Activation of caspases by proteolytic processing is a critical step during apoptosis in metazoans. Here we use high resolution time lapse microscopy to show a tight link between caspase activation and the morphological events delineating apoptosis in cultured SF21 cells from the moth Spodoptera frugiperda, a model insect system. The principal effector caspase, Sf-caspase-1, is proteolytically activated during SF21 apoptosis. To define the potential role of initiator caspases in vivo, we tested the effect of cell-permeable peptide inhibitors on pro-Sf-caspase-1 processing. Anti-caspase peptide analogues prevented apoptosis induced by diverse signals, including UV radiation and baculovirus infection. IETD-fmk potently inhibited the initial processing of pro-Sf-caspase-1 at the junction (TETD-G) of the large and small subunit, a cleavage that is blocked by inhibitor of apoptosis Op-IAP but not pancaspase inhibitor P35. Because Sf-caspase-1 was inhibited poorly by IETD-CHO, our data indicated that the protease responsible for the first step in pro-Sf-caspase-1 activation is a distinct apical caspase. Thus, Sf-caspase-1 activation is mediated by a novel, P35-resistant caspase. These findings support the hypothesis that apoptosis in insects, like that in mammals, involves a cascade of caspase activations.