When it comes to traditional African fare, this brightly coloured caterpillar tops the list! Meet the infamous mopane worm! It actually isn’t a worm at all, but rather the larvae of the beautiful emperor moth. It’s named for the tree it is found in and on which it feeds exclusively.
Mopane trees are spread widely across southern Africa and we have stands of mature mopane woodland interspersed with mixed combretum bushveld here on Abelana Game Reserve. At the start of the rainy season, the emperor moth lays its eggs in clumps underneath the distinctive, butterfly shaped leaves of the mopane. The eggs hatch in the summer months, after which the hungry caterpillars munch their way through the leaves, growing rapidly. They grow as long as a human hand and as round as a thick cigar and have sharp little spikes all along their backs. Apparently, the worms that are more red in colour feed on marula tree leaves as well as mopane, while the greener versions eat more mopane leaves. There is a third, very yellow colour variation that’s considered a delicacy among locals!
Mopane worms go through four moults as they grow, shedding their brightly coloured skin which literally becomes too tight for them. The fifth larval stage, after the fourth moult, is considered to be the best time for harvesting them for food, as they are at their fattest! If left unharvested, they soon drop to the ground and burrow into the earth at the base of the mopane tree to pupate, spending the winter months transforming into an adult moth. When they emerge from the ground the following spring they do not feed and only live for around three to four days, during which they mate and the females lay their eggs, ready for the cycle to begin again.
Towards the end of the southern African summer the worms are gathered from the trees, mostly by women and children. Their intestines are removed to preserve them, and they are dried in the sun, ready to be eaten in a variety of different dishes. You’ll see bags of dried mopane worms for sale at local markets and along the roadsides, most especially in our province of Limpopo. They can be eaten dry and crispy as a snack, can be stewed or fried, drenched in sauce, or added to maize porridge – known locally as “pap”. Most people prefer their mopane worms fried in a combination of tomatoes, onions, garlic and chillies but there are lots of recipes available online! When you visit us next, perhaps you’ll be brave enough to try some!