Bunaea alcinoe — “Cabbage tree emperor moth”

The Cabbage tree emperor moth (Bunaea alcinoe) is a very large, common, and colourful species of Saturniidae moth from tropical Africa. This species is also notable for being considered an ‘edible insect’; and in some parts of Africa, the species is considered to be economically important, for the caterpillars of this species are eaten by people. While the consumption of caterpillars may seem unusual to some readers, it’s normal in many cultures, and the larvae are nutritious and rich in proteïns, vitamins and minerals!

Bunaea alcinoe male
Bunaea alcinoe female

Bunaea alcinoe is a quite variable species; and throughout its large distribution in Africa, that covers Angola, Benin, Burkina Fasso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, DRCongo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe(!) the markings, shape and colour of the moths can show differences individually and locally. Their colour can vary from light orange to dark red-brown. One could wonder if Bunaea alcinoe is truly just one very variable species, or if perhaps, there still exist several undescribed species/subspecies! [Although it probably is variation]

Bunaea alcinoe fully grown caterpillar (black form)

The larvae of Bunaea alcinoe are very large and covered with (harmless) spines. They come in several different colour forms. Most commonly encountered is the black form; this form has white or yellow spines, red spiracles, and an overall black cuticle. There is however, also a red form that is bright red with yellow spines – and in some localities there exists even an orange form, that has a dark orange cuticle.

This species is encountered in savannah, and in rainforest environments; the pupae of the moths are able to stay dormant for long periods of time (and diapause through the dry season). Typically, emergence is triggered by the wet, humid conditions of the monsoon season, during which the moths can emerge in large numbers. After mating, the moths deposit eggs on several types of trees and shrubs. Larvae are often found on cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata; Araliaceae) – giving them the name ‘cabbage tree emperor moth’. Despite this fact, this species is no picky eater – and larvae have been observed eating dozens of plants, including but not limited to African Peach (Sarcocephalus latifoliu, Rubiaceae), several types of Acacia (Fabaceae), Anthocleista schweinfurthii  (Gentianaceae), False Rubber Tree (Holarrhena floribunda, Apocynaceae) and many more! The fact it is more of a generalist (in relative terms, for a Saturniidae) than a specialist perhaps explains their wide distribution.

  • Difficulty rating:  Moderate – rearing the larvae is not hard (kind of easy even) if you give them the warmth and food plant they need. Pairing the moths is however problematic; pupae can stay dormant for long times and it’s hard to have males and females out at the same time. Sometimes males and females refuse to mate.
  • Rearing difficulty: 5.5/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 8/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants:   Cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata; Araliaceae), African Peach Tree, African Peach (Sarcocephalus latifoliu, Rubiaceae), several types of Acacia (Fabaceae), Anthocleista schweinfurthii  (Gentianaceae), False Rubber Tree (Holarrhena floribunda, Apocynaceae), Ekebergia sengalensi (Meliaceae), Fragraea fragrans (Annonaceae), Spondias mombin (Anacardiaceae), Pepper tree (Schinus sp.; Anacardiaceae), Maesa lanceolata (Primulaceae) and many more! Truly this species is a polyphagous opportunist that can feed on dozens of trees and shrubs. In captivity, breeders have raised it on several non-native plants including privet (Ligustrum sp; Oleaceae), Sweetgum (Liquidambar sp; Altingiaceae), Common Ivy (Hedera helix; Araliaceae)
  • Natural range:  Angola, Benin, Burkina Fasso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, DRCongo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe. Some sources mention Madagascar, but the insect is probably not native to Madagascar; either people mistake the Madagscar endemic species Bunaea asluaga for Bunaea alcinoe, or the insect was introduced.
  • Polyphagous: Yes, very!
  • Generations: Multivoltine – Seems to have one to two broods per year atleast. Diapauses in dry season; pupae emerge during monsoon season after warm rains. Flight time and broods may vary on local microclimate; but in most locations the flight time appears to be between November to April (in possibly two broods)
  • Family: Saturniidae (silkmoths)
  • Pupation: Cocoon (silk encasing)
  • Prefered climate: Tropical. Warm and humid!
  • Special notes:   Easy to raise; but synchronising pupae and pairing adults is hard.
  • Estimated wingspan:  110mm-160m (large species with large body size!)

The eggs of Bunaea alcinoe are easy to incubate on room temperature. In about 2+ weeks, expect many tiny caterpillars to hatch from the round, pale, white eggs! In Europe, I often raise them on Liquidambar (Sweetgum), Privet (Ligustrum) or Common ivy (Hedera helix) with good result.

The first instars are easily raised in closed plastic boxes (it’s possible to add small ventilation holes to get rid of excess moisture); but generally they like it on the warm and humid side. After hatching, the larvae will gather in groups – the early instars of this species are gregarious. Make sure to clean the container and replace food every 3-4 days. Keep them warm; preferably above 22C.

Bunaea alcinoe L1

After consuming enough leaves, the larvae will shed their skin! The second instar looks quite different; usually back (or red) with white spines. The second instar can easily be raised in plastic containers with adequate space (tip: add paper towel to make it easier to clean).

Bunaea alcinoe L2

Bunaea alcinoe L3

After the second instar, it’s wise to move the larvae to a larger enclosure. This can be a small pop-up cage, or plastic containers (but larger).

In instar 3, the larvae develop their typical look; if they’re the black form, expect black larvae with red spiracles, and white (or yellow) spines. In this stage they’re still social! So keep groups of them together.

Bunaea alcinoe L4
Bunaea alcinoe L4
Bunaea alcinoe rearing enclosure

In the fourth instar, the larvae finally become somewhat solitary (although they don’t really seem to mind high densities of larvae). In this stage, I prefer to move them to a large enclosure that offers plenty of space and food plant. They can feed rapidly, and rearing a dozen or so individuals means they’ll consume a lot of food! I use large pop-up cages (make sure the indoor conditions are not too dry) or even better, plastic boxes with ventilation grids.

In terms of host plants, they seem to develop just fine on Ligustrum, Liquidambar or Hedera helix. Experimentation with new food plants is worthwile since this species is quite polyphagous!

My larvae were the black form; and they either had yellow or white spines. As menacing as they look the larvae are quite harmless; the spines aren’t particularly sharp or toxic.

Bunaea alcinoe L5
Bunaea alcinoe L5
Bunaea alcinoe L5

The fifth instar larvae can be gigantic, if they are raised in proper conditions! Just the larvae of this moth are worth rearing, let alone the moths. Impressive!

While generally harmless, they do have one defense mechanism: if the larvae are touched, expect copious amounts of regurgitation. The caterpillars are capable of regurgitating the contents of their crop. This can be an effective deterrent; especially if the larvae have been feeding on plants that contain noxious substances. If you dislike the idea of vomit, it could be worth using gloves (although it is mostly harmless).

In Africa, larvae of these species are collected in large numbers, for human consumption. Typically the larvae are crushed and their gut content is removed. Next, the bodies of the larvae are left to dry in the sun. Research has shown the larvae are rich in animal proteïns, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals! The larvae are sometimes eaten raw, but typically added to hot stews or soups. Considering how widespread and polyphagous Bunaea alcinoe is, commercial exploitation is not deemed to be a threat to their conservation. In some cases, larvae are locally reared for consumption.

Bunaea alcinoe prepupal

Bunaea alcinoe do not spin cocoons; like many of their Bunaeini relatives they prefer to burrow underground and pupate in a subterranean chamber in the soil. In captivity, larvae will pupate in substrate. While some breeders prefer to use soil, personally I let them pupate in containers that contain humid paper kitchen towels. Prepupae will shrivel up before shedding their skins.

Bunaea alcinoe pupae
Bunaea alcinoe pupae

The pupae of Bunaea alcinoe are very hardy, and have a very thick chitin shell!

And they have to be, considering this species can remain dormant for a long time. Pupae of Bunaea alcinoe are capable of diapausing for years – remaining dormant until they like the conditions. In the wild, the species tends to have two broods a year during the monsoon season. Their emergence is likely triggered by the warm rains during the rainly season – and development is possibly triggered by cues such as humidity, barometric pressure and more(?). On the flip side, the species has to remain dormant during the dry seasons. During the dry season, there is less suitable vegetation available and the landscape can be quite barren. These conditions are not optimal for moths – and many tropical African Saturniids moths have peak flights near the start of the monsoons.

In captivity, it is notoriously hard to synchronise the pupae. Breeders trying to breed this species outside of its native range often run into issues; such as the moths emerging from their pupae very sporadically – sometimes even months or years(!) apart. Considering their short lifespans, one would have to be lucky to have a male and female emerge around the same time! Personally I have observed pupae staying dormant for over 2.5 years in captivity before any moths appeared.

It is unclear if pupae diapause that long in the wild. Maybe not – there’s a chance they are missing a number of environmental cues they rely on in the wild, to synchronise the moths eclosing from the pupae.

It could be worth it to try and simulate the African dry season / wet season – perhaps it would result in the moths eclosing more predictably! In east Africa, typically the dry season runs from May to September, with June and July relatively cool and August and September hot and humid. The (warm!) wet season begins in November and finishes in March. April is autumn and a transition month while late September to early November is spring.

Bunaea alcinoe female

Bunaea alcinoe female
Bunaea alcinoe male
Bunaea alcinoe female
Bunaea alcinoe female

Congratulations! You managed to rear a beautiful and impressive species from Africa. Perhaps the most challenging thing about this species is pairing the adults!

Imagoes prefer to pair in hot(!) conditions in larger enclosures. Pairings are short and rarely observed; perhaps the mating lasts shorter than one hour(?). To me, rearing the larvae seemed to be somewhat easy – but pairing the moths is challenging. Sometimes males and females refuse to mate even if the conditions are seemingly right. And you have to be lucky to have a male and female at the same time in the first place!

The moths are extremely impressive, and quitee variable in colour, shape and size! This species is worth rearing several times, just to observe the differences in the larvae and adults, when it comes to rearing livestock from different countries! Thank you for reading the website; if you enjoy this content, consider helping our mission.

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2019); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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