Cultural significance of Lepidoptera in sub-Saharan Africa

Arnold Van Huis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Background: The taxon Lepidoptera is one of the most widespread and recognisable insect orders with 160,000 species worldwide and with more than 20,000 species in Africa. Lepidoptera have a complete metamorphosis and the adults (butterflies and moths) are quite different from the larvae (caterpillars). The purpose of the study was to make an overview of how butterflies/moths and caterpillars are utilised, perceived and experienced in daily life across sub-Saharan Africa. Method: Ethno-entomological information on Lepidoptera in sub-Saharan Africa was collected by (1) interviews with more than 300 people from about 120 ethnic groups in 27 countries in the region; and (2) library studies in Africa, London, Paris and Leiden. Results: Often the interviewees indicated that people from his or her family or ethnic group did not know that caterpillars turn into butterflies and moths (metamorphosis). When known, metamorphosis may be used as a symbol for transformation, such as in female puberty or in literature regarding societal change. Vernacular names of the butterfly/moth in the Muslim world relate to religion or religious leaders. The names of the caterpillars often refer to the host plant or to their characteristics or appearance. Close to 100 caterpillar species are consumed as food. Wild silkworm species, such as Borocera spp. in Madagascar and Anaphe species in the rest of Africa, provide expensive textiles. Bagworms (Psychidae) are sometimes used as medicine. Ancestors may be associated with certain dark nocturnal moths, but these are also considered to be responsible for armyworms plagues. The appearance of butterflies/moths can be associated with seasons or serve as predictor of events. There are many proverbs, songs and stories related to butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera are also an inspiration in art expressions. In dance, the movements of caterpillars are used as examples, while certain cocoons are used as rattles. Conclusion: Lepidoptera are found very appealing because of the striking appearance of the adults, their dramatic metamorphosis and the provision of silk and nutritious food. Besides, they are an inspiration in art and literature.

Original languageEnglish
Article number26
JournalJournal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jun 2019


  • Art
  • Butterflies
  • Caterpillars
  • Entomophagy
  • Ethno-entomology
  • Ethno-medicine
  • Literature
  • Metamorphosis
  • Moths
  • Proverbs

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