Journal of Ethnopharmacology,
12 (1984) 331-333
Elsevier Scientific Publishers Ireland Ltd
27 Galway Place, Deakin, Canberra ACT 2600 (Australia)
(Accepted August 28, 1984)
The purpose of this note is to draw attention to
a long forgotten observa-
tion which points to the existence of a new hallucinogen, unique in that its
source is an insect.
Augustin de Saint-Hilaire (1779-1853) travelled extensively in eastern
Brazil between 1816 and 1823 and after his return to France published
valuable observations on the geography, ethnology and natural history of the
country. In two of his unpublished works Saint-Hilaire (1824, republished
Jenkins, 1946, p. 49; 1830, pp. 432-433) described the use of an insect as
food and medicine by the Malalis, natives in the Brazilian province of Minas
The relevant passage (1824) (translated) is as follows:
When I was among the Malalis, in the province of Mines,
they spoke much of a grub
which they regarded as a delicious food, and which is called bicho de tacuara (bamboo-
worm), because it is found in the stems of bamboos, but only when these bear flowers.
Some Portugese who have lived among the Indians value these worms no less than the
natives themselves; they melt them on the fire, forming them into an oily mass, and
so preserve them for use in the preparation of food. The Malalis consider the head of
the bicho de tacuara as a dangerous poison; but all agree in saying that this creature,
dried and reduced to powder constitutes a powerful vulnerary (for the healing of
wounds). If one is to believe these Indians and the Portugese themselves it is not only
for this use that the former preserve the bicho de tacuara . When strong emotion makes
them sleepless, they swallow, they say, one of these worms dried, without the head
but with the intestinal tube; and then they fall into a kind of ecstatic sleep, which often
lasts more than a day, and similar to that experienced by the Orientals when they take
opium in excess. They tell, on awakening, of marvellous dreams; they saw splendid
forests, they ate delicious fruits, they killed without difficulty the most choice game;
but these Malalis add that they take care to indulge only rarely in this debilitating
kind of pleasure. I saw them only with the bicho de tacuara dried and without heads;
but during a botanical trip that I made to Saint-Francois with my Botocudo, this
young man found a great many of these grubs in flowering bamboos, and set about
eating them in my presence. He broke open the creature and carefully removed the
head and intestinal tube, and sucked out the soft whitish substance which re-
mained in the skin. In spite of my repugnance, I followed the example of the young
savage, and found, in this strange food, an extremely agreeable flavour which recalled
that of the most delicate cream.
If then, as I can hardly doubt, the account of the Malalis is true, the narcotic
property of the bicho de tacuara resides solely in the intestinal tube, since the sur-
rounding fat produces no ill effect. Be that as it may, I submitted to M. Latreille the
description of the animal I had made, and this learned entomologist recognised
it as a caterpillar probably belonging to the genus 'Cossus' or to the genus 'Hepiale'.
are repeated in Saint-Hilaire (1839, pp. 432-433) with
the addition of the information that the "bicho de taquara" are half as long
as the index finger.
The intoxicating effect of the larvae from bamboo has apparently been
forgotten in Brazil and the seven volume Handbook of South American
Indians (Steward, 1946-1959) while referring briefly to the observation of
Saint-Hilaire in Vol. 5 (p. 557) gives no additional references. This is perhaps
not surprising as the Malalis were a near-coastal tribe long ago overrun by the
advance of civilisation. The name "bicho de taquara" is, however, still in use
and according to Ihering (1932, p. 236) and Costa Lima (1936, p. 266;
1967, p. 246) refers to the larva of the moth Myelobia (Morpheis) smerintha
Huebner (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae : Crambinae).
Costa Lima (1967, p. 246) states that the larvae feed in common bamboos
including Nastes (=Nastus) barbatus Trin., "taquara lixa" (Merostachys
Rideliana Rupr.), "taquara poca" (Merostachys Neesii Rupr.) and "taquaras-
su" (Guadua sp.) (Hoehne, F.C. et al.). The larvae feed inside the internodes
of the bamboo and attain a maximum length of about 10 cm. The moth
emerges in September and has frequently appeared in plague proportions.
There are 24 species of Myelobia in South America, one in Mexico and one
in Guatemala. The statement by Saint-Hilaire that the larvae are only found
when the bamboo is in flower probably means that the host bamboos flower
annually (as do a number of Brazilian species) and it is at that time that the
larvae reach their maximum size. As the adult moth emerges in September
this is probably in July or August.
It appears from the observations of Saint-Hilaire that the active substance
is not destroyed by drying, and the need to remove the head and gut to
avoid intoxication suggests that it is contained in the salivary glands. The
active material could therefore be concentrated initially by removing the
head plus salivary glands and part of the gut, discarding the rest of the body.
In view of the interest in the pharmacology of hallucinogens and the
medicinal use of the dried and powdered larvae it would seem to be woth-
while to investigate what appears to be a new source, and as the insect is
large and common it would be well suited to biochemical study. It is of
particular interest that this would be the first hallucinogen of insect origin.