butterflies had been there for quite some time, as both adult butterflies and caterpillars were recorded that year on the North Shore of Oahu. By the following year, these stunning butterflies had become a common sight across Hawaii’s main islands. Sleepy orange butterflies have beautiful orange or yellow-orange wings with dark borders. There is also a tiny black crescent-shaped marking near the top of each forewing that looks like a “sleepy eye.” Although they are called “Sleepy Orange Butterflies,” their wings transition into a deep, beautiful brick-red color in the winter.
11. Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
The red admiral is a stunning butterfly in Hawaii that typically lives at higher elevations with cooler temperatures. Its wings are black with a band of rich red or red-orange on the forewings, as well as some white spots near the edges. The bottom of its hindwings is also red with small black spots. Red admiral butterfly caterpillars are black with light yellow or white speckles. They are quite prickly, with a sunburst-like projection of black spines extending from each segment of their bodies. Caterpillars eat nettle species like stinging nettle and false nettle, as well as māmaki and pellitory plants.
12. Pea Blue Butterfly (Lampides boeticus)
Pea blue butterflies were first introduced to Hawaii back in the late 1800s and quickly spread throughout the islands. These small, stunning butterflies have shimmering gossamer wings with blue-violet at the center. The edges of their wings are a light brown or coppery color, with two black spots just above the long thin tails on their hindwings. Female butterflies have less blue coloring than males but have white underwings with tan or dark brown markings. The caterpillars like to eat various types of pea and legume plants from the Fabaceae family.
13. Fiery Skipper Butterfly (Hylephila phyleus)
The fiery skipper is a stunning butterfly in Hawaii that is most commonly seen on the islands during the winter. Unlike many of the other butterflies on this list, fiery skippers have large bodies and big heads that make them look somewhat like brightly colored moths. Males have bright yellow or orange wings with various degrees of small brown markings. Females, on the other hand, reverse these colors with dark brown wings and pale gold markings. Both have short antennae with knobs on the ends, very large dark eyes, and thick, fuzzy bodies. Fiery skipper butterfly caterpillars eat various types of lawn grass, like St. Augustine grass and Bermuda grass.
I am broadly interested in how human activities influence the ability of wildlife to persist in the modified environments that we create.
Specifically, my research investigates how the configuration and composition of landscapes influence the movement and population dynamics of forest birds. Both natural and human-derived fragmenting of habitat can influence where birds settle, how they access the resources they need to survive and reproduce, and these factors in turn affect population demographics. Most recently, I have been studying the ability of individuals to move through and utilize forested areas which have been modified through timber harvest as they seek out resources for the breeding and postfledging phases. As well I am working in collaboration with Parks Canada scientists to examine in the influence of high density moose populations on forest bird communities in Gros Morne National Park. Many of my projects are conducted in collaboration or consultation with representatives of industry and government agencies, seeking to improve the management and sustainability of natural resource extraction.
Leave a Reply