Lepidoptera Parasites, Parasitoids, and Predators
Don Herbison-Evans,
Stella Crossley

Anthela acuta
caterpillar with red parasites.

Female moths lay between a hundred and several thousand eggs, depending on species. If all these matured and laid more eggs, then after several years the world would be covered in caterpillars.

Hyposidra talaca
caterpillar with a parasite
(Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen)

Their parasites, parasitoids, and predators stop caterpillars in nature from taking over the world. Note that 'parasitoids' are parasites that actually kill their host, whereas 'parasites' just feed off it but leave it alive.

ants love pupae, in this case a Graphium agamemnon pupa
(Photo: courtesy of Michael Watt, Cairns, Queensland)

The main parasites of caterpillars are particular species of viruses, bacteria, fungi, mites, ticks, wasps and flies.

Agrius convolvuli
caterpillar with a parasite: possibly a Sand Fly (CERATOPOGONIDAE)
(Photo: courtesy of Diana Davey, Woolgoolga, New South Wales))

Caterpillars are just as susceptible to disease as we are, and get the equivalents of flu and measles etc. The viruses in the Cypovirus genus, and the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis are especially fond of attacking caterpillars, and are used as a biological control agents against pest caterpillars.

Cryptoptila immersana
caterpillar carrying green parasites
(Photo: Don Herbison-Evans, Sydney, New South Wales))

The exact relationship of the various species of Lepidoptera with the various parasitic species of mites (Acarina), flies (Diptera), and wasps (Hymenoptera) is often very specific, and is also of great importance in pest control. If you should get some flies and/or wasps emerge from your caterpillar or pupa, please contact Erinn Fagan-Jeffries at the University of Adelaide, or you might consider donating them to your local natural history museum or university entomology department, who may also have study programs on these parasites.

two Tachinid fly larvae recently emerged from a moth chrysalis,
one grub having already pupated.
(Photo: courtesy of Peter Street, Gosford, New South Wales)

The flies attacking caterpillars come mainly from the family TACHINIDAE.

dying Brunia replana, caterpillar with cocoons of a number of wasp parasites.

Wasps that attack caterpillars come from a variety of families, including:


  • wasp checking out a caterpillar
    (Photo: courtesy of Michael Watt, Cairns, Queensland)

    When a caterpillar is infected with a parasite, its behaviour changes, just as ours does when we get a cold or a fever. So though normally caterpillars will keep hidden, caterpillars when infected sometimes start wandering aimlessly about. So if you find a caterpillar wandering about, it is probably ill already.

    Theretra latreillii
    caterpillar with cocoons of a number of wasp parasites
    (Photo: courtesy of Jan MacDonald, Queensland)

    Predators also control the caterpillar populations,

    spiders love HESPERIIDAE caterpillars
    (Photo: courtesy of Kath Vail, Inner Pocket, New South Wales)

    such as spiders:

    Dasypodia selenophora
    caterpillar vs Victorian Huntsman Spider (Isopedella victorialis, SPARASSIDAE)
    (Photo: courtesy of Wendy Moore, Melbourne)

    and adult wasps which catch caterpillars, paralyse them, and lay eggs on them, so that when the wasp eggs hatch: the wasp larvae have a ready food supply.

    wasps love caterpillars
    (Photo: courtesy of Trevor Jinks, North Burnett, Queensland)

    and various Bugs attack caterpillars, like Shield Bugs (PENTATOMIDAE)

    Doratifera casta
    caterpillar attacked by the Shield Bug Oechalia schellenbergii
    (Photo: courtesy of Jenny Holmes, Great Western, Victoria)

    and Assassin Bugs (REDUVIIDAE)

    a caterpillar stabbed in the head by young Assassin Bug Pristhesancus plagipennis,
    (Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen, Goodna, Queensland)

    and of course Praying Mantids (MANTODEA) will happily feed on any life stage of any Lepidoptera:

    Mantodea vs Lepidoptera
    Mycalesis perseus
    butterfly vs Praying Mantis (MANTODEA)
    (Photo: courtesy of Jeevan Jose)

    and so will birds:

    caterpillar vs magpie
    (Photo: courtesy of Harold McQueen)

    Even plants attack Lepidoptera:

    Acraea terpsicore
    , caught by a Sundew plant (DROSERACEAE)
    (Photo: courtesy of Alexis & Geoff Ward, near Mt Garnet, Queensland)


    Australian Butterflies
    Australian Moths


    (updated 3 February 2013, 3 December 2018)