Tiny golden butterflies could take a bite out of miconia

KIA‘I MOKU

Caterpillars of the golden miconia butterfly can only survive on miconia and related plants. The caterpillars get together in clumps and devour the leaves. In doing so, they may reduce the damage miconia can cause in the rainforest. -- PABLO ALLEN photo

In the hills above Hana, Nahiku, and Keanae, the Maui Invasive Species Committee crew hikes day in and day out looking for and pulling miconia plants. The team is about to grow as a kaleidoscope of golden yellow butterflies descends to assist with control.

Miconia is a notorious invader of Hawaiian forests. A single plant can produce 8 million seeds. Miconia seeds grow quickly into large plants with huge leaves that block out the sunlight, preventing other plants from germinating. Miconia’s shallow roots do little to stabilize soil. Eventually, miconia becomes the only plant in the forest; invaded sites are known for landslides and erosion that muddy streams and bury reefs.

When biologists first found this invasive plant growing in Hawaii, it was a call to action. Retired state forester Bob Hobdy helped address miconia in East Maui in the early 1990s. Initially, crews focused on the area above Hana known as “the core,” but reports started pouring in from multiple locations across East Maui. “The idea of eradication (removing every plant from the island) was set aside,” says Hobdy. “It was not feasible.” The shrubby tree was scattered from Huelo to Kipahulu, with two major infestations in Nahiku and Hana. Too widespread to eradicate, but too damaging to ignore, the long-term solution was biocontrol: the researched introduction of a natural enemy specific to miconia that could lessen the impact and spread of the plant.

Over the last 27 years, crews have worked to contain this invader in the field. It’s been a success: Miconia never reached the West Maui Mountains and it’s rare to find a plant along Hana Highway. Meanwhile, researchers in Hawaii and South America have sought out and tested insects and plant diseases in hopes of finding something that will permanently undermine the plant’s invasiveness.

In 1997, ecologists released a fungus that eats holes in miconia’s large purple leaves. In Tahiti, this fungal natural enemy opened up the canopy so that other plants could grow, but the fungus didn’t have the same effect here in Hawaii. The search continued.

Though only the size of your fingernail, the golden miconia butterfly could have a big impact on invasive miconia. Native to Costa Rica, these butterflies could be a welcome addition to miconia control efforts here in Hawaii. -- KENJI NISHIDA photo

Tracy Johnson of the U.S. Forest Service has worked to find miconia’s natural enemies for 20 years. He’s hopeful about another miconia pest, a tiny yellow butterfly that lays its eggs on the leaves. The caterpillars hatch out and dine on the umbrella-like leaves until they become adults. “It’s very specific to miconia,” says Johnson. “We know from observation in Costa Rica and in Hawaii that it’s one of the most damaging insects to leaves of the plant.”

Miconia’s huge leaves are major problems: They act like tarps, shading out the understory, collecting raindrops and funneling them to the ground. In comparison, native ohia and koa trees have clusters of little leaves that break up rainfall into small drops that gently water the understory. The raindrops that roll off of miconia leaves are some of the largest measured. They hit the ground with extra force, and since the ground beneath miconia is bare, they contribute to increased erosion. In fact, scientists have found that erosion is greater in a miconia-invaded forest than if the rain fell on bare soil!

Enter the golden miconia butterfly, Euselasia chrysippe, a voracious leaf eater. Johnson and colleagues from the University of Costa Rica tested E. chrysippe with 73 different plants to see what the caterpillars would feed on. In a process called no-choice testing, caterpillars are placed in a petri dish with a leaf of the plant being tested. When forced to feed on other plants, they died; only Miconia calvescens and closely related plants in the Melastome family can sustain them. This is good news since Hawaii has no native Melastomes.

After gorging on miconia, E. chrysippe caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies and seek out another miconia plant on which to lay their eggs. Like the MISC miconia crews, they’re really good a finding the pesky plant.

The golden miconia butterfly could help halt Hawaii’s miconia invasion. But there is still more to be done. Johnson is investigating other potential natural enemies, particularly an insect that eats miconia seeds. Until a suite of effective and safe natural enemies exists to control miconia, crews from MISC will continue combing the hillside in search of miconia. Any sightings of miconia can be reported to MISC at 808-573-6472.

* Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

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