Processionary Caterpillars



Several years ago Jean-Henry Fabre, a French Naturalist, did an experiment with Processionary Caterpillars. These caterpillars feed on pine needles and move through the forest in long processions.  One caterpillar leads and the others follow with their heads snugly placed on the caterpillar in front of it.  Each plods along assuming the lead caterpillar knows where he is going.

One experiment Fabre did was to entice the caterpillars onto the rim of a large flowerpot.  Eventually he got them all connected so each had its head on the rear extremity of the one in front, forming a circle without beginning or end.  Instinct directed them to start moving, so they went round and round the rim of the flowerpot.

Fabre assumed that at least one would eventually realize they were on a useless march and break the circle.  But he was surprised as this creeping, living circle continued to go around the rim in a mindless journey to nowhere.

They continued their relentless pace for seven days before sheer exhaustion and starvation finally overcame them. They were so focused on following the one in front of them that they neglected to see that in the center of the pot Fabre had placed plenty of food and water that could have saved their lives.

I wondered why these caterpillars didn’t stop and partake of the needed nutrients their bodies craved.  Fabre wondered the same thing and concluded that they were “… following instinct, habit, custom, tradition, precedent, past experience, ‘standard practice’, or whatever you want to call it, but they were following it blindly.”  His final conclusion was that “They mistook activity for accomplishment.  They meant well, but got no place.”[1]

I believe this anecdote of the Processionary caterpillars illustrates the importance of being able to help our children change direction and focus when needed. It also illustrates the fact that our child’s activities do not always lead to accomplishment or fulfillment of their goals. We can also teach them to watch out for who they follow.


[1] MCH Conference, Denver, CO approximate date 1988.

Share This Article:[sgmb id=1]

1 Comment

  1. test
    Joshua Stewart on December 15, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    Great story. I think it’s like following someone in deep snow. It’s easier to follow someone else’s tracks, but if you’re going the wrong way, it doesn’t matter how easy the way. What can parent’s do to help children learn leadership skills that get them off the top of the flower pot? We need leaders for tomorrow that can build on the past and anticipate the problems of the future and who know that they have a responsibility for the caterpillars that are following them.