Soy la mariposa negra del fin del mundo
danzo feliz sobre sus tumbas.
I am the black butterfly at the end of the world
I dance happily on their graves.
Mictlanpapalotl : excerpt of a poem by Maria De La Luz Carillo Romero / México
These insects belong to the Lepidoptera order, Arsenura armada C. genus/species (1).
- Arsenura armida Syn: Phalaena armida
Cuetlas (1) are the larvae of nocturnal butterflies that grow on chia, pochote (Ceiba pentandra L.), cuaulote and tlahuilote trees (2).
- The Nahua settlers of the Sierra de Zongolica call this insect cuetla, cuecla or cuetlame; also known as el pochocuil, gusano de pochote, chiancuetla, tepolchichic, serpiente de mil cabezas (Esp), culebron (Esp), chonocuile (Mzt), cuetano (Mix), pochocuil (Zap), Zapala (Mx), tilpapálotl (Ntl), Tecocoz (Pop). According to the Nahuatl dictionary, cuētla is a type of worm that causes one to itch when touched. (https://nahuatl.uoregon.edu/content/cu%C4%93tla)
- as well as on guácimo (Guazuma ulmifolia), the jonote (Heliocarpus pallidus, H. reticulatus), the white guácimo (Luehea speciosa), the custard apple (Rollinia membranacea) and Chorisia sp. (Heliocarpus appendiculatus Turcz). During the day cuetlas tend to be grouped in the trunk or branches of the trees that are their main food sources; the lele (Pseudobombax ellipticum (Kunth) Dugan.), the custard apple (Rollinia membranaceae Triana and Planchon), guácimo (Guazuma ulmifolia Lam., 1789) and apompo (Pachira aquatica Aubl.). The jonote is one of their main feeding sources and it is this tree that they tend to congregate in during the night time hours.
One of its names (chiancuetla) likely refers to the chia plant (Salvia hispanica – known as chian in Nahuatl). This plant produces a seed which is high in oil and is a valuable foodstuff. It was one of the three main grains that the Aztecs demanded as tribute and was more in demand than maize.
The name tepolchichic is a Nahuatl term that refers to this insect being called the mariposa del muerto (the butterfly of death or the butterfly of the dead). The Nahuatl root words for this one are interesting. Tepolli (penis) or Tepoltic (something docked or stumpy) and chichic (bitter). Although this is mildly amusing I have found no reference to a “bitter penis” caterpillar so I think this reference is likely irrelevant.
There are a couple of other butterflies known either as cuetla (in their juvenile stage) or as the mariposa del muerto. These are Ascalapha odorata and Latebraria amphipyroides.
In Mesoamerican beliefs it was associated with death and was considered a bad omen. In Nahuatl their names were mictlanpapalotl (mariposa del país de los muertos) (butterfly of the land of the dead), micpapalotl (mariposa de la muerte) (butterfly of death), miquipapalotl (mariposa de mala suerte) (butterfly of bad luck) or tetzahupapalotl (mariposa del espanto) (butterfly of terror) (1). In English she is called the black witch (bruja negra en español) and even her scientific name, Ascalapha odorata , comes from the demon Ascalaphus (the custodian of the orchard of Hades, the god of the dead and the king of the underworld in Greek mythology)
- These names (micpapalotl, miquipapalotl, mictlanpapalotl and tetzahupapalotl) are readily found when searching the internet. They are however quoted in nearly every reference I found regarding them almost exactly as I have quoted them above (in BOLD). Searching for the butterflies by their individual names is more difficult. I will update this information once I have found the source information. In Yucatan this butterfly is known as X’mahana.
Cuetlas is a popular dish in the Puebla Mixtec and its consumption dates back to pre-Hispanic times. It is also consumed in the states of Guerrero and Veracruz (1). In addition, there is a variety in Chiapas known as tzatz (2)
- also in Molango, Hidalgo; Jamiltepec, Oaxaca; Cuezalán, Santiago Yancuitlalpan, Coatepec de Matamoros, Santiago Chazumba, Huajuapan, Zapotitlán Palmas, Tezoatlán, Acatlán de Osorio and Chila de las Flores.
- Zats (tsats) are caterpillars that nest in rubber trees, mainly in the municipalities of Chilón, Ocosingo, Huitiupan, Simojovel and Yajalón. Tzatz is a word in the Tzotzil language that means worm (its scientific name is Arsenura Armida)
The following images are variations of the mature butterfly.
The cuetla lives in tall trees, so it is necessary to collect them with the help of a reed or by climbing the trees. However, a legend says that for its flavour to be delicious, the worm must be caught by hand. Cuetlas collectors usually leave some specimens alive, in order for their reproduction to continue and to avoid any potential ecological imbalance that might occur if they are overharvested.
These insects are green in colour after hatching. This is just before the raining (sic) season. When maturing their colour changes to dark-brown and horns appear on their surface (which means that they are now ready for consumption).
The region where the cuetla is most common is Santa Inés Ahuatempan. In this area the cuetlas are wildcrafted and provide an additional income source for the gatherers. People from neighbouring regions travel to the Acatlán de Osorio market to purchase these regional gourmet delicacies when they are in season.
The importance of this insect is not lies only in its use and exploitation, but also in that of its main host, the jonote tree (Heliocarpus sp.). The jonote or “xonojouitl” is a tree that prefers to colonize disturbed areas. Interviews were conducted among the cuetla wildcrafters and thirteen of the twenty-three interviewed indicated that acahuales (1) are the favourite places for harvesting the cuetla (Ramos-Elorduy etal 2011)
- acahuales – second growth forest – A secondary forest (or second-growth forest) is a forest or woodland area which has re-grown after a timber harvest, until a long enough period has passed so that the effects of the disturbance are no longer evident. It is distinguished from an old-growth forest (primary or primeval forest), which has not recently undergone such disruption, and complex early seral forest, as well as third-growth forests that result from harvest in second growth forests.
Cuetla collection is performed during the day, taking advantage of the larvae found grouped on the trunk and branches of the tree, which facilitates its capture. Eighteen out of 23 interviewed did not collect all the larvae that are located in the trees, but select only those that are “arrivals”, that is, they measure between 10 and 15 cm, they are darker in colour, more fatter than young worms and do not have “horns”. The mention of “horns” is interesting as earlier on it was noted that the appearance of these horns indicates the cuetla is now mature enough to eat.
They are considered to be a tasty foodstuff. The flavour is somewhat objective of course (although many descriptions are of it being “meaty” one way or another. It has been described as tasting like pork or chicharron (pork rinds) or barbacoa de borrego (lamb barbacoa) or even like pumpkin seeds (pepitas). Some descriptions compare their flavour to that of oily fish.
How are tzats prepared?
This is a traditional recipe from Simojovel, Chiapas;
- After washing them, and squeezing them along their entire length to remove the viscera, they are boiled with water and salt.
- Drain them and fry them with oil or lard.
- Lastly, add lemon and chili to taste. Accompany them with freshly made tortillas!
I have come across references to purging the cuetlas before consuming them. Much like snails or pipis to get the best eating experience you need to purge them of anything potentially nasty they might have in their intestinal tract. In the case of snails it may be poisonous plant material (and in the case of pipis it’s sand). Snails are kept in a bucket of bran (which they eat and it cleans them as it passes through their GIT) and pipis are kept in a bucket of water which allows them to purge the sand from inside their shells. I have found nothing referring to the cuetlas being kept with anything (ie bran) to allow the purging to occur. It appears that the normal digestive process does what it does and the caterpillars will poop out anything inside them in a couple of days.
Micheladas de Tzatz
Cuetlas are apparently such a delicacy that wine pairings have been suggested (1) when eating these wee beasties.
- Tacos de cuetlas con salsa de chile pasilla – suggested pairing – Red wine made from Syrah or Grenache grapes
- Tacos de cuetlas with guacamole – suggested pairing – Palomino or Albariño grape white wine
- Landero Torres, I., Oliva Rivera, H., Galindo Tovar, ME, Balcazar Lara, MA, Murguía González, J., & Ramos-Elorduy Blázquez, J. 2012. Use of the larva of Arsenura armida armida (Cramer, 1779 ) (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae), “cuecla” in Ixcohuapa, Veracruz, Mexico. Biodiversity Notebooks 38
- Melo-Ruíz, V., Quirino-Barreda, T., Macín-Cabrera, S., Sánchez-Herrera, K., Díaz-García, R., & Gazga-Urioste, C. (2016). Nutraceutical Effect of Cuetlas (Arsenura armida C.) Edible Insects as Local Food at Ixcaquixtla, Mexico. Journal of agricultural science & technology A, 6.
- Melo-Ruiz, Virginia & Sánchez Herrera, Karina & Ruiz-Juárez, Daniel & Gutiérrez-Rojas, Mónica & Naranjo, Francisco. (2019). Influence of Location in Nutrient Composition of Larvae Cuetlas (Arsenura polyodonata C) Insect Consume in Mexico. Acta Scientifci Nutritional Health. 3. 76-80. 10.31080/ASNH.2019.03.0449.
- Mikkola, H. (2020). Edible Insects Edited by Heimo Mikkola. InTech Open. https://doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.77835
- Pino-Moreno, J., Reyes-Prado, H., Ángeles-Campos, S., and García-Pérez, A. 2015. Comparative analysis of the nutritional value of “Cuetla” ( Arsenura armida c. 1779) (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae), with some conventional foods. Mexican Entomology 2
- Prado, Esteban & Escamilla-Femat, S. & Gómez-Utrilla, J.M. & Andrade, M.T. & Ramos-Elorduy, J. & Pino-Moreno, J.M.. (2012). Traditional use of three edible insects in coffee agroecosystems in the state of veracruz. Tropical and Subtropical Agroecosystems. 15. S101-S109.
- Julieta Ramos-Elorduy; José MP Moreno; Adolfo I Vázquez; Ivonne Landero; Héctor Oliva-Rivera; Víctor HM Camacho (2011). Edible Lepidoptera in Mexico: Geographic distribution, ethnicity, economic and nutritional importance for rural people. , 7(1), 2–0. doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-2
- Merian, Maria Sibylla, 1647-1717. : Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Dutch : Maria Sybilla Meriaen Over de voortteeling en wonderbaerlyke veranderingen der Surinaamsche insecten : waar in de Surinaamsche rupsen en wormen, met alle derzelver veranderingen, naar het leeven afgebeelt en beschreeven worden; Publisher: t’Amsterdam : By Jean Frederic Bernard, 1730.
- Trujano-Ortega M., UO García-Vázquez, O. Ávalos-Hernández and A. Nieto-Montes de Oca. 2019. Diversity of select groups of flora (Magnoliopsida: Malvales, Sapindales, Fabales, Laurales, Solanales and Caryophyllales) and fauna (Lepidoptera, Diptera, Odonata, Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves y Mammalia) of the APFF Boquerón de Tonalá, Oaxaca, Mexico. Science Faculty. National Autonomous University of Mexico. SNIB-CONABIO databases, project PJ016. Mexico City’
- Zarazúa, Mariana & Chávez-Gutiérrez, Michelle & Bautista, Yessica & Rangel-Landa, Selene & Moreno Calles, Ana & Fernando, Luis & Ramos, Alvarado & Smith Aguilar, Sandra & Vázquez, José & Del-Val, Ek & Arizmendi, María & Casas, Alejandro. (2020). Use and management of wild fauna by people of the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley and surrounding areas, Mexico. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 16. 1-23. 10.1186/s13002-020-0354-8.