Eating caterpillars in Bostwana

I’m back from Botswana after a 3,5000 road trip and “NO”, I didn’t get lost in the Kalahari and resort to desperate versions of bush craft……

In fact, I’ve had a spectacularly exciting time, seen many amazing interesting creatures and this post is about one of those, so much to tell you all about the new upcoming blogs…over the next few days – rhino’s, wild dogs, lions, brown hyenas, elephants… and amazing places, the Okavango, impossible to pronounce parks, and the great Kalahari …

Todays’ post is about the incredible mopane worm – which is one of the Africa’s most strange and valuable insects. paula-and-mopane-worm-small.jpg

I was hungry but I didn’t eat it – really!

I first met mopane worms years ago as crinkled up dried black sausages in Zimbabwe – they were being sold in little bags like popcorn on the streets. I turned my nose up at them and had no idea how important they were. Later I met some at the bottom of my bowl as I neared the end of my meal in an up-market South African restaurant! It was a delicious traditional dish until I noticed little legs, crunchy head and colourful spots along the side (why didn’t anyone tell me?)… I politely left this last spoonful to avoid a generous refill…. And hoped REALLY HARD that there was only one in my serving.

The mopane worm is actually not a worm at all, but a large colourful caterpillar which feeds on the mopane tree, Colophospermum mopane. These trees that are common in the northern border region of South Africa and the southern borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana and northwestern Namibia. The worm is locally known as as Mashonzha, Masonja or Amasonja. The adult stage of this caterpillar is a large and attractive Emperor moth (Family Saturnidae) but it’s the larva that’s worth millions.

I don’t think I’ve ever met an insect that is such an important source of cash and protein to many people – in fact, it is one of southern Africa’s economically important insects.


This dog wouldn’t eat it raw either – its gotta be cooked to bring out the flavour!

Traditionally, Mopane worms are collected, prepared, and consumed by local people in southern Africa. After harvesting the caterpillars which sit on trees, the guts are removed by squeezing (nice!).

The worms are then boiled and left for a day to dry out in the sun. Once dried they can be used at any time for cooking. They say that when cooked the worms are juicy and salty or if eaten dried have a dry, gritty texture and slightly meaty taste…. Caterpillar biltong…simply delicious! I know you’ll enjoy this recipe…

Mopane stew


1 cup of dried mopane worms
1 onion, chopped
2 green peppers, sliced
6 tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon curry powder
½ litre water


Wash the worms and boil them for 30 minutes. Drain, then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for about an hour.


Gritty but Healthy

These worms are comprised of 61% protein, 17% crude fat, and 10% minerals – a highly nutritious supplement to the diet of people indigenous to these regions.

I can’t help feeling sorry for them (the people and the works) but entomologists insist that a diet supplemented with edible bugs and worms could help Aids patients boost their nutrition levels, “For many it offers a cheap way to stay healthy. A nutritious diet for an Aids patient might cost over 1,000 rand (about 80 dollars) a month but if you live in an area where mopane are abundant, you could pick them off the trees yourself,” Dr. Toms said.

Ok, as a scientist I agree, science doesn’t lie…. but it still sounds disgusting to me. But, compared to some other critters, these worms are not as frightening.

Things you wouldn’t want to eat – or would you? Can you guess which of these bugs are also eaten frequently in Africa?


No doubt one of the biggest millipedes in the world -probably doesn’t bite but I wasn’t going to test it


Hairy! edible?

Tiny, not so scary looking … but are they munchable?


Really really crunchy…but can you eat them?

Save the mopane worm
The over-collection of these beautiful caterpillars for trade and the destruction of mopane woodlands is threatening the species and mopane worms are now rare or extinct in some areas where they were once common. In order to safeguard the next crop, it is vital to leave at least 10% of the worms to complete the life cycle by forming moths and laying eggs, thus ensuring the future of the species and the mopane industry. Droughts are another cause for devastating declines so climate change is going to be a big problem here.

Saving the mopane worm is going to be tough. You could just stop harvesting them but natural re-colonization is a slow process because the moths only live for two to three days and must complete their reproductive processes in this time – this leaves too little time for dispersal. The fat caterpillar can hardly move far at all. However, local people could assist natural dispersal by reduced harvesting in sensitive areas and managed re-introductions of larvae. That’s what Toms of the Transvaal museum is planning….

“The mopane worm is one of our most spectacular well known insects and was chosen as one of the BIG 12 African Insects for study at the Transvaal Museum” – Dr. Toms. Toms and his team are using this colourful worm as an icon in the teaching of indigenous knowledge, sustainable harvesting, conservation and food security.

In my next few post are about predators, people, and amazing places – the Okavango Delta and the Great Kalahari Desert.
I was knocked off my feet with it all – totally! I bet you can’t guess what she has been hunting ..


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  1. Dipesh
    Posted December 29, 2007 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the recipe! Can you bring some back so we can start our own delicacy!

  2. Lisa, California
    Posted December 29, 2007 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Very funny Paula! I don’t think I can get mopane worms in my local market though. My favorite bug by far is the little hairball bug. What is it called? Can’t wait for the upcoming posts. Lisa P.S. Guess what I got for Christmas from the 5th Grade teacher I work with. Little stuffed Owen and Mzee dolls. Really cute. : )

  3. Posted December 30, 2007 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Of all the reasons for my ethical veganism, I’m adding NOT EATING INSECTS to the top of the list.


  4. Keri
    Posted March 8, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    You may find packaged mopane worms at:
    for those of you who have a compulsion trying off the wall delicacies.

  5. Paula
    Posted March 9, 2008 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Yum,…. so tempting….

  6. danielle
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    i lived in botswana for 11years, and i must say-dried mopane works were far better than the cooked squishy ones hehe. thankx for the recipe:)

  7. moscow
    Posted December 21, 2009 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Very delicius indeed. Growing in Botswana i have seen this caterpillar haversted every year. It is very nice and is in popular demand in our country. I like it very much.

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