What's That Bug? does not endorse extermination

Black spiny caterpillar
Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 12:43 PM
These caterpillars were found in a garden in Pretoria South Africa on a Kiepersol tree. The caterpillars are about 8 cm long. They are balck (or dark navy blue) with reddish spots on bothe sides of the body and sharop white spikes running next to the red spots on their bodies. I know this is a site for North America but would appreciate it very much if you perhaps have information for me.
Pretoria, South Africa

African Emperor Caterpillar

African Emperor Caterpillar

Dear Wia,
These spectacular caterpillars are the larval form of the equally spectacular African Emperor Moth, Bunaea alcinoe.  The African Emperor Moth is one of the Giant Silk Moths.

African Emperor Caterpillars

What's That Bug? does not endorse extermination
Location: Pretoria, South Africa
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31 Responses to African Emperor Caterpillars from South Africa

  1. hummer178 says:

    I’m no expert, but are you sure this is not the Mopani worm or some relative of it?

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks for the reply 50/50, after many months. I found this caterpillar on the grass in my garden in Johannesburg. When I discovered, after a week, that my whole Kiepersol tree was invaded, I was so shocked! They eat, but every single leaf on this tree! After they’ve eaten and fully grown, they bury themselves under the soil for the next stage, before becoming a giant moth. I also thought it was a Mopani worm, and googled it, but no, not a Mopani. Does anyone know a short name for this creature? Except for the African Emperor?

  2. john says:

    Also Spotted in Pretoria South Africa in April 2013 beneath a Kiepersol tree. All of them fell off the tree and was moving to the West side of the stand.

  3. Brian says:

    Observed dozens feeding in a Kiepersol tree in Northwold Johannesburg. Amazing.

  4. nini says:

    My garden has just become invaded with these. There must be about 100 roaming around. The unfortunate part is because they wiggle like snakes, I am petrified :(

    • bugman says:

      There is no need to be frightened. They are perfectly harmless.

      • Nini says:

        thanks feel a lot better. I have never seen so many caterpillars before. Have been watching them on and off all day. As my garden is not very bushy, or grassy, (in fact quite dead) I am trying to figure out what they are looking for. A lot of them have “disappeared” not sure where. Was wondering if you know how long they will be crawling around, and how long before they turn into moths? Also how can you tell when a caterpillar is going to turn into a butterfly or a moth?

        • bugman says:

          We suspect they have left the trees where they have been feeding and they are searching for a place to dig beneath the surface. There they will transform into a pupa awaiting the completion of metamorphosis and the emergence of a winged adult moth.

  5. jennie hill says:

    We are on holiday in Keurbooms and there are dozens of these caterpillars on a small tree in the garden, the neighbour says they are here every year ~ poor tree is denuded!! Got some amazing photos though :-)

  6. Allison says:

    I have seen these caterpillars for the first time. The “water tree” in front of my house is invaded by them and has no leaves left. They are digging holes in the ground and I am worried that the tree is damaged. Obviously if these are moths I’m soon going to have an invasion plaque of giant moths. How can I get rid of them?


  7. Troyé says:

    We found these interesting insects at the restaurant I work at in Port Elizabeth, there is a small garden area next to the function area and they came inside, was a mission to collect them but eventually managed to get them all we hope. We are all wondering if they are poisonousor not, a few of us handled them and a couple of guys managed to get themselves pricked by the spines.


  8. Regina says:

    Hi, I just found about 50 in my neigbours fig tree. They are munching all the young leafs. Shame poor plant. If they burry themselves do they come back and eat on that tree again?

  9. […] African Emperor Caterpillars from South Africa – What’s … – Feb 20, 2009 · Black spiny caterpillar Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 12:43 PM These caterpillars were found in a garden in Pretoria South Africa on a Kiepersol tree. The …… […]

  10. Mart Vermaak says:

    I have thesenasty looking catterpillars in my garden.
    They don’t bug, pardon the pun, me as much as scare me with their armour like body.
    I am scared they get into my roof and start feeding on the wood.
    Am I over-thinking this?

    Please let me know, as I would hate to exterminate something harmless.


    • bugman says:

      Emperor Moth Caterpillars feed on leaves, not on wood, so your roof is safe. According to Wikipedia: “Food plants Bauhinia spp, Croton spp, Harpephyllum caffrum, Cussonia spp, Celtis spp, and Ekebergia capensis. In DR Congo the larvae feed on Sarcocephalus latifolius, Crossopteryx febrifuga and Dacryodes edulis.”

  11. Sue says:

    I live in Amanzimtoti in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa which is subtropical and last year we also had lots of these beautiful caterpillars in the garden and they too were on our Kiepersol (cabbage) tree, they had a wonderful feast and moved off. I thought they were stunning and picked a couple of them up for some photographs, (after I checked they were not poisonous.) Nature makes some amazing creatures.

  12. Amanda Willemse says:

    I currently have a whole collection of the African Emperor worms eating my tree. I was totally shocked when I first saw them. Very happy they will turn into stunning moths. They are welcome to stay and graze :)

    • bugman says:

      The leaves will grow back after your caterpillars pupate. The caterpillars are also an important food source for birds and other insectivores.

  13. Louise Geyser says:

    Our cussonia trees are also invested with these ghastly emperor caterpillars. They are also creeping around on our patio and in the garden and we have to keep our little Jack Russel inside all the time. They are causing a massacre of the leaves of the cussonias and I really want to get rid of them. Am going to pour ant poison around the trunk of the tree. We have been living six years here and have never seen them before. Is it the drought that have brought them here? See you provide no eradication advice, but surely there is something which can be sprayed which is environment friendly?

    • bugman says:

      Insect populations change year to year depending upon weather conditions and food supplies. We are not sure why you are being so troubled this year and you have seen no evidence of Emperor Moth Caterpillars in previous years. You are correct that we do not provide extermination advice.

  14. Jacques says:

    We are in Ballito and just noticed thousands of them eating away our tree there are big ones and smaller ones as well as some with eggs on them. Thought I wanted to exterminate them but after reading these comments we will leave these beauties to graze.

  15. Shelly Brown says:

    Thank you Bugman! Great website. We saw a lot of these African Emperor caterpillars purposely crawling along the grass and tarmac in our church carpark. We kept collecting them and putting them into the flower beds to keep them from being run over but they weren’t co-operating! It was obvious they were looking for a place to pupa. Our toddler group were fascinated by them! What beautiful creatures.

  16. Brian says:

    The caterpillars arrived virtually overnight again in the same kiepersol tree at the same time of the year in Northwold, Johannesburg. After about a week they disappeared again virtually ovennight. The tree is stripped bare in places ant the ground underneath thick with droppings—–but no caterpillars.

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