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

Cabbage Tree Emperor Caterpillar

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

African Emperor Caterpillars

What's That Bug? does not endorse extermination
Location: Pretoria, South Africa

57 Responses to Cabbage Tree 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?

    • Luke says:

      Found 25 in Featherbrooke Estate Krugersdorp

  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. 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.”

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. Gillian Van Wyk says:

    Interesting to hear the news ab out the emperor moth caterpillars, I feel that they do the tree a favour as while they eat they also create fertiliser, and as most of these creatures depend on some sort of tree they seldom do that much harm to the tree as to destroy the tree altogether, they need to feed themselves again next year, you could say they are subsistence farmers of a sort.

  17. Annissa Johnson says:

    HI There, We live in Pretoria South Africa, and have the same infestation of the gorgeous caterpillars in our kipersol tree. I have picked a few and put them in a box (with some kipersol leaves) to take to school. Do you think they would pupate if the don’t have soil? I would love to see them change to moths. My children are fascinated as are we.
    I would never spray these caterpillars or kill them. The trees will come back and shoot new leaves anyway. I am just so happy we still have interesting creatures to find in our garden in the city.
    They are so big at the moment they almost look like they are ready to change.
    So exciting!!

  18. Andy says:

    I noticed one of these caterpillars yesterday. ( in Port Elizabeth) Today we saw more then realised they were coming down the tree trunk, lots of them! What we originally thought were little berries fallen on the ground must be caterpillar poop 🙂

  19. Pod says:

    We discovered dozens of these caterpillars on a milk wood tree in our garden in Grahamstown Eastern Cape South Africa. After a while they move onto the ground looking to bury themselves under the grass. How long do they take to chrysalis then emerge as moths? Very beautiful little creatures. Make sure to let everyone know they are totally harmless and a sign of healthy environment. Don’t kill them. They are a part of the ecosystem probably food for birds and bats

  20. Rosa Fick says:

    Just spotted a few of thoses emperor catappilers in Grahamstown Eastern Cape.
    They look so cute .

  21. Linda says:

    We have a whole stack of them in the neighbours tree. saw them yesterday feeding away and they get so fat they fall off onto the lawn. We live in Port Alfred, Eastern Cape. Glad to hear they are harmless. Scary looking for sure.

  22. Annissa Johnson says:

    I collected a few fro my kids to watch change into moths, I collected soil and added some of the leaves fro them to eat, they unfortunately all shriveled up and died.

  23. We visited near Bela-Bela and a nasty caterpillar got hold of me. Stung me in the neck. Havpie a severe rash.. Local told me it was a caterpillar, althtough I did not see it. Do you know more about it, and how long will rash last?

  24. Martie says:

    Why would the moths move into our ceiling and use the light fitting as a door? I’ve noticed the caterpillars for the first time this year in our Pretoria, South Africa, garden and now they hang around in our kitchen. Could the handful of indoor plants be the reason? We also have not used any poison in the garden since we’ve moved in 5 years ago.

  25. Leani Duminy says:

    Found one in our garden yesterday, (to my six year old sons delight) We are situated in Naboomspruit (Limpopo) I have never seen anything like it. Really a beautiful creature, but scary in a way.

  26. Tommy says:

    I found one in my garden in port elizabeth

  27. Pod says:

    Don’t use insecticide. Nature knows best

  28. Aubrey says:

    We are in Pretoria, Akasia. Our house is in a place called Chantelle. These worms scare my wife. They are looking fierce of course. Could you tell me what their common name is and any African name (any of the South African languages) if they have any?

  29. Megan says:

    Seeking information, defiantly a cabbage tree caterpillar. But no Kiepersol tree nearby? all making here way to somewhere? Where are they going? can they feed on other trees? how long till they become a moth?

  30. Willson Hugh says:

    Ifound them in kitale Kenyalast year so many and they disappeared. Now they are back

  31. Ininke says:

    I have just seen them in Natures Valley.On a tree that I don’t know but there were probarly like 50+ of them In one tree!

  32. Jenny Lenahan says:

    We have hundreds of these which return to the same trees each year. Some of them have what look like white eggs all over them. Can anyone tell me what these are?

    • bugman says:

      Some species of large caterpillars, especially those in the families Saturdiidae and Sphingidae, fall prey to parasitoid Brachonid Wasps that lay eggs inside the developing caterpillar. The Braconid larvae feed on the non-vital internal organs, eventually emerging and forming pupae on the Caterpillar, which alas, will not survive the parasitization.

  33. Ria says:

    Found many of these in a tree I had to cut down in Pretoria East. Couldn’t believe how big they are!

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