Add to collection
  • + Create new collection
  • Discover more about the red admiral butterfly, winner of the 2024 Bug of the Year, and how we can help the butterflies of Aotearoa New Zealand.

    This article has been republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons licence CC BY-ND 4.0 and is written by Janice Lord, Associate Professor in Botany, University of Otago and Connal McLean, Natural History Technician – Invertebrates, Te Papa Tongarewa. It was originally published under the title NZ votes the red admiral butterfly ‘bug of the year’ – how to make your garden its home.

    Rights: Kyle Bland, CC BY-NC 4.0

    Red admiral (Vanessa gonerilla)

    Māori name: kahukura

    Family: Nymphalidae

    New Zealand has three species of admiral butterfly: two yellow admirals and one red. This species is named for the vibrant red patches on its wings in both Māori (kahukura for ‘red cloak’) and English (red admiral). The red admiral is common throughout the mainland but lives in areas that have New Zealand tree nettles (Urtica ferox). It is part of the Lepidoptera order, which includes moths and butterflies.

    Image sourced from iNaturalistNZ, © Kyle Bland, CC BY-NC 4.0

    New Zealanders traditionally show their love for a special other on Valentine’s Day, so what better time to reveal which insect they feel the most affection for?

    The second annual Bug of the Year contest has been won by the red admiral butterfly. It received a total of 2,275 votes from the nearly 17,000 votes cast by New Zealanders at home and abroad.

    One of our most spectacular butterflies, the red admiral inherits the crown from last year’s inaugural winner, the native bee, or ngaro huruhuru (Leioproctus fulvescens).

    While a butterfly beat the other bugs, the Mt Arthur giant wētā, the ngāokeoke (velvet worm) and the titiwai (glow worm) were close behind, with thousands of votes each.

    Rights: Mnolf, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Glow-worms in the Waitomo caves

    The titiwai, glow-worm, (Arachnocampa luminosa) was a close runner-up in the 2024 Bug of the Year competition. Both the larvae and adults are bioluminescent. Find out more about the glow-worms of Aotearoa.

    The Entomological Society of New Zealand began the competition to shed light on the underrepresented and stunningly unique bugs of Aotearoa New Zealand. As interest grows, it is hoped more people will be inspired to create and maintain habitats for these often-endangered species.

    Aotearoa is home to over 20,000 different species of bugs – more correctly known as terrestrial invertebrates. They range from vibrant butterflies and iconic wētā to secretive velvet worms and carnivorous land snails. And those are just the species described so far.

    There are ten times as many bug species in New Zealand than there are native plants, and over a hundred times more than native bird species. Yet most people don’t know much about them.

    Moths and butterflies aren’t so different

    The red admiral is easily recognisable by its vibrant red and black wings. Its Māori name, kahukura, translates directly as “red cloak or garment”, but can also refer to the atua (deity) represented by the top bow of a double rainbow.

    The closely related kahukōwhai, or yellow admiral, has similar colouring, except the underside of its upper wings is creamy yellow. Red admirals are endemic – only found in New Zealand – whereas yellow admirals are also native to Australia.

    Aotearoa has over 2,000 species of lepidoptera – butterflies and moths – and roughly 90% of these are endemic. You might be surprised to know there are no clear differences between what are commonly called butterflies and those called moths.

    Further explore the differences between butterflies and moths.

    Only 17 of our lepidoptera species are popularly referred to as butterflies. But many of the other 98% – so-called moths – are active during the day and can also be beautifully patterned and coloured.

    Because they feed from floral nectar sources and transfer pollen in the process, moths and butterflies are important pollinators. They are also staples in the food chain, forming a large portion of native bird diets.

    Rights: rubecula, CC BY-NC 4.0

    A pūriri moth on leaf litter

    Pūriri moths are a food source for native birds such as the ruru.

    Sourced from iNaturalistNZ

    Gardens as butterfly habitats

    Like many butterflies worldwide, red admirals are less common than they used to be. While recent gardening advice has begun to include bee-friendly planting, it is also important to think of other invertebrates, like butterflies, when we plan and cultivate our backyards.

    In general, a diversity of simple nectar-rich flowers is positively related to pollinator health. And resilient and diverse pollinator populations benefit both natural and created ecosystems like gardens. In turn, they support biodiversity and overall environmental health – which all benefits human welfare.

    The Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust conducts an online course on how to assess, create and maintain butterfly habitats.

    Lepidoptera differ from some other invertebrates in that females prefer to (or exclusively) lay their eggs on specific host plants. If preferred host plants are not available, caterpillar survival can be low.

    So, while having a variety of flowering plants for adults to feed from is important, providing host plants for caterpillars to develop on is crucial.

    Rights: Jacqui Knight

    Kahuku ❘ monarch butterfly

    Kahuku, monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) emerging from its pupa on a milkweed plant.

    It is well known that monarch butterfly caterpillars need to feed on milkweed (swan plant). Similarly, Muehlenbeckia species such as climbing pohuehue and shrubby tororaro are important host plants for many native butterflies, as well as many native moths.

    Lack of suitable hosts may be one reason red admirals are becoming increasingly uncommon. Recent research has shown the females prefer laying eggs on native nettles, and larvae raised on native nettles outperform those raised on introduced nettles.

    Experiments show that the tree nettle ongaonga (Urtica ferox) is an ideal host for red admiral caterpillars. But ongaonga is often removed due to its extremely painful stinging hairs.

    Rights: Tony Wills, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Importance of ongaonga for red admirals

    A red admiral butterfly caterpillar has created a protective 'tent' from a stinging nettle, ongaonga (Urtica ferox) leaf.

    Pollinator protection

    Besides planting with butterflies and moths in mind, there are many other actions you can take in the garden to help make it suitable for thriving pollinator populations.

    Some of the biggest threats to insect populations in Aotearoa and the world are related to urbanisation, deforestation and agricultural intensification: loss of habitat and food sources, and pesticide use.

    Rights: New Zealand insect cards project

    Last of the species?

    This poster gives some examples of just three of the thousands of invertebrates that are listed as threatened or at risk in New Zealand.

    Illustrations by Emma Scheltema

    Download the poster here.

    Introduced predators also threaten our unique bugs. Invasive vespula wasps and rodents are a menace to native butterflies and moths. But predator control systems such as backyard trapping can make a difference.

    Future articles will offer seasonal advice on gardening and lifestyle practices to help bugs in your backyard. This will include the best times to spot native and introduced bugs, and other ways to promote invertebrate conservation and biodiversity.

    Whether you’re already a bug lover or still a bit bug-tentative, it’s important we all help invertebrate populations in Aotearoa survive and thrive.

    Related content

    The Hub has an extensive range of resources featuring butterflies – see this article that introduces our butterfly resources. This includes links to two unit plans, one for lower primary and one for upper primary. These were based on the experiences of a year 4 class as they took action to protect butterflies in their school environment.

    Find out more about monarch butterflies and the monarch butterfly life cycle.

    Read about how scientists gathered data about monarch butterflies in this Connected article Look out for monarchs.

    Ahi Pepe MothNet is a Participatory Science Platform initiative that investigates the distribution and ecology of our native and introduced moth species.

    The topic butterflies and moths has links to our articles, activities, media and professional development resources. Remember, you can use the filters to narrow your search results.

    Discover more of our resources on insects or explore the range of content under our invertebrates topic.

    Pollination – introduction is full of links to relevant media, articles and activities.

    Citizen science

    Some of the people helping to fill the gaps in our butterfly knowledge are citizen scientist groups like the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust led by Jacqui Knight.

    Participate in one of the citizen science projects below that have a focus on butterflies and moths:

    • Big Butterfly Count – collects data about butterflies in New Zealand. This is usually held over one weekend in February.
    • Ahi Pepe MothNet – a Participatory Science Platform initiative initiative that investigates the distribution and ecology of our native and introduced moth species.
    • The Pieris Project – an international project working on DNA profiling white butterflies to determine their ancestry and origin.

    Activity ideas

    View our range of activities on butterflies and moths.

    Pass the pollen is a role-play activity in which students take on the role of flower parts and act out the process of insect pollination.

    Useful links

    Find out more about some of the research and organisations mentioned in this article:

    Visit the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust (MBNZT) website and see the Habitat creation online course.

    The Entomological Society of New Zealand was formed to provide a common meeting ground for everyone interested in entomology in New Zealand. It aims to stimulate interest, encourage amateurs and promote the profession of entomology. They run the annual Bug of the Year contest, and feature profiles of various insects, including the Mt Arthur giant wētā.

    The Tui website wants gardeners to be bee aware and bee friendly.

    The Canadian website NOD Apiary Products has a useful article exploring the key role pollinating insects play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

    D.M. Katumo, H. Liang, A. C. Ochola, M. Lv, Q. Wang, C. Yang, Pollinator diversity benefits natural and agricultural ecosystems, environmental health, and human welfare, Plant Diversity, Vol 44, Issue 5, 2022,

    Learn more about Muehlenbeckia astonii plant species on the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network website.

    Sanger, G. J. (2023). Preference and Performance of Vanessa gonerilla on Native and Introduced Nettles of New Zealand (Thesis, Master of Science). University of Otago. Retrieved from

    D. L. Wagner, E. M. Grames, M. L. Forister, M. R. Berenbaum, D. Stopak. Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 118, No. 2, 2021.

    Discover more about the research by Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research on the impact wasps are having on New Zealand’s biodiversity.

    Start backyard trapping with Predator Free NZ and make your garden a safe place for the unique native wildlife of Aotearoa to live and feed.

    Read more in these The Conversation articles:

    Additional links

    Visit our We love bugs! Pinterest board for links to more resources and community activities.

    Watch this Ted Talk by Mary Ellen Hannibal on how you can help save the monarch butterfly – and the planet.


    This article was written by Janice Lord, Associate Professor in Botany, University of Otago and Connal McLean, Natural History Technician – Invertebrates, Te Papa Tongarewa. The article was originally published in The Conversation on 14 February 2023. Read the original article.

    Rights: The Conversation

    The Conversation

    The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

    The Conversation
      Published 20 February 2024 Referencing Hub articles
          Go to full glossary
          Download all