If you keep your eyes on the ground as you wander through South Africa’s varied and wonderful habitats, you generally don’t have to wait too long before you see some or other insect doing something interesting.

On our recent visit to Hluhluwe my wife did not keep her eyes on the ground and stepped over what from the corner of her eye looked like a stick or maybe a hosepipe lying across her path.

Proceeding across the path

And a tree root

Following along behind her, eyes down as usual, I was able to point out that she had just stepped over a line of processionary caterpillars.

Taking the corner one after the other

These are larvae of moths belonging to the family Thaumetopoeidae (no, I don’t know how you pronounce that), which are found throughout the world and are represented by 6 species in South Africa I do not know which particular species it was that my wife hurdled over, but Anaphe reticulata, the reticulate bagnet moth, is apparently the most common.

The etymology of this moths name comes from the ancient greek

θαυματόεις, marvelous, and ποιέω, to do, and literally means showing beautiful things

The caterpillars feed in large numbers on a single tree, and then for some reason one of them decides it is time to move off to another tree (Dombeya rotundifolia is a favourite of theirs) and the whole group follows on behind this leader.

A bag  full of future moths.

They stay in physical contact as they move, but also lay a trail of silk and pheromones. Not only do they feed communally, but when they pupate they each spin a silk cocoon and surround the whole group – up to around six hundred cocoons – with a silk bagnet, which gives the moth its common name.

Story and (most) the photo’s provided by Roger Mayes (VM58),


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