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Red Admiral Project

Vanessa gonerilla gonerilla red admiral Zac Warren
Photo by Zac Warren

What’s red, and rarer than a ruru?

It’s also an endemic species… unique to New Zealand.

The answer is our beautiful red admiral butterfly.

Vanessa gonerilla NZ red admiral Peter De Lange-JLM-secondary

Most Aucklanders don’t remember the red admiral (Vanessa gonerilla gonerilla), the above photo taken by Peter de Lange. The red admiral was common in Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau before the turn of the century.

The butterfly is unique to NZ and was once widespread. It seemed to disappear from Auckland about the time the painted apple moth was discovered in Auckland, when the city was sprayed with insecticide to eradicate the pest (1996-2004). Development and the loss of our wild spaces also means that now the beautiful butterfly is a very infrequent visitor.

There are other red admirals in the world, but the NZ red admiral, in Te Reo ‘kahukura’ (meaning “red cloak”) is definitely the most beautiful. It’s as much a part of NZ as our kiwi and kauri, but it seems to have been gone and forgotten here over the past twenty years. And our Auckland members have plans to change that.

The Moths and Butterflies of NZ Trust is campaigning this summer (23-24) to increase awareness of this species and to encourage more people to plant nectar flowers and the butterfly’s host plant. While few people are brave enough to plant Urtica ferox, the tree nettle or ongaonga, the host plant on which the species lays its eggs, they can still support the campaign by planting other nettles or providing more nectar flowers in their gardens.

The butterflies, of course, are pollinators and both the adults and the caterpillars are a valuable ingredient in the diet of our native birds. If we are successful in bringing the red admirals back to Auckland, undoubtedly our birds will benefit too. The campaign has been helped by a grant from Foundation North. Additional funds will mean that a small group of lepidopterists can visit neighbouring regions to bring a number of caterpillars or eggs back into the city to create the foundation population.

In other parts of the country the butterfly is not so rare because of the number of U. ferox growing in the wild. But butterflies from the south of NZ are not well adapted to Auckland’s climate. By collecting some from Northland or the Waikato to establish the population there is a better chance of their survival.

Here is one way in which you can raise admirals (in this case yellows - but the method is more or less the same), thanks to Terry Smithers.

How can you help?

  • Plant nectar species! There is information about nectar flowers here.
  • Plant Urtica ferox or other nettles in safe places. Seeds of U. australis and U. ferox are available here.
  • Control any predatory and parasitic wasps. The paper wasps and Vespula species, pests that have arrived in NZ, are decimating our native butterflies.
  • Donations towards the project are always welcome. You can donate here.

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